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Universal Creative tweaked the magical formula it used to create Hollywood's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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Universal Creative tweaked the magical formula it used to create Hollywood's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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Given that there are already Wizarding Worlds in Orlando & Osaka, why should Harry Potter fans now travel to Hollywood to experience the third theme park incarnation of that magical realm which J.K. Rowling dreamed up?

Because -- as Professor Flitwick (who teaches the Charms class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) might say -- the third time's the charm. Universal Creative took all of the lessons that they learned while creating the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter for Universal's Islands of Adventure (not to mention all of the tweaks and refinements that were made for the versions of Hogwarts Castle & Hogsmeade which were conjured up for Universal Studios Japan back in July of 2014). The end result is that Universal Studios Hollywood's version of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (which officially opened to the public earlier this morning) may be the most immersive, hyper-detailed theme park environment ever created.

You see, even though the two earlier versions of The Wizarding World have been hugely popular with theme park goers all over the globe, given that this one was being built in Hollywood (i.e., the movie-making magic capital of the world), Universal Creative really felt that they had to step up their game. So this time around, no detail was too small to reconsider or revisit. Take -- for example -- the faux snow that covers the rooftops of Hogsmeade Village.


Photo by Jim Hill

"Since we built the first Wizarding World in Orlando, some of our production & design techniques have been richly enhanced. Which is why we decided to change the way that the snow sits of the roofs out here in Hollywood. We wanted things to look as real as they possibly could in this version of Hogsmeade. Which is why we even changed the way we formed the icicles that hang down from so many of the village's rooftops and window sills," said Stuart Craig, the production designer of all the "Harry Potter" films. Who -- at J.K. Rowling's personal request -- worked with Universal Creative to translate the characters & settings from the 7 "Potter" books & 8 motion pictures into one truly immersive theme park experience.

Mind you, one of the main reasons that the Universal Creative revisited many of the design choices that they'd made with the Orlando & Osaka versions of the Wizarding World was Southern California's strong sunlight. The very sunlight that convinced motion picture pioneer Carl Laemmle that 230 acres of ranchland high up in the Hollywood Hills would be the perfect spot to build a silent film studio -- one Universal City -- back in 1915. But as far as Alan Gilmore (i.e., the supervising art director for the "Harry Potter" films as well as all four of the Wizarding Worlds that have been built to date) is concerned, that super-strong sunlight was both a blessing and a curse.

"The quality of light here in Southern California is amazing. It's so vivid. It almost feels like hi-def when you look at objects here. Which is why -- as we were designing the Wizarding World for Universal Studios Hollywood -- we knew that we had to take the almost unforgiving quality of that sunlight into account. Which is why we enhanced a lot of the colors & the textures that we used on the West Coast version of Hogwarts Castle & Hogsmeade. So that they'd then look as good as they should in this particular setting," said Alan.


Photo by Jim Hill

Of course, there were some advantages to being able to build The Wizarding World of Harry Potter on the Upper Lot at Universal Studios Hollywood. Chief among them being that Hogwarts Castle was now surrounded by the Hollywood Hills, which could then stand in for the Scottish Highlands. Which -- to hear J.K. Rowling tell the tale -- is where  Harry Potter's alma mater has been hidden away from the prying eyes of Muggles.

"Back in the Fall of 2010 when we first began designing this version of the Wizarding World back in London, we built models of the whole terrain in & around Universal Studios Hollywood. We built both computer models and physical models just so we could then determine the best possible positioning for Hogwarts Castle," Gilmore continued. "We actually designed views to take advantage of the way this version of the castle would sit up in the Hollywood Hills. Take -- for example -- when the queue for 'Forbidden Journey' passes through the space where Madam Sprout teaches her Herbology classes. As guests move through those greenhouses at the back of the castle, they're going to get this lovely view of the nearby mountain tops."

And speaking of things to view ... Those who have previously experienced the original 2D version of "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" will be in for something of a shock once they climb aboard one of Universal Hollywood's flying benches. For -- as Thierry Coup (i.e., the SVP of Universal Creative) explains -- they actually went back into that ride film (which was shot in 2008, right after production of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" had wrapped) and added a lot of brand-new 3D elements.


Photo by Jim Hill

"Take -- for example -- the first flying scene over Hogwarts Castle. Thanks to 3D-HD, we were able to go back into that ride film and make it seem as though that dragon was now getting much, much closer to the guests. Even closer than we had him before," Thierry enthused. "And we did the same thing with the snitch in the quidditch match. Also the dementors. Thanks to the way we've used 3D to enhance this ride film, the dementors now get right up in your face and you can feel their breath."

And to make sure that this new hyper-realistic 3D-HD version of the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride film fits in seamlessly with the rest of this attraction, Universal Creative has gone through and added more sets, scenery & detailing to Hogwarts Castle. With the end result being that the USH's version of this dark ride is now the most immersive version of "Forbidden Journey" on the planet.

"We had gotten such a positive response from all of the guests who rode this attraction in Orlando & Osaka that -- when it came to Hollywood -- we wanted to try and raise the bar one more time. Which is why -- as you've been on this attraction before and are now riding your flying bench through USH's version of the Forbidden Forest -- you'll notice that we've expanded that forest. Likewise the Chamber of Secrets. We added a lot more sets to that section of  the attraction as well," Coup continued. "A lot of theme park fans already thought that 'Forbidden Journey' was one of the best dark rides out there. With the changes that we made to the Hollywood version of this attraction, we were hoping that we could turn it into the ultimate immersive experience."


Photo by Jim Hill

And the plussing continued in other parts of Hogwarts Castle. To make sure that this was the most authentic version of the Wizarding World produced to date, Universal Creative -- working with their partners at Warner Bros. -- has placed props that were used in the production of the eight "Harry Potter" films in various spots around this enormous show building.

"Take -- for example -- in the Dark Arts class in Hogwarts, we have the actual desks from that set. And the chalkboard in there is the original chalkboard as well," Gilmore said. "What's really great is that Universal Creative's prop team has made props of such high quality is that they blend seamlessly with the film props. So it's all one seamless place really."

But -- of course -- because this is the version of The Wizarding World that was being built at Universal Hollywood ... Well, since so many movie-making professionals would soon be coming by this theme park to see what all the fuss was about, it was absolutely crucial that that the various film tricks which Universal Creative used during the construction of this newest "Harry Potter" land be right on the money.


Photo by Jim Hill

"That's why I just love the view the people get just as they come through the gates at Hogsmeade Village. We were able to do something in Hollywood that we just weren't able to do in Orlando or Osaka. Which was position Hogwarts Castle in such a way that it actually looms up behind the village," Thierry said. "Thanks to the brilliance of Stuart and Alan -- plus a few classic film tricks like forced perspective -- we were able to make Hogwarts Castle look as though it were 700 feet tall. That was our goal going into this project. And we've achieved it. It feels ... Well, magical."

And just so you know: This may not be the last time that Universal Creative refines its take on the Wizarding World. In the concept art that was released last February for Universal Studios Beijing, "Harry Potter" fans couldn't help but notice that this 1000-acre / $3.3 project featured yet another version of Hogsmeade & Hogwarts Castle.

So how will the mainland China iteration of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter differ from the Orlando, Osaka and Hollywood versions? Well, short of taking Professor Trelawney's divinations class, I guess that we'll all just have to wait 'til 2019. Which is when the Universal Studios Beijing theme park and resort is supposed to open in the Tongzhou district to the east of China's capital.

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on April 7, 2016

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