Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 22, 2012

Sometimes magic happens

In any area of human endeavor, the outcomes are always mixed. Whether raising a family, building a new home, or just writing a weekly column, even if we try very hard to do our best, some outcomes are good, some are not so good and most are somewhere in between.

But sometimes, albeit rarely, magic happens.

Last Saturday beginning at about 11 a.m., I had the chance to see up close a part of something I consider one of these rare exceptional outcomes and I doubt I shall ever see a similar one again. Daughters Mariya and Katie considered the experience to be the highlight of a vacation trip they later evaluated as one of the best we have ever taken ... an evaluation due in no small part to what we saw Saturday.

Our adventure began at 9 a.m. when we left our apartment in the east London suburb of Greenwich. Our target was the 11 a.m. tour at the Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden, a small community northwest of London. Yet the beginning might be considered to have been years earlier when author J. K. Rowling had an idea for a series of books while sitting in a restaurant. Those books became the basis for the eight "Harry Potter" movies and the Leavesden studios were where much of the action was shot.

One measure of the influence of these movies is that directions to the studio are on the special brown highway signs that the British use to direct travelers to spots of great public interest. Usually they are reserved for centuries-old castles and elaborate English gardens.

As we approached the grounds, we were waved by parking guides to the next available spot in the large lot. The price of admission had not been cheap - 28 British pounds or about $45 per person. Some visitors arrived by chartered bus at 55 pounds per person. But there was no shortage of takers and it had been necessary to book ahead.

The closer we got to the doors, the more excited daughters Mariya and Katie - and yes, I too - became. We had been looking forward to "The Making of Harry Potter" tour ever since we decided last spring to travel to Britain. Daughter-in-law Lacey and husband Art, although not as rabid as the rest of us, were also interested.

The scope of the movie-making effort was mind-boggling. Costume designers, make-up and hair stylists, animal trainers, architects, engineers, graphic artists, prop makers, special effects experts, set designers, portrait artists, construction workers and others all worked together to create the magic of Harry Potter's world.

When the two huge wooden doors opened into Hogwarts Castle's Great Hall, one of the iconic settings of the movies, it gave me a chill. The floor was made of genuine flagstone and its ceiling was based on that of London's Westminster Hall.

Other details have stayed with me:

- The 27-foot tall green tile fireplaces in the Ministry of Magic had been inspired by some of London's older underground stations. Quite by chance, the following day when we used the Chalk Farm underground station in London, we came face to face with what appeared to be the same tiles.

- The hundreds of books lining Headmaster Dumbledore's office were actually British phone books covered with leather.

- All wizard characters had their own wooden wands that were carefully marked and stored in boxes so the right ones would be used in subsequent scenes.

- More than 40 editions of the wizarding world's newspaper, the "Daily Prophet," were produced by the graphics department. Each was complete with stories, headlines, advertisements, horoscopes and puzzles.

- The 22-foot "Knight Bus" was made of pieces of three vintage London double-deckers.

- An accurate-to-the-minutest-detail model of Hogwarts Castle and its surroundings had been constructed for use in filming many of the outside scenes.

- The first "Harry Potter" book languished on a shelf of potential movie candidates until a secretary took it home to read and excitedly encouraged her boss to read it the next day.

Yet these details are only one source of the movie's magic. Another was the passion of the people who worked behind the scenes. Even after making the eight movies that spanned more than a decade, they spoke excitedly about their contributions.

Still, I'm sure most books that become blockbuster movies had people who worked passionately on them and gave great attention to detail. But I think the Potter books are unique in other ways. One is that it was not a one-book or one-movie wonder. Another is that subsequent books were not an attempt to further cash in on the success of an earlier hit, but instead were all planned as a group before the first was made into a movie.

Yet probably the most important difference was how the books and the subsequent movies appealed to youngsters and adults alike. While the "Wizard of Oz" can stake a claim in this regard, it has never been described as encouraging youngsters of both genders to begin to read as the Potter series has.

This cross-generation effect was clearly evident during the tour when sons and daughters talked excitedly with fathers and mothers. The kids were neither being dragged along nor were their parents treating their youngsters to a day out. They were all fully engaged with what they were experiencing and with each other.

When we left the studio five and a half hours later, people were still in line to enter. But I didn't see any of the fanatics that sometimes attach themselves to cult movies. They were just ordinary people ... ordinary people who also had sensed that sometimes magic happens and had come to see where a bit of it had been created.

From left, Lacey, Mariya, Katie and Art in front of the Warner Brothers Leavesden studio.

Attention to detail could be seen in all aspects of the movie-making process. At the left is a newspaper used as a prop. The small area outlined in red is blown up at the top right. It reveals that even minor items are consistent with the story despite the fact that it is unlikely it could ever be read by someone in the audience. At the bottom right is the "Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment" shop. All of the items in the window are separate props either collected from such places as London antique stores or fabricated for the movie.

Katie in front of the scale model of the Hogwarts castle and environs used for external shots.

Comments? [email protected].
Earlier columns from 2012 may be found at: 2012 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home