Outside London - Movie & Wizard Magic!!

Like I have stated in the last few posts, London has just about anything you could be looking for.  But there are also many great things just outside of London.  One of these I was NOT missing for the world, and that my friends, was the WB studio tour where all 8 Harry Potter films were made.  Yes, a mere hour outside of London you can immerse yourself in the magic not only of movie-making, but also of the world of Harry Potter.  It is perhaps the best day I spent during my entire 6-month saga.  Partly because I love movies and I love Harry Potter, but also because they've just done such a fantastic job laying it all out for you!

So- before I get ahead of myself - First want to apologize for excess gushing (but I did really love it there!).  This is really long- feel free to skip through to just all the photos!  

Secondly- I just want to explain how easy it is to do, especially on your own.  There are organized tours that leave from London, but I believe they're quite expensive, at somewhere around 75 pounds per person.  In my opinion, it's pretty unnecessary.  I took the tube to Eustace Station, then transferred to a commuter train to Watford Junction - my round trip ticket was about 12 pounds I think.  Unfortunately for me, there were major delays that day, so I ended up being quite late for my timed ticket (purchased the day or two before online).  I was slightly nervous, because they're quite stern in their language about being on time for your ticket, but apparently the issues with the north-bound trains that day were so significant that it was no problem.  PHEW.  Once you arrive at the Watford Junction station, you head out & wait for the HP-themed shuttle bus.  Where to wait wasn't immediately clear, but the small crowd gathered at the far end of the bus stops clued me in quickly.  Again- a round trip ticket is purchased as you get on the bus, this one for 2 pounds.  The bus is great because, a) everyone on it is super excited about heading to the studios, and b) they show all these clips & teasers about what you're about to go & do.  15 more minutes- and you're there!  

Once we arrived - well, it was goose-bumps-city, majorly.  The entrance is almost like the lobby of a big movie theater on the opening day of a big movie.  It was crowded and seemed a bit hectic, and huge photos of iconic scenes/actors were all over. After ensuring that my delay was not dire, I picked up my earphone system (which is basically an iPod w/a fancy map app), ran to the loo, and then got in line.  They give you a lovely teaser while you're waiting in line with the actual little cupboard-under-the-stairs that Harry lived in at the beginning of movie 1.  It was teeny!  But all the little trinkets were there.  Once you wind your way through the line - about 30 people enter at a time - you go first into a sort of staging room filled with screens showing different international posters for each of the movies.  A tour guide comes in to explain how the tour will run, how to use your earphone-set, ect.  Mostly, at this point, I was getting impatient- let us in already!   This feeling intensified when the door opened & we were lead into a sort of shallow stadium theater.  I waited for what I was sure was going to be yet another commercial for either the tour I'd already bought or even worse- something about just the WB or movie-making in general.  I should have had faith because what came on screen was in fact an adorable little piece with Dan, Emma, and Rupert (obviously, the actors who played Harry, Ron, and Hermione - I'm clarifying just in case you're not a fanatic like me) talking about how these studios were really their home away from home for 10 years and how much they loved being there.  It really reminded you that yes, the movies brought to life books that were beloved to so many, but that actually- all of the crew were real people who were living real lives, and really working hard on these sets.  

The best part was, at the end, the three welcomed us, then turned & opened the door to the great hall at Hogwarts.   Then the lights went up, the screen raised to reveal the ACTUAL DOORS to the great hall!  The doors then opened to reveal - the ACTUAL GREAT HALL!!  EEEE!  I mean - it was a great reveal.  We were escorted in & given a quick explanation about it & how we should proceed following our maps on the electronic earphone systems.  Mostly we all were just gaping around because- a) yes, it's large, but not NEARLY as big at it seems on screen, and b) there's no ceiling!  It's all just lights & supports- no floating candles or anything.  This is obviously where you start to realize just how important special effects were to these movies.  The other thing you see which aren't special effects at all - costumes, costumes, and more costumes!  Examples from each of the 4 houses were shown, and then all of the professors were lined up along the front - including wigs/beards ect.  Harry's first-year robes were teeeny!  Too cute!  Here are a handful of shots:

