6 Lessons I Learned on the “Harry Potter” Film Set

In October 2000 I was in my final year at Oxford University and before I had even finished settling into my room for Michaelmas Term I was eagerly informed by friends that the “Harry Potter” film crew was going to spend several weeks shooting in our College (Christ Church).

I had never heard of Harry Potter and did not feel impelled to investigate what it was about — a big-budget film crew was going to be moving into our College and that was more than enough for me. Besides, “Harry Potter” wasn’t exactly an alluring title for someone who had never heard of the books.

I had made my firm decision to pursue filmmaking 18 months earlier and I was voraciously consuming every filmmaking text I could get hold of, as well as constantly practising with my camcorder to familiarise with framing, focal length and the different looks it produces.  The timing of the “Harry Potter” shoot was fortuitous and I made the most of it, even though I was in my final year and had the non-trivial issue of Finals to worry about.

In the ensuing weeks the gargantuan film unit shot scenes yards away from my room, in the beautiful cloisters and the magnificent staircase that leads to the Hall. I was steeped in high-end filmmaking and could not have avoided it if I had wanted to. For most of my peers the protracted and invasive presence of the film crew quickly became an inconvenience; for me it was paradise.

I befriended, I listened and I observed.  This is my account of the experience, and it’s a pleasure to revisit these sweet memories!

Sadly I have no pictures to share from the actual shoot – there was an inflexible and strictly enforced ban on photography. I personally shot all the photographs in this post earlier today.

1. Production Design: amazing set pieces, even in real life and at close quarters

Mercury Fountain at Christ Church, Oxford
Mercury Fountain and Hall at Christ Church, Oxford | © 2012 LAvideoFilmmaker.com – All Rights Reserved.
The set construction unit arrived before the main unit, and one could not fail to notice their presence.  They set up their base on Christ Church meadow, just outside the Meadow Building, and pre-prepared set pieces began to appear in preparation for the arrival of the main unit.

These set pieces were designed to blend in seamlessly with the buildings, and I assure you that even up close, the set pieces looked like real stone, even though they were completely artificial. I was impressed.

The sandstone-like texture on the set pieces appeared to have been achieved by covering wooden panels with very coarse fabric and then painting it carefully, but I’m not sure if that is how they actually did it.

2. Big lights – and VERY bright!

Hall Stairs at Christ Church, Oxford
Hall Stairs at Christ Church, Oxford | © 2012 LAvideoFilmmaker.com – All Rights Reserved.

Those who are unfamiliar with big-budget film lighting techniques tend not to appreciate just how much light is used to achieve the hyper-realistic look of Hollywood fantasy films.

The lights were big.  The lights were powerful.  The lights were numerous.  The lights were set up and supervised by a veritable army of crew members. It was awe-inspiring.

Even as a fledgling filmmaker, the significance of this lighting bonanza was not lost on me, and I interpreted it as having two principal goals:

– Achieving rich exposure on fine-grained film (film with finer grains affords more detail, but is less sensitive and needs more light)

– Achieving a specific look by design rather than leaving it to chance.

Watching the “Harry Potter” film crew light the scenes the way they did confirmed my suspicion that, particularly for night scenes, starting with complete darkness and lighting from scratch is definitely the way forward if the goal is a highly consistent “designer” look.  It almost persuaded me to shoot my first film entirely at night so that I could light it from scratch, an idea that I subsequently abandoned for practical reasons.

3. The pretty shot that was ruined in the final cut

The Cloisters at Christ Church, Oxford
The Cloisters at Christ Church, Oxford | © 2012 LAvideoFilmmaker.com – All Rights Reserved.

The highlight of those eight weeks was observing the filming of one shot from start to finish.

It was for the scene in which Hermione shows Harry and Ron a cabinet containing Quidditch trophies.

RON

Whoa. Harry, you never told me your father was a Seeker, too.

HARRY

I didn’t know!

