In the months leading up to the July 8 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, information about what the new area would look and feel like began to circulate. Those attending LeakyCon were already planning on making their way either before or after the convention to the new park and began eagerly searching for any information on what to expect. As a first-time LeakyCon attendee and having never visited Universal Orlando, I also joined the masses in researching the park and the wonders it would behold. In doing so, I came across a single sentence in a small article that caught my attention.
As if the Universal team hadn’t already included everything that should be in Diagon Alley, they were adding more interactive shows like those included in Hogsmeade. Rather than the “Triwizard Rally” or the “Frog Choir” shows currently running, Universal brought us not only Molly Weasley’s favorite songstress Celestina Warbeck but also a story from The Tales of Beedle the Bard: “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” brought to life by award-winning artist and production designer Michael Curry and his team. The reason this tiny tidbit had caught my eye in the first place is that Michael’s studio is located only minutes from my small hometown of St. Helens, Oregon, where he is well known and a bit of a celebrity.
I was lucky enough to see the show in Diagon Alley before speaking via telephone with Michael, who then invited me to tour his studio in Scappoose, Oregon. In this exclusive interview for MuggleNet, I was given an intimate look at how Michael got started as an artist, how he became involved with Diagon Alley, what his staff and family thought of the project, and what he thinks the future of Harry Potter holds for his company.
While Michael may be known for his puppetry, that is not where he started out. An Oregon native, Curry attended art school in the Northwest before beginning a fine art and sculpture career in New York. He only fell into the puppetry portion on accident. He laughs a bit when describing it, recalling making wings for a personal piece that caught the attention of a theater costume designer, which then landed him a job in Las Vegas working for Siegfried and Roy. He designed a set of wings for the show’s evil queen and kick-started his theater career in the process.
For those not familiar with his name, you might recognize his work on major productions such as Broadway’s The Lion King and no less than seven different Cirque du Soleil shows that have delighted audiences around the world. His company, Michael Curry Design, employs over 38 artists who work internationally on concepts, design, manufacturing, fabrication, and stage production in varying degrees. According to Michael, typical projects they get involved with can be a minimum two-year process from start to finish. WWoHP was actually less, as he indicated in our telephone interview, which can be read in full below along with some pictures from the show:
Interview conducted with Michael Curry via telephone on August 12, 2014 by Aimee Krenz
AK: When were you approached to create puppets for Diagon Alley?
MC: I worked with Universal doing Transformers walk-around characters, so we were given this assignment to create these full size, stilt-walking giant transformer costumes with audio to be part of the Transformer…the new ride. During rehearsal, I knew, everybody knew about the new development with Harry Potter. Then they tickled me a little bit saying that they were thinking of puppetry. That would have been 14 months ago, that happened. That was basically May of 2013. I first heard rumor that we would be looking at a puppetry solution for the Harry Potter story, so that is as much as we knew until last September. That is when they finally approached us. It was all still very confidential. We talked theoretically about how we should best present it and they wanted things to go back to report to JK Rowling about. She was very concerned about things being sort of natural to the world, you know, so not oddly enough not magical, you know puppets couldn’t just be magical within themselves, this is the mortal world. So that is where we chose this thing and I think this is why I was contacted because I have a real history with live performance puppetry, meaning we show the puppeteer. I feature them. I often use this device, as you know, you’re telling the story. This object, but the object..when told, a good story is told, and then when the object is enchanting, can really take over and create the magic of you believing that thing is real for a moment. So what we could do is compromise to JK Rowling’s sort of rules by letting magic happen, but theatrical magic, which is, you know, what we always strive for anyway.
AK: Of course! It was a beautiful show. I think I maybe saw it six times the three days I was there.
MC: Oh good, you have seen it almost as many times as I have!
AK: It has a different feel to it when you watch during day than when you watch in the evening. I guess I didn’t expect that, but it certainly, it has power both ways I think.