You only get a limited amount of time in the great hall, mostly because the doors open on cue after the little movie, and they want the hall empty for the next group.  So- we headed into the next section, which was basically where you really start to understand just how much goes into making a movie, and how much actual magic there is!  There were little sections on building props (like the floating candles in the ceiling, or accessories for the Yule Ball), makeup, costumes, ect.  At each section you could select different audio clips from the actual crafts people about their various roles/challenges, ect.  The makeup people talked about how they had to really be friends to everyone, but also get them in the right mental space to go & film - it sounds like they had to deal with more than their fair share of teen drama!  :)  The costume section was super cool, because you actually saw about 10 of the outfits that Harry wore in the last movie - it's the same outfit in different stages of ruination - all of which the costumers had to figure out based on the script.  You then wound around to the more open part of the stage where the different sets were.  So- yes- I saw the actual boys dorm room (where beds made for 11 year-olds NEVER changed, heh) and the actual Gryffindor common room (where new furniture & tapestries were purposely aged to appear really old & worn in).  Both of which feature yet more costumes - including the sweaters Mrs. Weasley knitted back in movie 1 (again - so cute & little!).  A quick look at the invisibility cloak (complete with a "green" inside to help the invisibility effect) and over to Dumbledore's office.  That space was just bursting with fun items- the penseive, the sorting hat, portraits more costumes, ect.  All along the way there are other props to check out - like the giant swinging clock that features in movie 3.   Here are a few more shots of this section:

You see in one picture of Dumbledore's office that a lot of it is actually closed in (with non-finished walls on the outside), which just means that they had more walls to cram with stuff & could film in a more "closed space" - especially since his office was meant to be round.  After walking by a giant cage of props, with special items featured in museum-like cases (eg: the horcruxes, the golden snitch...), then on the opposite side of the stage you see the wide open sets of the Potions classroom & then also the Burrow (the Weasley's house).  Each highlighted a different aspect of the movies.  The Potions set was apparently the most changed set from movie to movie, but the most amazing thing was that all of the bottles along the walls had been hand-filled with different stuff with hand-written labels on each & every bottle.  There were also some non-special special effects on display in those two rooms- eg: the self-stirring potions pot, the hand less knitting needles, the knife that chopped w/no help, ect.  They had little buttons to push so you could direct these actions yourself (all electronic, alas- not magical).  Then you got to take a look at Hagrid's Hut, which was mostly interesting to me because there was a big section where you learned about all the different animal training they did.  (Mostly lots of Hedwig owls & Fang dogs, but other stuff including rats as well!)  It really was just super cool to see all the physical stuff they built - and kept!

The next section was all the crazy special effects stuff - basically anything that was either mechanical (like the door to the Chamber of Secrets, or the vaults in Gringots), or shot with a green screen (quidditch, primarily).  This was cool, but better looking actually IN the movies.  You could go wait in line to I think ride a broom in front of a green screen, but I didn't feel like waiting and wasn't as in to that stuff.  Plus I wasn't even half way through yet!  So I continued around a corner where we got to the Villains (all lined up in costume - interesting to note that Voldemort's robes are actually a dark green silk, not black!) and the Ministry of Magic set.  Apparently they only kept one corner of this set- with only a couple of fireplaces & offices on view, but when they were filming it took up the entire far end of the stage.  There's no way to explain just how huge it must have been.  Now, besides that one corner, they have the central statue (the new "Magic is Might" one when the bad people were in charge towards the end of the series), and evil Umbridge's office.  Apparently they filmed kittens one day for all her moving plates which was a very fondly-remembered day for many.  A final thing to check out before heading outside?  Oh, just every single printed material that appeared in the movie.  Eg:  every issue of the Quibbler, every letter Harry received, the Marauder's Map, ect.   Ridiculously cool.