The scene was shot in the cloisters (pictured above), and with remarkable speed an empty corner of the cloisters soon hosted the Quidditch trophy cabinet, the camera, the dolly and its track, the lights, the props and all manner of personnel — it was a mesmerizing flurry of crew members, each with a specific task, just like an ant colony.

Before long they were ready for the first take.  The three kids stood on one side of the cabinet and the camera was on the other side.  It was a tracking shot that moved along the front of the cabinet, with the trophies parallaxing in the foreground while the wide-eyed kids delivered their lines on the other side. It was all rather pretty.

The whole time I was right behind director Chris Columbus, who occasionally peered at me, fully aware that I wasn’t a crew member, probably wondering who the heck I was. I had befriended one of the Third Assistant Directors – an amiable and very experienced film industry veteran – and had free access for the duration of the shoot, but I knew better than to disturb the Director himself. Apart from chatting to the script supervisor while they were setting up the shot, I kept my mouth shut and observed carefully, taking great care not to get in anyone’s way.

They did a few takes, with the director giving directions at the end of each.  After one take it was the framing that needed tweaking; after another take it was the speed of the dolly.  “A cut slower on the dolly, guys,” he asked after one take.  I’ll never forget it.

It was a pretty good shot, and I liked the fact that the scene was covered by this single tracking shot, which went from a medium shot of the three kids to a close-up of Harry, reaching that final framing in time for his reaction. I knew that non-static uncut master shots are the preserve of very special directors who shoot very special movies, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to see a similar technique being used on this film.

You can therefore imagine my disappointment when I watched the film a year later and saw that the scene was ultimately assembled from multiple shots, and the only bit that survived from that tracking shot in the final cut was the final close-up. C’est la vie.

4. The young actors were very professional

The Hall at Christ Church, Oxford
The Hall at Christ Church, Oxford | © 2012 LAvideoFilmmaker.com – All Rights Reserved.

The three young actors who played Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger were very young at that time — they were tiny!  And yet they were incredibly professional, and what I mean by “professional” when it comes to actors is simply that they show up with their lines fully learnt, do as they’re told and stay on their marks without complaining, take after take, until they are told that it’s a wrap.  The three young kids did all of this without batting an eyelid.

5. The “I’ll start as a PA” myth rears its ugly head!

Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford
Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford | © 2012 LAvideoFilmmaker.com – All Rights Reserved.

I befriended a Production Assistant who spent his days standing at corners, preventing people from walking into the shot and allowing them through in between takes.  This guy told me that his heart’s desire was to be a Set Designer and that he planned to work his way up. I strongly suspected that his strategy was fundamentally unsound, but my instincts exhorted me to remain silent.

Today, almost 12 years later, I remain of the opinion that working as a Production Assistant is only a good strategy is you want to become a First Assistant Director — and make no mistake that becoming a 1st AD is in itself a long and arduous journey.

For all other Head of Department roles in film production, I’m afraid “starting” as a PA simply will not cut it, especially these days.

Maybe he was hoping to cross over to an entry-level role in the Production Designer’s department, which would make a positive contribution to his career as a set designer, but it’s incredibly difficult to cross over like that. The Production Department will want to see some evidence of artistic ability – once again it’s all about the portfolio! There can be no doubt that being hired as Set Designer requires a solid portfolio; a record of service as a PA, no matter how long and distinguished, will not help with Set Design – and is that really so surprising?

In short, if you insist on launching your career by doing grunt work, at least get grunt work in the right department!  I don’t know what happened to this guy, but my money says he had to revise his strategy at some point.

I am not against starting at the bottom. I am against starting at the bottom in a department that is unrelated to your area of interest.

That’s fine for most roles, but for directors, there is no “bottom”: you need to build a reel. There is no gentle slope that you can climb at leisure. You either have a reel or you don’t.

6. Eyes on the prize: the importance of spending time in the company of success

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford | © 2012 LAvideoFilmmaker.com – All Rights Reserved.

