Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Have You Taken The Harry Potter Studio Tour Yet?

Harry Potter Tour
Have you taken the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden, north London yet? The sprawling 80-hectare studio complex was used for filming the Harry Potter series of films, and is as good an introduction to the art, craft and science of visual effects film-making as almost any amount of classroom instruction - and far more fun.

You might be expecting something fun but superfluous - much like the studio tours at the Disney Parks - long on Hollywood razzmatazz, and short on actual information about how films get made.

But you'd be wrong. The tour at Leavesden is exceptionally well put together, and incredibly informative about how this ground-breaking series of films was brought to the screen.

Hogwarts dining hall
Highlights include the Hogwarts dining hall, a set that was used throughout the series of films and therefore built to withstand a lot of time, wear and tear. The whole set feels incredibly solid - they even put down real flagstones.

Diagon Alley

You can wander through Diagon Alley too.  Whoever designed and dressed these sets clearly had huge fun. The visual style of the film is a sort of nostalgic trip back to the 1950s - but with added magic.

It's a world that is old-fashioned and new-fangled all at the same time, both familiar and unfamiliar. Seeing the sets make you realise how much thought went into the design and art direction of the series.

Hogwarts Express
You can also climb aboard the Hogwarts Express, whose old-school slam-door carriages (similar ones were still in use when I went up to university in the early 1980s) are decorated with scenes from the various films.

The displays are genuinely revealing about how the movies were made.  At Escape Studios we tend to focus on visual (ie digital) effects, but it is clear that the special effects team on the series did an impressive job, and plenty of old-school non-digital physical effects used on set long before digital artists got started.

Below you can see one of the goblin masks, used to create the goblins at Gringotts bank. The actors had the latex head masks attached to their faces (in a painstaking hours-long makeup process) that made the mask a living part of the actors own faces.

Goblin mask
There was also a sophisticated head used for Hagrid, so that - in wide shots at least - the actors could wear a huge giant suit with a fake head on top, and look just like Robbie Coltrane.

Robbie Coltrane's head. In latex.
Needless to say, there are plenty of opportunities to spend money on broomstick rides, and have yourself filmed expensively against a green screen background, but luckily there's no pressure to sign up. Throughout the tour you can take as many pictures as you want, completely free. No-one minds - in fact they expect it.

Paulina Kepinska goes to Platform 9 and 3/4
You can even film yourself at Platform 9 and 3/4, next to the Hogwarts Express, steaming away in the background.

You can meet the Hippogriff, which turns out to have been a special effect, that is to say a carefully feathered animatronic creature, which moves under guidance from hidden controls.

Latex dragon

Dragon heads peer down at you from the ceilings, and you realise how much work went into the creation of so many different monsters and creatures.

Most impressive of all is the scale model of Hogwarts, created by the model department at Cinesite (though none of the companies which worked on the films get a credit).

Scale model of Hogwarts
For anyone who is curious to know how visual effects movies get put together, the tour is an education. It's really a masterclass in modern film-making, disguised as a Hollywood tour.

I really can't think of a better way to introduce students to the world in visual effects in film.

How to Get There
The Harry Potter Studio Tour is located in Leavesden, 20 miles north-west of London and less than three miles from the M1 and M25 motorways. The postcode for your GPS SatNav is WD25 7LR.
A regular shuttle bus from Watford Junction train station costs £2.50 for the return journey.

The Escape Studios Animation Blog offers a personal view on the art of animation and visual effects. To find out more about our new BA/MArt starting in September 2016, follow this link.   To apply, visit the offical page here.


  1. I finally took the tour last week. Not being a massive fan of Harry Potter, even though I work for a company that promotes the tour (I suppose that should be some sort of disclaimer) what surprised me was the detail of the sets and of the props and the amount of work that must have gone into each. Any student of film, theatre or even more broader subjects like design, mechanics, textiles, art, technical drawing will be blown away by the displays!