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Designing Harry Potter world

Stuart Craig explains how he created the magic

Laura Parker | March 12th 2015

When filming began on the third Harry Potter film, Stuart Craig, the production designer who’d been with the franchise since the beginning, made a crazy suggestion. “Let’s shoot on location,” he said to the crew. “In Scotland.”

Craig chose Glencoe, a cluster of misty mountains and ragged valleys in the Scottish Highlands with a suitable otherworldly feel. Hagrid’s Hut was built from scratch, as was the ornate wooden bridge that leads to Hogwarts Castle. “Visually, it was a feast,” Craig told me. “It was a remote, distant place, the perfect location for Hogwarts.” And then it rained—a lot. Filming was delayed. Sets had to be rebuilt. “The film was considered fairly disastrous, organisationally speaking. So when it came to signing up for the fourth film, it was by no means a given that I would get the job.”

Craig did get the job—for the rest of the Harry Potter films. J.K. Rowling then requested his help to build The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new theme park in Florida, which meant recreating the same magical world but with an entirely new set of design challenges. The difference, of course, is that a movie set only has to look real. Anything that can’t be physically built at the time can be visually inserted later. A theme park not only has to look and feel real, it also, in Florida at least, has to be hurricane proof.

Based in London, with the help of his former colleagues on the Harry Potter films, Craig designed the theme park from the ground up. The result is nothing short of fantastical. There are two parts: one incorporating Hogwarts Castle, Hagrid’s Hut and the village of Hogsmeade, which opened in 2010; the other, completed last July, featuring a lively recreation of Diagon Alley with its many shops and divertissements, including a section of Muggle London, The Leaky Cauldron (which is a real pub), Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Borgin and Burkes, and Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. The Hogwarts Express transports visitors between the two.

It's like stepping into the books. The film actors didn’t even enjoy this level of immersion, having to make do with partially built sets and green screens. “It was a bold thing to do, to say, ‘this is a snowy village in the Highlands of Scotland’, when you’re actually in Florida in the sunshine and there are rollercoasters just hundreds of feet away,” said Craig. When I visited, a convincing Ollivander lookalike acted out the scene from the first film in which Harry picks out his wand. I tested a few until, with a bang and a flash, a wand chose me. (I clutched it to my chest for a few magical seconds before an attendant informed me I had to pay for it.)

The biggest difference between building a film set and a theme park, Craig found, is with the materials and techniques used. Instead of lightweight timber scaffolding, he had to design elaborate steel structures. Impressions of stone and brick walls were made by spreading cement mix onto a structure and carving a stone pattern into it. “This seemed to me to be a risky and unreliable method—it means you’re basically as good as your worst carver,” Craig joked. The most satisying part of the job for him was figuring out the smaller details—the colour of the marble inside Gringotts Bank, the placement of the stacked wands inside Ollivander’s shop. “There’s nothing more terrifying than sitting down at your drawing board in front of a blank sheet of paper,” he said. “Sometimes I have a flash of inspiration; other times, I just sit there with a pencil in my hand and make a mark, and then make two marks and rub one out, add three more, and rub two out, and just through sheer patience and determination, it develops into an actual idea.” But he had fun with it, too—the wands on sale are all fitted with an infrared tip allowing visitors to perform spells: the Wingardium Leviosa spell, recited with a “swish and a flick” of the wand, will make a hanging skeleton in Knockturn Alley dance.

The crucial thing, though, was to stay true to the book—as much as was practically possible. “One of the most painful experiences was when a little girl came up to me in front of Hagrid’s Hut and said: ‘But Hagrid’s Hut is made of wood, and you made it with stone. It catches fire, so it has to be made of wood.’ And I said ‘Well, it’s a mix,’ and I took her inside and showed her the wooden ceiling, the wooden floor and all the wooden furniture. ‘Surely there’s enough wood here,’ I told her. But I’m still not sure I entirely convinced her.”

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