Without a doubt the biggest, most long-lasting lesson I learned in the weeks I spent surrounded by the “Harry Potter” film crew is this: to the very ambitious, it is incredibly beneficial to see what the goal looks like.  This is known as “keeping your eyes on the prize.”

In those weeks I was not part of the “Harry Potter” glory – I was just a hungry observer – but I saw what real success looks like.  Once the brain has a clear picture of what success looks like in a particular field, it makes the attainment of that goal vastly more realistic, and elicits a sense of ambition and optimism. This isn’t airy-fairy stuff: it really works!

“Harry Potter” might not be your idea of ultimate success – it isn’t mine, but it doesn’t matter.  The professionals involved in that film were highly accomplished and well paid, and there is a lot to be learned simply by observing them and how they carry themselves.  I guarantee that this will refine your vision, and you can use that vision to pursue whatever goals you prefer.

It does newbie filmmakers a lot of good to spend some time in the company of real success instead of languishing at home and obsessing over which DSLR camera is best.  What a low-level waste of time that is!

Developing skills that will make you desirable in your chosen area = high-level thinking.

Ruminating over the relative merits of different cameras and other forms of “gear lust” = low-level thinking.

It was a real privilege to observe the “Harry Potter” film crew at such close quarters for so long, and there is no doubt in my mind that if they hadn’t been shooting in my college, it would have been significantly more difficult to gain access to the action.  I consider myself lucky.

That said, I would encourage you all to try and observe a substantial film shoot whenever you can. You don’t have to shadow them for days; I can assure you that a single afternoon of first-person observation will have more than enough benefit to last you a while.

Introduce yourself, be polite, be low-key and don’t get in anyone’s way – most will give you some access.

Observe the best, learn from the best and keep your eyes on the prize, whatever your “prize” happens to be! 🙂

14 thoughts on “6 Lessons I Learned on the “Harry Potter” Film Set

  1. I enjoy your blog. Thank you for speaking in plain simple English. I love this post. Harry Potter was one of the most mesmerizing films I ever saw. My goal is to somehow attain the eye that would somehow help me to help others attain the same eye when watching movies. But of course I need something like your brilliant insights to teach me how! Glad for this post, as always.

  2. Your blog really inspires me a lot, thank you very much! And, yes, you’re really lucky to see Making-Of-A-Legend-Film 😉 Destiny may be… Anyway, looking forward for other interesting-inspiring articles from you. May your luck be with you as long as it’s possible!

  3. I find your posts very useful and valuable. In fact, its the best of all that I have read so far. Thanks!!

  4. Jim Malmstrom says:

    Superb. Reliving your experience and translating it into practical insight and advice for filmmakers. Your posts are indeed invaluable resources.

  5. Jane Frost says:

    Your time at Cambridge during the making of Harry Potter was truly fortuitous. My uncle, rather his hands, were in the opening of “Front Page” with Jack Lemon. He was a linotype operator when it was still being used, and in this scene he is setting type. That scene in Front Page, was my Harry Potter. Thank you so much for helping me connect the dots.

    • Hi Jane,

      Great to see you here — I was starting to worry about you!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for sharing that anecdote.

      BTW it was Oxford, not “the other place” 😉

      Always good to hear from you!

  6. Terrific post as always, Ed. Totally agree it’s about “getting in amongst it”… (on a big set). Will provide inspiration and motivation for years to come. I’ll never forget my time on the first `Matrix’ movie set. Thanks as always, for sharing the wisdom!

  7. Excellent post!

    I have found my most satisfying and educational moments in this business have been on movie sets, and it has been the place where I’ve learned the most about working with the pros. Keep up the great posts and thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

    BTW, I’ve been carving through my copy of “Grammar of the Film Language”. Thanks again for reminding me what a valuable resource that book is.

    Wishing you all the best.

    ~ MJ

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