I figure it wouldn’t do to have lived in London for several years without visiting the Harry Potter studios — if for no other reason than to be able to tell the nieces and nephews about it. Tickets are devilish hard to get hold of, so today’s excursion is the fruit of planning done months ago.
The studios sit on the outskirts of London, about an hour’s worth of tube, train and bus away from where I live.
The entrance is as massive as you’d expect for a major tourist attraction. And, similar to Disney, was everything you’d expect to get when you throw gads of money at something in order to please the masses: An obvious money-maker with surprising moments of real delight.
The first moment of delight came after a brief introductory video, when the screen rolled up to reveal the giant doors to the Great Hall of Hogwarts. It was completely predictable but so well done I still gave in to the tingly magic of it all. Inside, the walls of the cavernous room stretched out beneath a lighting rig; the magical ceiling was all generated by computers.
The first half of the tour was impressive, presenting many little vignettes to show off the different departments that worked on the film. Starting with the producers, then directors, etc. We wandered past Dumbledore’s podium . . .
. . . and the Gryffindor study room . . .
. . . and many more. The level of detail and artistry was extraordinary. Some of the items were authentic, most some version of ersatz, but all composed to create the illusion of reality.
Eventually we got to a more commercial element of the experience, with endless stalls with mechanized brooms in front of green screens where people could film their own quidditch match, and queues for wand dueling lessons right next to the sales counter for wands — and I decided it was time for a break in the cafe. Because that’s how I do museums.
It was still early enough in the day to get a breakfast sandwich, but I figured I couldn’t leave the Harry Potter studios without at least trying the famous butter beer. So . . .
. . . how to describe? Think butterscotch float. Much better than expected and, surprisingly, just barely this side of too sweet. As a kid I’m sure I would have downed it, but coming to it late in life, I found I had gotten all the joy I was going to get from it after a couple of sips, so I channeled Marie Kondo and moved on.
And here’s where it really got interesting: makeup and art direction. Fascinating and seriously impressive.
First, the makeup. Well, makeup and prosthetics. Surprisingly to me, Hagrid’s head was animatronic. Not during the close-ups of Robbie Coltrane’s face, but whenever they were doing full-body scenes where Hagrid needed to actually look like a half-giant. I figured some sort of cenematic tricks were in play, but I never suspected this, and I respect that.
Less surprising were the goblin faces. But the artistry of the makeup on those faces was astounding. A bit creepy to see these disembodied heads, but oh so lifelike (if “lifelike” is a word that can describe creatures that don’t exist).
From there to the section on art and architecture. We saw the newly opened Gringotts Bank, which was super impressive, and had a really informative explanation of how to make the faux marble columns (hint: it involves floating ink drops on water).
From the bank into Diagon Alley, which was really just as perfect as it could be. It had the same look and feel as so many of the charming streets I’ve walked down in English villages, only the details were pushed and elaborated into something fantastic.
But the piece de resistance was Hogwarts itself. A 1:24 scale model that was built for the sweeping panoramas of the first film, the castle is a work of art and craftsmanship, and I just loved it. It was the best form of fantasy, taking all that’s real and wonderful in this world and transforming it into the best version of that.
What I appreciated most of all was just how grounded the castle was in real architecture. The exhibit included a full replica of the art director’s office, which was crammed to the gills with books on architecture and art history. And having spent my fair share of hours walking around ancient churches and castles, I recognized elements that I’ve seen myself. They’ve jumbled up different periods, but even elements that seem fantastical, such as the triple-turreted turret that is Dumbledore’s office, are based on real buildings and were researched and constructed in such as way as to be feasible from an engineering perspective.
By the time I had finished my tour, I had a deeper appreciation for the art and craft of movie making. I also felt a tiny stirring of my 8-year-old self who wanted to be an animator, and my 16-year-old self who wanted to be an architect. Who knows, maybe if I had understood that people did this sort of thing for a living, I might have pursued that route more seriously.