MC: We generally do, you know, work basically at night because we do work in dark theaters, and so everything is artificial lighting. So the challenge for us often is how to make things look radiant in real lighting. We did that by…these puppets are sort of scenic painted and detailed in a way that is sort of trompe l’oeil [an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions], really in daylight, full broad daylight they have to look convincing. It’s easy to do with theatrical lighting, but yeah it gives them…I like the night shows, they have the more….it’s just a broader palette.
AK: Had you seen Deathly Hallows or The Tale of the Three Brothers before you accepted the job?
MC: Yes, I’d seen them. I have a 20-year-old daughter who is an absolute expert and who is actually excited that I’m on this interview. So she kept me aware all along, and so yeah I saw them before I was contacted. And I also run a studio of 38 puppet makers and special effects people and every one of them are absolute Harry Potter die-hard fans so we had a lot of support, in fact, too many opinions! Universal was great ’cause they came out and visited us and then met my staff, and were like “Well, we’ve already found a nest of, you know, experts here”, so they really let us make early suggestions. Designs were done back and forth and we really wanted to adhere to the designs set forth in the movie, and then JK Rowling’s, her illustrations too were followed, that was our Bible.
AK: Did you work with any of the original design team like Framestore who created the original animated versions of the Three Brothers?
MC: We had to have approval through them, but nobody, I guess it was a compliment, we didn’t have their involvement because I don’t think they felt the need to. I wish I would have. We did want to meet them, but we didn’t. I suppose we would have heard from them if there was a problem.
AK: The puppets were pretty spot on to the animated tale in the films – did you make any change other than what you mentioned before about making them able to be seen during the day?
MC: The only changes we had to make is sometimes mechanically, joints, some things are impossibly thin in 2D, you know as in too small to get a mechanical reliable joint. So the changes we made were entirely about practicality, the same changes you have to make with puppetry. When you do something in film, you can do anything. With puppetry, you actually have to follow law of physics and gravity. So the changes for us were minute and mechanical and we made compensation through the dressings. Everything was covered with fabric. It was really quite fun. The fabric of these is as much fun as the sculpture and mechanics of these. We can often cover up the mechanical things we had to do with the nice overdressing and costuming.
AK: I’m assuming you also created the larger version of death that comes out of the huge box in the back.
AK: Did you do the mechanics for that as well? As you have a huge team of people working for you, I would assume you did.
MC: Yes, on that we had to come up with a piece that would extend and cantilever forward, so it’s a compound motion – we didn’t want it to just pop up like a horror house. It has a scissor lift that is a special scissor lift, one that has two motions. It rises and then as it rises, it curves forward, like a claw shape. Then the whole death character had to fold up in the tiny box, quite small, 3×4 feet. The shoulders, the head would have to collapse down, but that also added to its animation,. Because during the animation stroke, we could control so the shoulders are moving and the head is curling down so we took the function of the storage position, and we found out that it looked actually quite natural because if you were to take a character and fold it up in the small, you would curl it up in the fetal position and something about it emerging from that position is doubly creepy. We did everything, all the mechanics on that one.
AK: It’s so funny that you say it’s doubly creepy, the night show that I ended up seeing, there was a mother with a five year old child and he was not happy, he was scared, he was crying. I just thought wow, it just looked so real!
MC: [laughing] The guys had a special…I don’t let them do that much horror. We do really nice shows, beautiful operas. We’re all about beauty and lightness and positive, and my crew is filled with a bunch of people who love horror and actually I would not put Harry Potter in the realm of that, not gore, but they love it when I let them do things that are a little bit scary. Half of my work is Disney, frankly, and we never get to do that so we sort of went for it with this. That kid no doubt slept with his mother that night. [laughing]
AK: For the puppets in the boxes, I know the second brother has the love that he lost and she’s in a box, did you do all the boxes as well?
MC: No, we worked with their props team on that. We had mock up boxes here while we built and configured everything, but they did that. This came about…well I also do this anyway, when there is someone else who can do scenery I generally let them because we are so in demand for our puppetry characters. [to his daughter Eva] Hey Eva, I’m doing my Harry Potter interview! I have her on hand in case you ask me a question I don’t know, because I’ve referred so heavily to my team. I was telling you about how everybody down here is so good with that story, it’s as if I had a bunch of experts around, which I did.