Next up you head outside for what you think will be a breather, but it's really just more cool stuff, just out in the fresh air.  This is the back lot, where they built certain accessories for out-door filming... like the Night bus, Tom Riddle's grave stone, and then even the houses on Privet Drive.   Lots of people were taking pictures at the actual Dursley house, so I just took one of the identical house-front next door - don't shoot me.  I also was able to take a glass of butterbeer at a little bar they have set up (which I honestly can't remember if I had to pay for or not... I think I did).  It was yummy, and very different from what they have on offer at Universal Studios Orlando... who knows which one is closer to what JK imagined.  :)  They other thing they have in the back lot is the only part of Hogwarts that was actually built & filmed on - the bridge that first appeared in Prisoner of Azkaban, but became familiar in all of the later movies.  It was very cool & crooked - likely for better filming angles.  The last thing also in this back-lot?  Oh, just the giant chess pieces from the end of the first movie.  Too cool!

After the moment of fresh air, it was time to go into the 2nd stage, which is now home to more of the technical aspects of the movies.  Firstly -  the "Creature Shop".  Did you know that Dobby & Kreacher weren't just cgi creations?  In fact, they, like SO MUCH other stuff were little rubber robots, a ton of which you could see in here.  Everything from dragons to Buckbeak to the shriveled-up gross dying part of Voldemort.  Even Hagrid's head!  They have a recreation of Hagrid's head that they put on a body double (some big former rugby player, apparently) that was animatronic, so his face could move a little - obviously not used in close-ups!  Every time I see Hagrid on screen now though, I wonder if it is the actor or the fake moving head!  :)

Then, once out of the world of rubber & robots, we headed directly into DIAGON ALLEY!  Yup- that street exists - and in fact, mere DAYS after I was there, the Royals came & did a tour to "christen" the studios or some such, so there were lots of pictures taken of Harry, Wills, and Kate waving wands around on the street.  Hee!  All the shops were there, though a bit dark since they weren't lit for filming or anything.  Well, all except the Weasley's store, which couldn't be dark if it tried.  So many fun little things to look at through the windows!  From Diagon Alley, we then went into the area where architects created models of all of the different buildings &/or scenes out of card-stock, which was super cool.

Well, If I didn't think that paper model of Hogwarts was cool enough, the "surprise" they had in store next just blew me away.  I almost hesitate to tell y'all about it because I loooooved being surprised, but I checked and it's on the website, so...  I went around a corner & through a doorway & just about fainted.  In front of me was a 100% accurate, scale model of Hogwarts.  Complete with working lights inside the castle, and every brick lovingly painted on.  I checked my fabulous souvenir book, and it's done to 1:24 scale.  They continually added onto it according to locations the directors needed/requested (so, Cuaron added lots for movie 3, and then the boathouse was added for the last movie, ect...), and it was used for all of the overhead or wide shots.  It's obviously NOT destroyed, so a lot of the destruction shown in the last movie must have been done some other way.  They have a lovely background music playing that is appropriately soothing, and everyone is just super quiet.  It's just that awe-inspiring.  You get to walk all along the perimeter & read about all these different aspects of the model as you wind your way down to the lower level.  It's honestly so super cool that I even got a smidge teary.  Here are a few views of it: 

So cool.  OH- and I forgot to mention that at some point they decided that Dumbledore's office should be three slightly over-lapping turrets, so that's another reason why that set is so elaborate, and they actually built those three turrets on the side of one of the really large towers - you can see it in most of the pictures.  So, after I gathered my sniffles, you walk into what looks like Ollivander's wand shop and they've done just the coolest thing.  Every member of the cast and crew has their name on a wand box, and they're stacked from floor to ceiling.  Some really nice staff member took me around to everyone I asked to see - the stars, directors, and some little-known people, ect.  It was so, so cool, and just touching.  Again- one of the things you listened to after seeing the Hogwarts model were all these different people reminiscing - just telling stories about how much being a part of the movies meant to them, ect., so it's just wonderful that they're represented at the end.  

Of course, after that loveliness, you're released into the gift shop, and with all those wonderful feelings you're obviously going to purchase SOMETHING, or more than you should.  I held strong, resisted the stupidly expensive wands, the t-shirts, even the candy.  I do treasure the souvenir book I got though, along with the some 300 photos I took (!!!).  My tour lasted about 3 hours, plus the hour-ish transport time back & forth to central London, fyi.  It was a really wonderful day and I highly, highly recommend the visit for any fan of Harry Potter - or movie making in general.  :)