Production Designer Michael Curry Talks Diagon Alley’s “Tale of the Three Brothers”
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:
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!