AK: You said your daughter is obviously a fan of books and films, what was their reaction to the project. Did you tell them right away or did you sort of drag it out?
MC: No, we told them right away, they were excited. We have a very close knit company, we’re like a village. I think I told Eva and she squealed and someone overheard, and it kind of went through the shop like wildfire and it was…you know everybody was so glad and thanked me, like I had anything to do with it. I didn’t – they called me!
AK: Did your family get to see any of the work in the various stages prior to being debuted at the park?
MC: Yes, but my family has yet to see it at the park. We look forward to doing that. They were down last year, but it wasn’t yet open. They’ll come down. They see it at the studio all the time, and [to his daughter] Eva, you saw it all along. Eva worked with me this summer and was able to give every detail…every day, she was here so she saw their whole development.
AK: Lovely! Did she offer suggestions, knowing obviously what they looked like in the films?
MC: I’ll let her answer, she’s listening suddenly, do you mind?
AK: No, that’s fine!
MC: Eva come on, get in here! Did she offer suggestions? Yes she did. She made…the sort of continuity, it would be like in film they call it a continuity director to make sure they haven’t made any mistakes. You know, kind of like you make sure the dragon doesn’t have five toes instead of three. But no, she was really accurate about that. And fortunately, Universal was very good about supplying us with…any questions we had. And then there was a lot of verification process, back and forth, so we didn’t make any mistakes. Because when you do things that are so loved by fans like this, we know this from our Disney and Universal work both, the fans will get very upset if you miss protocol of things that are accurate. And accuracy of course is a huge issue there, and everything had to be approved by JK Rowling. They can’t afford to make mistakes, because the fans will just kill you, as you know. You would be leading the charge right?
AK: Exactly! The work that you do is absolutely amazing – I read in a previous interview that when you are working on a project, you usually are involved in the auditions. Did you audition the actors for Universal as well, and does that require a certain amount of flexibility in your vision of your pieces that you are working on as the actors may have a different take on it?
MC: In this case, no because they had already done a workshop. What they did…what I saw was the workshop – I was so impressed, I said “Are those your actors?” They didn’t yet know. We just chose everyone from that video. They had already done the casting. But this came from…many of the people had already operated the frog in the other show so they were kind of already good in front of the public. In this case no, but yeah the rehearsals or the auditions are really important when we do a really high level Broadway show. We’re literally knowing who is going to act the part before we design the piece. In the case of Lion King, you know having John Vickery, the voice of Scar, we design around them. In the life of this piece, they’ll have 50 puppeteers in and out of that show.
AK: If they were to create other shows based on Tales of Beedle the Bard, would you be up for creating more puppets?
MC: Yeah, of course. We would love to continue. I suspect, there is good momentum here, I think we’ll be doing more puppetry around the theme of Harry Potter, I’d like to do the Broadway show.
AK: There will be a show, she is currently writing that. That would be very interesting if you ended up doing that, although I think the Broadway show they are doing, I don’t think it’s magical. I don’t know what kind of puppets would be involved in that. I think it’s his [Harry’s] life before [magic].
MC: Yeah, they always think they don’t need puppets but it always happens that they do. [laughing] We just sit out here in St. Helens or Scappoose and wait!
As our interview wound to an end, Michael asked why we didn’t do this in person, at his studio. I was hoping he would ask just that question and then invite me on a tour, which he did. When we finally meet a week later, I’m nearly giddy. He walks me through his front office to his fabrication warehouse, pointing out the large corkboard on wheels where seven different projects are posted to it – a large bird for a German pop star, various Disney characters that I can’t mention because they are still a work in progress, and concept art for a few projects I am unfamiliar with. Directly in front of me sits a young woman with headphones on and a giant golden claw in her hand, which Michael explains belongs to the bird for the pop star.
