The ‘Harry Potter’ tour near London expands its universe
There is always something magical to uncover in the world of Harry Potter, which is the ultimate premise behind “The Making of Harry Potter” on the Warner Bros. studio tour near London, an experience that continues to reveal new secrets from the film franchise. The tour’s latest — and largest — expansion is the recently opened goblin-run Gringotts Wizarding Bank.
Since the studio tour opened in March 2012 at Warner Bros. Leavesden just outside London, it has seen several expansions, including the Hogwarts Express train and Platform 9¾ in 2015 and the Forbidden Forest in 2017. Gringotts joins fan favorites like Dumbledore’s office, Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Great Hall.
“We’ve always known that Gringotts was going to be a very popular set,” says Sarah Roots, senior vice president of worldwide tours at Warner Bros. “For us, it was a no-brainer, because it is so iconic. We felt it was something that would really bring the tour back to life again and would really invigorate everything we do.”
Inside the expansion, visitors to can learn more about the prosthetic makeup techniques created for the goblins, step inside the grand banking hall and check out the Lestrange vault, which heaves with treasure. The final room showcases a destroyed version of Gringotts, re-imagining a scene from the final film where a fire-breathing Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon smashes the building to bits.
Every item and set piece is original to the films, restored by a team of crew members, including production designer Stuart Craig and chief prop maker Pierre Bohanna.
Re-creating the Lestrange vault proved to be an especially daunting task. It features 38,000 pieces of rubberized treasure (including 7,014 Hufflepuff cups), all of which had to be restored by stripping off the deteriorated chrome finish and re-applying it. Bohanna’s team also created 210,000 coins (known in the world of Harry Potter as galleons, sickles and knuts) out of injected molded plastic for the last two films, which appear throughout Gringotts in the main banking hall and stacked in the Lestrange vault.
“In some sense, it was starting all over again,” Bohanna says, speaking during a press day at the studio tour. “For me with prop-making, it’s about ‘OK, what do we have? What is still with us and what is still usable?’ The first thing we did was to get everything out of the archive and assess it to see what work needed to be done to bring it back to its former glory.”
More than 60 goblins appeared in the films, including Griphook, a bank teller played by Warwick Davis. Each goblin mask took more than eight weeks to build and up to four hours to apply to an actor’s face (with an additional hour to remove after filming).
“I think a lot of people don’t really understand how much work goes into prosthetic makeup,” says Sarita Allison, a makeup artist tasked with refurbishing the masks and prosthetic pieces. “Now, visitors can come in and see all the fine detail work of the veins and aging spots and eyelashes. There’s so much attention to detail you lose in the films because there’s so much movement going on. It’s fantastic that knowledge can be passed on and people can really see what we do.”
Davis, who played several characters in the film series, including Griphook and Professor Filius Flitwick, feels that an immersive tour experience is just part of the evolution of allowing fans to see behind the curtain of moviemaking. There is a tribute to the actor’s characters in the Gringotts installation, much to his delight, and it’s these windows into the behind-the-scenes process that he feels is essential for fans.
“These things started years ago with behind-the-scenes documentaries on TV and as added features on DVDs,” Davis says. “Something like the studio tour is the next generation of that; the next step is for people to fully immerse themselves in the making of a motion picture. It’s a bit like [watching] a magician. We all love to know how the magic trick is done.”
“It’s one thing watching it on-screen, but it’s another to actually be here, surrounded by the real sets and costumes,” Allison adds. “You can re-live the scenes and recite some of the lines. It’s re-living that fantasy, and we want the fans to experience that.”
For Bohanna, it’s also about celebrating the crew that worked on the films, ensuring that each detail was perfect. Since the studio tour opened, Bohanna has been constantly asked about his career path and how one can become a prop maker. The exhibitions here take the spotlight off the actors and put it on the craftspeople, and special events, like “Introducing the Art Department” and “Behind the Seams,” offer even deeper looks at the skills involved.
“The whole tour is a great opportunity for people to come and see how we went about making the films and who the background people involved are,” Bohanna says. “For every one person standing in front of the camera, there are hundreds of people behind making sure that they’re convincing.”
Since it opened, the studio tour has helped propel overall Harry Potter tourism in London. Attractions like Tower Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, Leadenhall Market and St. Pancras International Station’s Platform 9¾ continually attract tourists to re-imagine scenes from the films. There are several walking tours within London that visit filming locations, including Brit Movie Tours, London Walks and the “Tour for Muggles.”
Along with the Gringotts expansion, the studio tour is also unveiling a larger entrance hall and lobby with a “life-sized” Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon, as well as the Chocolate Frog café, which will serve treats and drinks inspired by the films. Change is part of the DNA of the studio tour, which has welcomed 12 million visitors since it opened. It is now so popular that visitors are urged to purchase timed tickets (which must be pre-booked) at least three months in advance. Warner Bros.’ Roots hopes the continuing expansion brings in both first-timers and return fans.
“We want to keep the tour top-of-mind,” Roots says. “There’s so much depth and wealth in Harry Potter in terms of the content and stories and characters and costumes and props and sets and everything we’ve got. There are so many possibilities. We will continue to re-invigorate this.”
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