Exclusive Interview: “Harry Potter” Art Director Gary Tomkins Wins BFDG Production Design Award

Congratulations are in order in the Harry Potter fandom! Art director Gary Tomkins has received the British Film Designers Guild’s Outstanding Contribution to the Art Department award in recognition of a magnificent career in making movie magic. He has given us viewers unforgettable visual experiences in some of the most significant and successful blockbusters of the past few decades. In celebration of this achievement, we interviewed him, the man who built Hogwarts, the Burrow, Shell Cottage, and many more enchanting sets.

 

Fleur and Bill are in the kitchen of Shell Cottage on a cloudy day as seen in Deathly Hallows.

Shell Cottage combined building a life-size set and filming on location.

 

Gary Tomkins’s impressive filmography includes a wide variety of genres, from sci-fi (The Fifth Element, starring Gary Oldman) to period dramas (War Horse, starring David Thewlis). After being a draftsman on Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, he worked on all eight Harry Potter movies as an art director. After a trip back to a galaxy far, far away, he returned to wizardry for Fantastic Beasts 3. His career has taken him to various imaginary lands as well as fabulous filming locations:

There have been so many great moments over the years, on projects taking me from the [j]ungles of Costa Rica on ‘1492[: Conquest of Paradise]’ to the searing heat of the Abu Dhabi desert on ‘Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.’ Not to mention the oh so glamourous location shoots with Madonna at Peckham Public Baths (‘Shanghai Surprise’) and with Tom Cruise at an Essex [s]ewage works (‘Edge of Tomorrow’)!

Having worked on all the movies, the upcoming Fantastic Beasts film, and three theme parks, Tomkins keeps the Harry Potter franchise very close at heart. The iconic fan pilgrimage site of the Hogwarts miniature, on display at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter, is also his creation. “There’s a wealth of detail on the model [that] goes unnoticed by most visitors,” he shared about the stunning castle model that goes back to the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

When we built it on [Sorcerer’s Stone], JKR [J.K. Rowling, author] hadn’t written all of the books, of course, so when the later books and scripts required something specific within Hogwarts, we had to change it accordingly. If questioned, we just said, ‘it’s magic’!

 

 

 

The art department, including the art director, works on designs by the production designer (Stuart Craig on the Harry Potter movies). All of their work is based on the screenplays, which sometimes leave space for creativity that affects the final film in return, such as in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2:

Stuart and I worked out a way to increase the jeopardy of the chase with Harry and Voldemort through the roof space by having hanging walkways. These then would fall and create a more exciting scene. The script didn’t go into very much detail about the scene originally, but as the set developed, so did the script once David Yates was on board with the idea, again through seeing an [a]rt dept white card model that we built.

Tomkins and storyboard artist Nick Pelham previously also discussed the colorful work of an art department in a forum with BFDG last year. Fan artists out there, definitely give this a watch.

 

 

 

There is more magic in store. Tomkins confirmed that he has finished working on Fantastic Beasts 3, which will be released sometime next year. We can’t wait to see more of the wizarding world as created by this outstanding artist. Scroll down to read our full interview, in which Tomkins talks about his field and artistry in more detail and reveals his favorite sets as well as his Hogwarts House.

Full Transcript with Gary Tomkins, Friday, May 28, 2021

For our readers who are not familiar with the term, in a sentence or two, could you please describe what an art director does?

An [a]rt [d]irector on a film is the person who is responsible for taking the [p]roduction [d]esigner’s ideas, sketches and concept art for a set and transforming them into working drawings (like an architect). [T]he [a]rt director would then supervise the construction of the set to the satisfaction of the [d]esigner and [d]irector and hand it over for the shoot. I was lucky enough to have worked on all 8 Potter films with the brilliant Stuart Craig as [p]roduction [d]esigner.

You have worked as a draftsman, assistant art director, and art director on a wide range of genres over the course of your career. Do you enjoy any one of them in particular? Is fantasy a favorite of yours? Is there a genre that you have not had the chance to explore professionally but would like to?

