5 Teamwork Takeaways from the Harry Potter Film Crew

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

Recently my family had the great privilege of visiting the Harry Potter set while the crew was filming the last two movies. I've visited film sets before, but this was a revelation. You'd be hard pressed to find a better example of teamwork anywhere. While the first film was shot largely on location, all the others have been shot at Leavesden Studios, a former Rolls Royce factory and airstrip just outside of London. It's a vast complex of enormous and hideous sheds masking a labyrinth of sets: the Great Hall, the Westminster toilets that lead to the Ministry of Magic, and a full-scale Privet Drive. When filming is completed, the lot will be turned into Harry Potter World, a theme park for dedicated aficionados. Those visitors will have a great time, but they'll miss the main action. Because between the sets and the scenery stores are the craft workshops where creatures, sculptures, props and prosthetics are made. And, for all the wonder of the books, this is where the real magic happens. We visited the sculpture workshop, which makes the Socialist Realist statues that characterize the anti-muggle fascism of the last book. Finer craftsmanship you wouldn't find in top art galleries. How, I asked the workshop head, do you train for work like this? Restoring cathedrals, stately homes and palaces in the "real world." As he showed us nearly ten years' of work on the Potter films -- all exquisite, detailed and utterly realistic -- his descriptions oozed pride. What did he love about working on the films? The opportunity to do work of such high quality.

We moved on to the creature workshop, where Buckbeak's feathers had been individually hand matched. We saw the creatures called thestrals -- real objects, not CGIs -- each one of whose eyelashes had been hand sanded to mimic perfectly the pointed eyelashes of horses. How does a hippogriff -- with taloned legs at the front and hooved legs at the back -- move? Months of work had gone into their design to ensure that their motions were plausible, because if they weren't, the story wouldn't hold. And again we saw fanatical perfectionism and professional pride in work well done.

My kids were awed by the wonder of it all, but what impressed me was that everywhere we went, we saw hundreds of people going out of their way to be helpful and polite to one another. A vast mixture of crafts, talents, backgrounds and experience -- some new to this film, some oldtimers -- put real energy into working well together. Gareth, the runner who showed us around, never failed to greet anyone who passed us, always helped where he could, always thanked anyone who helped us. Every person we met made us feel welcome and was eager to show off their work. The place was positively bursting with pride and professionalism.

We saw a few stars, but (with all due respect) it wasn't they who impressed me most. The construction workers, scene painters, runners, prop makers, sculptors and assistants were, for me, the stars of the show.

What's especially striking about this is that a year from now, it will all be gone: all those craftspeople will have dispersed to other jobs, the cast and crew to other films. Nor is this the work of one great leader; the films have had a string of different directors. What I saw wasn't a culture developed over decades but over days. So what makes it work?

  1. Everyone loves their job. Maybe not every part of it -- all jobs have their dreary parts. But they're doing work that they've chosen out of love; it offers too little insecurity and (in most cases) too little pay to be selected for any other reason.
  2. Everyone has the opportunity, even encouragement, to do their best work. In part, that's because the budgets are big enough to pay for excellence. But excellence breeds excellence, and I was struck by the degree to which people are trying to outdo themselves.
  3. A certain degree of rivalry doesn't hurt. The analog designers -- those who build models -- often compete with CGI designers, whose creations are more flexible but less realistic. It's often up to the director to choose which creature "wins," and sometimes the finished product uses both.
  4. Industry loyalty runs deep. The film industry depends entirely on casual labor. So everyone counts on everyone else for work, referrals and references. Being well thought of is how you stay in work. Contrary to popular mythology, I've never witnessed the level of sheer politeness I've seen in the movie business.
  5. Success breeds success. Of course it helps that the movies have been so successful. But that wasn't a given; most other children's series haven't been filmed in full because the movies just didn't come out strong enough. Narnia, Lemony Snicket, and His Dark Materials all petered out. Many attribute the atmosphere of excellence to J.K.Rowling who, at the outset, was determined that her imaginary world shouldn't be compromised. High standards breed high standards.
It's easy to write this all off as the Harry Potter effect: of course it's great because everybody loves HP. But there's nothing inevitable about the success of the films or the professionalism of the production. It left me wondering: if a business like this -- where short-term contracts, leadership changes and chronic insecurity are endemic -- can inspire such teamwork, why can't every business?
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.