He walks me over to the actual body of the bird, being tested by two men. “The bird will actually be above the stage, with a man inside. See the seat? He’ll operate the wings from inside while she rides the bird above the audience.” The two men working on the bird move the “wings” and “neck” of the frame, which is nothing but metal piping to the untrained eye. As we move past the bird, I see what my greedy eyes have been waiting for – a huge drawing of the first brother from Beedle’s tale that is taller than the artist himself.
Not only am I treated to that, but he then also hands me the body of one of the puppets, allowing me to feel how light the puppet actually is. “This is similar to what the actors use, minus the head, arms, and legs – those can be changed out if needed.” There is an oblong handle along the backside of the puppet, where the actors hold the puppet during the performance with one hand while operating the arms with the other. “They currently only have one set of brothers, but we’re in the process of making another,” he informs me later, showing me into the fabric workroom.
His team was at lunch, but you could see the multiple work spaces covered in various projects, including a large piece of glittering gold fabric. I ask if it’s for the pop star’s bird, and he nods. “We really like gold.” The detail on the fabric is so rich, giving the fabric more depth. I notice it appears to be painted and ask him about it. He confirms that the person working on this piece has hand-painted the detail so that it appears to be feathers rather than fabric. This section of his studio reminded me of Project Runway – tools and fabrics, sketches and paints, all to bring the vision of each project to life for the stage or screen.
Just when I think I have seen everything, and the tour is sure to be over, he directs me to the second level. We ascend the stairs to his personal office and then over to yet another meeting space. This is where I feel the creative vibe of the artist himself. A large rectangular knotted wooden table, as if made from a fallen tree, sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by even more storyboards and dioramas. A model of the Met theater with an elevated bridge-style ramp that rises from the stage floor sits behind us. Michael pushes it with his finger to show me how it will move. He is clearly more than the puppetry artist people believe him to be. We sit down at the table to chat a bit more, where he talks about various projects and looking toward the future of art within his community.
AK: Have you ever signed on for a project that didn’t work out the way you thought or turned out completely horrible?
MC: Yes. There was the Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark project. I have always had a good sense…. intuition on projects. I didn’t like the story, the songs… it didn’t work out. I left the project before that hit the stage. There was also a horse show in Germany. We came up with various ways to interact with the horses as the theme of the show. I don’t know what happened there. It was disappointing.
AK: I know that you do a lot in the community – there are various pieces around St. Helens and Scappoose, and you’ve had high school students come in to help in the studio. Is this something you will continue to do to encourage art in these communities?
MC: Absolutely. We have students come in as interns. Artists, welders, all sorts. There was one guy, a wrestler. I liked him. Maybe we’ll get another wrestler. [laughs] We also have a program for our employees – we provide paid sabbaticals for them to work on their portfolios, their shows. It’s not a vacation; it’s a way to have them focus on their vision, their work, to learn and grow.
AK: No other job I have heard of does that.
MC: No, it’s not very common. They have to work hard. It’s not play time. I want to see the results of the work.
We end our tour back in the front office, where I notice three familiar faces behind the counter – models of the three brothers. Since most of the work in Michael’s studio is still under wraps, I didn’t take any pictures, but I do ask him if I can take some of the brothers. He happily obliges, allowing me up close and then also showing me the model of the head of Death. As he does, I also see a few other faces similar to the brothers, which he doesn’t allow me to photograph since they are for another show currently being produced for Diagon Alley.
“They showed them briefly in the Diagon Alley special, but that was an error in editing since it wasn’t ready, yet. The Fountain of Fair Fortune is another show they will be doing in the future,” he says with a smile.
There are other projects in the works for Michael and his design team for various companies including Universal. Considering what they have done for Diagon Alley, I hope that we will continue to see future projects in the Harry Potter universe! Another project I am excited to mention that is up next for Michael is a new television series on TruTV. He will be starring alongside Glee‘s Harry Shum, Jr. and TLC singer Rozanda Thomas in Fake Off, which will “feature ten teams from around the country competing against each other in the captivating art of Faking, a mix of theater, acrobatics, black light and illusion. The teams will reimagine iconic moments in pop culture, as they face an impressive judging panel”. The series is set to debut on October 27, 2014. Check your local listings for showtimes!