Every one of the grades in the [a]rt [d]ept builds on the one below it, so being an [a]rt [d]irector encompasses the work done in the roles you mention. I really enjoy drawing the sets, which is something built on from being a [d]raughtsman, but as an [a]rt [d]irector, I get to do that along with the added responsibility of spending time on set talking to the construction crew and often talking to the [d]irector along with the [d]esigner. I’ve been very lucky to work on virtually every genre of film over the years, Period, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Contemporary. Each has its own challenges, but I particularly like researching different periods and ensuring accuracy in designing and building sets. The wonderful thing about the Potter films is that Stuart Craig successfully combines realism with fantasy, allowing the audience to believe that the most incredible sets are real.

Hogwarts Castle, the Burrow, Shell Cottage, and a host of other iconic locations in the wizarding world would look very different without you. Is there a particular set that is your favorite one, and if so, why, and maybe can you tell us a fond memory about that set?

All of the sets in Potter owe their look to Stuart Craig; as an [a]rt [d]irector, I simply develop them under his expert eye! Having said that, Hogwarts Castle has to be my favourite part of my time on the [e]ight films. As well as various full-sized sets, I looked after the miniature Hogwarts, (now on display at the WB Tour Leavesden), which developed and changed over the films due to script requirements. When we built it on [Sorcerer's Stone], JKR hadn’t written all of the books, of course, so when the later books and scripts required something specific within Hogwarts, we had to change it accordingly. If questioned, we just said, “it’s magic”! I’m also very fond of The Burrow. We built a 1/3 scale model which matched the full-sized set in every detail….and then we burned it down!

You went from building cardboard castles as a child to, well, building a cardboard castle on Potter as one of your first tasks. Are there other moments that you can tell us about, achievements in your career that you considered milestones or bookends, so to speak?

It was in fact a cardboard Castle I built on my first film job, “Krull”, and then years later built a card model of Hogwarts!

There have been so many great moments over the years, on projects taking me from the [j]ungles of Costa Rica on “1492[: Conquest of Paradise]” to the searing heat of the Abu Dhabi desert on “Star Wars-The Force Awakens”. Not to mention the oh so glamourous location shoots with Madonna at Peckham Public Baths (“Shanghai Surprise”) and with Tom Cruise at an Essex [s]ewage works (“Edge of Tomorrow”)!

You must do a tremendous amount of research for your projects. Can you switch off on your days off, or do you find you are constantly taking reference pictures of, say, a cool architectural element or a nice candelabra in the street? Did you ever find inspiration in a surprising place?

I never switch off! There will always be a lovely piece of architecture to look at in an unfamiliar place. I was on holiday once just before developing the Hogsmeade village miniature so I photographed a lot of cottages and shopfronts which came in very handy. Similarly, I can’t walk around somewhere like Oxford without looking at the colleges and thinking about how they could be incorporated into Hogwarts['s] details. Fortunately these days we all have a camera in our pockets so it’s become a lot easier!

Even in the years between Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Deathly Hallows - Part 2, technology in filmmaking evolved lightyears. How much has this affected the way you work? Do you adapt to new techniques, or do you prefer to keep doing what is tried and tested?

It’s a combination. We embrace the best of new technology while not forgetting the best of the old techniques. VR walkthroughs on a 3D digital model are great, but there’s no substitute for a good white card model to stand around with the Director. In the same way, it's possible to use great VFX [g]reen screen backings on a set, but using a large scenic painted backing is still very often used and looks brilliant, with no post-production costs.

A follow-up question to the previous one: What advice would you give to aspiring artists out there as regards traditional artwork vs. CGI or digital work? Is it still possible to make it in the industry if someone prefers traditional techniques rather than being really tech-savvy with digital art? For example, in a discussion with BFDG last year, you emphasized the importance of making the scale models and the life-size models out of the same or similar materials; do you think this process is here to stay, or will the next generation of art directors use 3D printers to create their miniatures?

