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Immersed in Movies: Production Designer Stuart Craig Talks the Long Road of ‘Harry Potter’

Immersed in Movies: Production Designer Stuart Craig Talks the Long Road of 'Harry Potter'

If anyone could rightly be called the face of “Harry Potter,” it’s production designer Stuart Craig, the architect of this fantastical world of author J.K. Rowling. He was there from the beginning to the end of the most successful franchise in movie history that touched off the millennium—and now beyond, participating in the “Wizarding World” theme parks and exhibition of sets that will be permanently housed at Leavesden Film Studios.

But after lovingly building the Hogwarts wizarding school for seven films, the three-time Oscar winner (“The English Patient,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” and “Gandhi”) destroyed it for “The Deathly Hallows — Part 2” finale, for which he’s an Oscar contender once again.

“I think the big challenge for that final film was the battle for Hogwarts,” Craig recalls. “David Yates, the director, was very keen to make it large, and we physically thought of new spaces and enlarged the arena for where the series of battles took place. So the courtyard in front of Hogwarts, which goes right back to ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone,’ wasn’t really there at all because we shot it on location, and then progressively got bigger through the series of films, and then, finally, we must’ve added literally to the side of it for one of the major confrontations between Voldemort and Harry. We built the marble staircase and it became 500% bigger than it was originally. And all to provide a stage for the mother of all battles.”

But it was the actual destruction of the Hogwarts exterior that required the most imaginative work. To Craig, it was all about making interestingly profiled ruins with solidity and treating the whole thing like a piece of sculpture. And what a sight: the massive remains of destroyed walls, the great entrance, the sun rising behind the smoke. 

And yet the 69-year-old production designer also had a new wrinkle to deal with in “Part 2”: a digital Hogwarts. “In the previous movies, the Hogwarts exterior had always been a big miniature built on a big soundstage at Shepperton, and had done us well, really,” Craig continues. “But Tim Burke, the visual effects supervisor, said it was time to make Hogwarts computer-generated, so the physical model was scanned and that digital scan became the skeleton of the new digital model. And so it was completely retextured so well that the camera was able to come in much, much closer than ever before and all the architectural detail stood out. So I was skeptical in the beginning because of the generation that I am and having dealt so much in the past with physical miniatures. But I must say that Tim was absolutely vindicated and that’s the future, where there will be more and more green and blue screen.”

By contrast, the heavenly encounter between Harry and Dumbledore in limbo at King’s Cross provided an opportunity to create an ethereal mood of love and affection. “Because the Leavesden studio was our permanent home, because there was time, because the films were guaranteed to make money, we were in a very privileged position, really, to experiment and to test things, and, initially, that was a big test set to get that overexposed whiteness and yet still retain some definition and detail,” he explains. “It was a big, white, physical set but it was enhanced by visual effects, which made it magical in the end.”

Naturally at the top of Craig’s list of designing highlights is the continually evolving Hogwarts. “Audiences were very forgiving about the changes to meet new requirements of the mystery of the place,” he says. “Nobody was that bothered by continuity slips. I think it was regarded as part of the developing richness of Hogwarts.”

Another favorite is the Room of Requirements, where Harry and his pals go for the tiara Horcrux and encounter a mountain of furniture and colossal fire. “I like to think of every set as a sculpture in the first place, and that was a big challenge,” Craig recounts. “We built a crude, simplistic model just in Styrofoam, and this was literally an abstract sculpture. Then that was translated into a much more detailed model with doll’s furniture, which became the blueprint for the whole set. Then we went to every auction, every sale room for second hand furniture and so we made a big, physical set. And, finally, visual effects took all of that and made it that much bigger.”

And, finally, Diagon Alley, which Craig views as a twisted version of Dickens. “What we did there was a mix of images seen from the real world — 17th/18th century London and I think we distressed it more. There are examples of the Lanes in Brighton and in the city of York, where the structures are correct, but they’re all too smart and done up. We wanted crumbling, ancient dereliction because they kept pace with the antiquity of the place and the fact that these people living in the wizarding world wouldn’t care about that, particularly. So it’s as full of character as we could possibly make it.”

That’s “Potter” in a nutshell.

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