The Forbidden Forest at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour is an impressive feat, mainly because it seems impossible that it should exist. In the Harry Potter films, the Forbidden Forest was shot in different outside locations and the original pieces from the studios weren't kept, yet the Tour claims a high level of authenticity in its exhibitions. How is this the slightest bit possible without the original pieces? In this article, Chris Durmick, Principal of Attractions and Museums at Thinkwell, kindly offers an insight into the amazing process of creating the Forbidden Forest exhibition and explains what gives it its authenticity.
Introducing the Forbidden Forest
Visiting in January, I was greeted by huge, imposing gates with mist spiralling out as if coming to grab my feet and drag me in. The entrance to the Forbidden Forest stands out against the rest of the Tour in its vastness, the tall figure of Hagrid welcoming guests into the dark with the glow of his lamp. Immediately upon stepping in, my feet felt a contrast from the concrete studio floor to what felt like a soft, earthy texture.
“The squishy floor is a simple enough material: rubber mulch,” Chris explains. “Throughout the development of the Forest, we had the good fortune to work closely with the film production team, specifically Stuart Craig and his construction supervisor Paul Hayes. Paul is brilliant at finding construction solutions for any and all possible scenarios. Stuart was very determined to get the mulch correct, right down to making the final selection of texture and colour mix. The material is then trowelled into place by hand and sets up like a Rice Krispy treat.”
My friend Emma was astounded by how the mist almost completely veiled our feet, only to turn around and see a bowing, blinking Hippogriff waiting behind her in the shadows. Although Chris' team had originally hoped not to have handrails in the Forest, they didn't distract from the experience at all.
“As the Experience Design team for Warner Bros. Studios Tours both in London and Hollywood, Thinkwell is charged with developing the visitor journey and interactions starting from concept to construction. We collaborated with our Warner Bros. partners to first decide which set we would bring to life next. Other considerations here included the Chamber of Secrets, the Hogwarts Boathouse, and the Wizard's Chess set. Ultimately, we decided that the Forest gave the tour the most unique and unexpected addition, and populating it with activities became our first task.”
Step One in Authenticity: Immersive but Not a Theme Park!
The two girls ahead of us reached a gloomy tunnel of roots, with the choice of taking one of two directions. A guide advised them to only go left if they were feeling brave, so naturally, they huddled together and ventured that way, into the darkness below an increasing number of cobwebs. At this, I realised how each guest was experiencing their own unique adventure, with its own wonders and its own frights- this sense of magic and peril sometimes made it feel like a theme park, as well as an exhibition. Yet every 'theme park' aspect is presented in a clever way that contributes to the Forest's authenticity as a behind-the-scenes experience, rather than a walk-through ride:
“It's worth mentioning the overall thesis of this attraction. At Leavesden, unlike the Universal theme parks, authenticity is the driving force. This is the filmmaking tour of the brand, not the magical world. We have been very careful to ensure that the magic here is closely tied to the production process. Thus, if it didn't happen in front of the cameras, it won't happen here. We explain how the magic comes to life onscreen, but visitors are not stepping into the world of Harry Potter. We bend the rules occasionally for fun, but if you look specifically at the interactive elements, you'll see that they are carefully designed to unmask the production effects that created the magic. The magic doesn't just happen... a team of designers and engineers worked tirelessly to make it look like magic.”
This idea is followed through as guests encounter buttons that change the weather, with lightning and wind. Although it's very fun and theme park-esque to have such dramatic effects, no effort is made to hide the artifice and that's where the important balance of behind-the-scenes authenticity is achieved.
Step Two in Authenticity: Having the Right Team
Leaning to peer into a cavernous hole, my friend Emma leapt back with a scream as Aragog the Acromantula darted forward. Each detail of his hairy, sprawling body was revealed by a flash of lightning. When asked to what extent the original teams from the films were involved in working with Thinkwell to replicate these details, if at all, Chris replied with “100%”.
“It is a real privilege to have an opportunity to work with Stuart, who is the original Production Designer for all of the Potter films. We also work with Paul Hayes as mentioned previously. Pierre Bohana's prop-making team attached the various spiderwebs and mushrooms to the trees literally by hand, while the SFX Supervisor John Richardson oversaw the mechanics of the animated pieces and Nick Dudman, the original Creature Effects Supervisor brought Aragog and Buckbeak the Hippogriff to life for this effort. This isn't just hand wavy oversight either, but in the trenches, elbow-to-elbow work. Amazing.”
Step Three in Authenticity: The Process
Walking away, I looked back and pointed out to Emma that other spiders were descending from above the guests where we'd just been. When you think you've seen it all, there are new things to discover at every moment... but even with a great set and the right team, the question still remains- what makes any of it authentic if it's not original?
“This is the tricky part. The original Forbidden Forest was shot in multiple locations and finally on the stages at Leavesden. The nature of its construction made it impossible to salvage the original pieces, so no, the landscape you see at the Tour isn't the same one that was seen onscreen, but it is as close as we could get. The trees were constructed by the same team with the same materials and designs as the original. Even some of the tree bark is snapped from original molds. Both of the animated creatures were built anew but the molds were the first ones used in the films.”
With the important use of the same designs, molds and processes in the set, final touches of authenticity are found in the form of an animatronic dog in an LED vest to demonstrate how the magical Patronus animals were made, as well as touchy-feely information boards on making the tree bark.
The Forbidden Forest was certainly my favourite feature of The Making of Harry Potter attraction, which left me wondering what Thinkwell might have included with more space or a bigger budget...
“As I mentioned previously, we had explored a few other sets. We had a limited amount of space, so some other ideas (Gringotts, the Ministry Typing Pool) were left behind early on. We were going to include Centaurs and Werewolves in the forest as well, but both of those ideas would have broken the thesis as neither of them were actually created for the cameras- they were both pure VFX.”
What Harry Potter location would you like to see at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour? Let me know on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook!
Thank you very much to Chris for his words- do take a moment to enjoy some of Thinkwell's other work.