As above, it’s best for anyone joining the industry to have a broad range of skills, both traditional and new. Pencil draughting, hand sketching and card model making are just as important as digital draughting skills, Photoshop and tech skills. 3D printers are being increasingly used to supplement card models for fine details but they wouldn’t yet be suitable to print an entire model.

Let's talk about the absolutely amazing Shell Cottage set. It is the site of a rather emotional part of the Harry Potter series. In essence, you were not simply building a cottage but building a moment. Can you tell me how you and presumably Stuart Craig and David Yates arrived at the conclusion that it had to be a life-size set on location?

From the very earliest discussions it was decided to build Shell cottage on location, (Freshwater Bay in Pembrokeshire, Wales). Stuart has often replied to the question, “do you prefer building a set or going on location?”, with, “building a set on location”! This meant we could design and build something from Stuart’s, (and Jo’s), wonderful imagination combined with the beautiful natural surroundings of the coastline there. The position of the cottage on the shore and the position of the grave were all carefully worked out from location scout photos from which concept art was prepared to show what we had in mind. It was a shame we didn’t see more of the set in the final film, there was even a partial interior which was never seen.

Has there ever been a time when the art department influenced the director's vision or the film, such as a cleverly designed bit of a set that was too good to only appear for two seconds in the background of a scene? What is the extent to which you as the art director can shape the vision that may not have originally been there in the script?

An example of that was the Hogwarts Battlements set in HP8. Stuart and I worked out a way to increase the jeopardy of the chase with Harry and Voldemort through the roof space by having hanging walkways. These then would fall and create a more exciting scene. The script didn’t go into very much detail about the scene originally, but as the set developed, so did the script once David Yates was on board with the idea, again through seeing an [a]rt dept white card model that we built.

How did your work on Harry Potter, if in any way, change with different directors coming on board?

From an [a]rt [d]irector's point of view, not much changed in the way we worked. What did change was the way the different directors approached the movies and brought their own take on the sets and characters. In particular, Alfonso [Cuarón] on [Prisoner of Azkaban] took us on a bit of a darker turn than previous directors and created a great film as a result.

In the case of Harry Potter, an elaborate book series was adapted into screenplays that fit reasonable movie running times. This must have meant you were primarily working from the script, not the books. But did you get to leave in a few Easter eggs for avid book fans that were not necessarily in the script?

Is there anything you made that, unfortunately, didn't end up in the final cut? We primarily worked from the scripts, but I know Stuart also read the books, (and had meetings with JKR), to ensure all important details were put in where they might be important for future films. I can’t remember any Easter Eggs!

You have also worked on films that had no point of reference, really, either in books or in real life, such as the futuristic world of The Fifth Element. Is it harder to come up with something that doesn't exist yet, or is it easier because you don't have to be restricted, in a sense, when you work on an adaptation or a period drama?

That’s a good question! I think if the [p]roduction [d]esigner is good, it's not too hard to come up with a world that doesn’t exist once the basic “look” and the vocabulary of the architecture is established, which the whole team can follow. Even on something like Star Wars, there is an established aesthetic that runs through all of the films, where the look of a speeder[']s engine can be directly traced to a part of an old scrap aero engine, or an Imperial parade ground is influenced by Brutalist architecture.

What's next for you? What are you working on at the moment, if you can say?

I’ve recently completed work on Fantastic Beasts 3, which was a nice return to the Wizarding [W]orld after being in a [g]alaxy [f]ar, [f]ar away for a few years!

Can you give us a hint about what to look for, a set or visuals that you are excited for the audience to see when the movie is released?

I’m afraid I can’t say anything about the film except that I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The sets, as ever, are magnificent!

I have to say, when the Burrow burned down (which was unexpected, because it's a diversion from the books), I remember I gasped out loud in the movie theater. But it was a chilling scene to watch. This and the way you spoke about the duality of traditional and digital art make me wonder what happens if there's a disaster in the art department. Do you have digital records of hand-built miniatures, just in case? Or is this something that is only warranted in specific cases, such as when the VR version of Hogwarts was required for those amazing continuous shots in Deathly Hallows - Part 2?

