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There may not be a more iconic Harry Potter creation than Quidditch. From the moment the sport was introduced in J.K. Rowling’s first book, it emerged as a phenomenon among fans — and a daunting challenge to adapt for filmmakers for the Sorcerer’s Stone‘s most do-or-die scene. Here’s the full history of how Quidditch first went from page to screen, from the people who made it happen.
Mounting one of the most ambitious parts of Harry Potter took a lot of work and ingenuity.
CHRIS COLUMBUS (director): The most intense pressure I had as a filmmaker was trying to figure out how Quidditch worked. We had to approach it as if the audience was watching an NFL game for the first time. The rules needed to be absolutely clear. [Screenwriter] Steve [Kloves], myself, and Jo [Rowling] came up with rules that I don’t think were even in the book. By the time we got through those meetings, we all understood the game. We brought that knowledge to our production designer, Stuart Craig, who then designed the look of the game and the feel of the game.
STUART CRAIG (production designer): We built concessions and stands…the hoops, the big set pieces…to be shown against green screen. JK Rowling’s own vague descriptions are very informative, very detailed. She tells you in the book, in which direction, one of the things she gave and describes are the rules is Quidditch and its structure. We took her instructions.
ROBERT LEGATO (visual effects supervisor): [Visual effects] was not what it is today. I created a beat sheet of the beginning, middle, and end of the Quidditch match. We had to figure out how to shoot it. What’s in the frame? How is the camera moving? What portions are going to be the live actors, and what portions are going to be the VE representation of the live actors?
EDDY JOSEPH (supervising sound editor): We thought of it as a Roman amphitheater: the gladiators and animals going to eat each other, the kids marching in trepidation but head held high, walking into the lion’s den. We tried to create the feeling, as Chris said, like you’re at the Rose Bowl. It’s almost like leading lambs to the slaughter, where the good win in the end — we had to build up to it.
COLUMBUS: The biggest challenge was making these characters look like they were flying a broomstick. That could potentially come off as silly! With all due respect to Margaret Hamilton and the Wicked Witch of the West [from The Wizard of Oz], we didn’t want it to look like that.
JOSEPH: And we didn’t want it to sound too buzzy or electronic. The brooms themselves wouldn’t have anything like motors. It should be like the air going through the twigs that constructed the broom.
COLUMBUS: It was important that Quidditch felt dangerous, that it felt fast, and that — for lack of a better word — it felt cool. You wanted every kid who saw the movie to say, “That would be my favorite sport, if I could play any sport.” My dream would be to get the feeling we get at the Warner Bros. theme ride we have at Universal Studios, where you’re actually on a broomstick with Harry. I would’ve loved to have been able to do that in the year 2000.
JOSEPH: We conceived the three balls as having individual sounds: The Quaffle, we felt, was like a ball within a ball — there was movement in it, but you barely heard it; a reverberant space. My sound designer Martin Cantwell thought it was a great idea to record his voice for the Bludger; that weird little nasty sound — the thought of it like the Tasmanian Devil — was him. When it came to the Golden Snitch, that was very much [meant to be] like a beautiful hummingbird.
CRAIG: The design of the Bludger was a real challenge. It [required] quite a close examination of detail, with the reinforcing steel banging.
COLUMBUS: At its height of intensity, we had three Quidditch stages going. I would hop back and forth. It was motion control, so it took a specific amount of time to set up each Quidditch stop. I’d bounce back and forth between the major stage and the three Quidditch stages that the crew had shot. It was madness to see.
We see the game from Harry’s perspective — and, in the background, catch Snape mouthing what looks like a spell, with Hermione suspicious of him sabotaging Harry. (In reality, the culprit is Professor Quirrell.)
COLUMBUS: The ceremony of the opening of the match — that was really important to me, as a filmmaker, to make sure we’re seeing that for the first time through Harry’s eyes. I wanted to take the audience by the hand and bring them into the match — so they felt like not only did they understand the game, but like they were playing the game.
OLIVER PHELPS (George Weasley): When we first started, the Quidditch scenes were very much [filmed] on a tiny little bike seat on a broomstick, and there could only be one person at a time…. It took quite a while to get it right because they wanted to do it in a certain way to match up with the background stuff they’d already filmed.
CRAIG: The spectators needed to be up in the air with the play to fully appreciate it. It’s a very distinctive look of tall square towers… The spectators [were watching the game all around them. That was interesting and exciting move to execute. Bringing the spectators up in the air with the players.
LEGATO: If you just saw the foreground, it would be incomprehensible. [Actors] are standing still, we have a fan on [them]; but in the shot, it looks like [they’re] traveling 50 miles an hour, swooping and doing all kinds of stuff. We had to know how we were going to shoot the live portrait. We tried to do it the best we could, and relied as much on real people…to intermix it with the VE, to kind of confuse the eye. [Even now], I don’t really know what’s real and what’s not.
JOSEPH: For sound, it was difficult [because it was] quite late into the final mix before we really saw what was going on. They kept adding in extra players flying around!
LEGATO: We missed our deadline because we had to shoot the story of the movie. You might get three shots a day, because you’re programming motion control rings, and motion control broomstick rings, and things like that…. It’s the way we had to [do it] because of the scheduling. The kids could work for three hours a day. That’s all you can get them for. Every day [took] longer than the normal, original schedule.
JOSEPH: We didn’t get the final visuals until a relatively short time before it was released.
LEGATO: I think we were supposed to finish somewhere in February or March, to shoot the Quidditch match. We couldn’t shoot the Quidditch match until June, and the movie had to come out in October. In the middle of that, I made up the time by creating these strict previsits, [and] the kids floated in. It’s like a three-dimensional chess game. When you put the mosaic back together again, it makes some sort of filmic sense.
JOSEPH: [In terms of] narrative, we didn’t want to hear Snape; we didn’t feel that was right. We’re trying to keep the game going on, in sound terms. I’m one of those believers that you’ve got to be very careful with having too much going on outside the frame. It’s why although the game is going on, it’s not loud — even though it probably would be. If there was a cheer, we’d have you look to where the cheer was. We wanted to use sound to concentrate on Harry having a problem and Snape doing something. Those parts of the scene are being isolated.
COLUMBUS: Jo was very specific about those words [Snape was mouthing]. She wrote those for him — always thorough.
Harry wins for Gryffindor by catching the Golden Snitch…in his mouth.
CRAIG: It was a difficult concept, really, nothing quite like it. [I remember] the relief when it all came together!
COLUMBUS: I do remember reading [the ending] and laughing out loud. I thought it was so completely unexpected — and typical J.K. Rowling. She takes us to a place where we’re always surprised. I was obsessed with ending the scene as written.
JOSEPH: We never actually see the Snitch go into his mouth. We worried about it, but hoped by the time that he spat it out that people would think he hadn’t swallowed it. We couldn’t create a sound of him doing that, because that wouldn’t have worked either, I don’t think. So it was a little bit of a cheat. [Laughs]
COLUMBUS: Ninety-five percent of the kids who were going to see this movie knew it had to end that way. I had to listen to those voices.
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