Whenever we produce anything in the [a]rt [d]ept, from concept ar [to] technical drawings or graphics, we always store them on a remote server. we also photograph card models which are uploaded too, so if anything happened to the physical Art Dept we would have records.

When a shooting miniature is built we might lira scan it for VFX when it’s complete so they can incorporate model elements within a more complex CGI shot.

Hogwarts Castle itself was scanned at the end of HP6 so that a, (changed), CGI version was used in the final films for the destruction scenes. 

I'm also curious about the Hogwarts scale model on display at the Studio Tour. (You're right, luckily, you were free to change it around because Hogwarts is temperamental in the canonical story and prone to change itself.) Can you tell us about a detail that not many visitors would notice at first sight, something we miss when watching the movies?

There’s a wealth of detail on the model [that] goes unnoticed by most visitors. Look for the tiny chimney pipe exiting the window go the Gryffindor boys Dormitory, matching the pipe and window seen earlier in the tour on the full-sized set.

There’s a huge amount of detail in the top of the Astronomy Tower, all of which was matched to the dressing in the full-sized set we built. Cabinets filled with tiny props, telescopes, packing crates, and even minute carved cherubs on the ends of stone corbels! This can only be seen with a pair of binoculars or a very long zoom lens!

In the base of the [o]wlery, there’s a surprise for anyone [who] gets to look inside: A pile of fake Owl droppings lovingly recreated in miniature! One of my most unusual tasks on that film was to go to the Animals enclosure and photograph Owl poo to ensure accuracy!

Fans of these massive blockbuster franchises in your résumé recognize the cast but not necessarily the crew who brought to life their beloved fictional worlds. What does it feel like to walk around in a world full of Star Wars toys and Harry Potter merchandise, which you helped create?

It’s lovely to have been a part of two such successful and well-loved franchises, both of which have a huge and enthusiastic fan following. It’s often only after we’ve completed a production and been away from it for a while that the realisation of what a huge impact it has becomes apparent. Although we’re not recognised as much as the cast, it’s the designs that we in the [a]rt [d]ept help to produce that end up as toys and [LEGO] sets! (And yes, I do have a few Lego items that began life as a Designer's sketch on my drawing board!).

"Building on location" is the dream! So here's a concept: Your new house is a life-size version of any of the locations that you worked on, either in Harry Potter or Star Wars or any other film in your career. Where do you live?

I think it’d be hard to beat the beach location of Shell cottage. It was lovely set inside and out with the unique quality of being built from oversized seashells with unusual triangular windows and a quirky interior that’d be great fun to live in!

And I cannot let you go without this: What is your Hogwarts House?

Hufflepuff!

It's Hufflepuff? That's wonderful! In that case, may I just have one more question? (I believe fan artists are especially curious about this.) Although we never get to visit the Hufflepuff common room, have you ever sketched or modeled it in your spare time or even just mused about its interior design?

Haha! No, I’m afraid I haven’t thought about what the Hufflepuff [c]ommon [r]oom might look like, but I imagine its [H]ouse colours of yellow and black could form the basis of an interesting design scheme.

That's wonderful. I, for one, would love to see it one day, perhaps if the theme parks expand at some point in the future - never say never!

 

Want more posts like this one? MuggleNet is 99% volunteer-run, and we need your help. With your monthly pledge of $1, you can interact with creators, suggest ideas for future posts, and enter exclusive swag giveaways!

Support us on Patreon

Dora Bodrogi

I am a writer, a critic, a researcher, a traveler, and a Ravenclaw through and through. My main fields of interest are representation, gender, and LGBTQ fiction, history, and censorship. Incorrigible doodler and theatre kid.

Welcome to MuggleNet!

 

Would you like to join our mailing list?