Pierre Bohanna: the master craftsman of the dark arts

Prop-maker Bohanna estimates thousands of wands were made during the Harry Potter films

Eddie Redmayne refused animal hair as a component for Newt’s wand: he was “insistent there would be no leather or horn involved. Newt wouldn’t stand for that.

Eddie Redmayne refused animal hair as a component for Newt’s wand: he was “insistent there would be no leather or horn involved. Newt wouldn’t stand for that.

 

You don’t have to have watched all that many films to be familiar with the work of Pierre Bohanna. As long as you’ve managed to catch Titanic, any of the Harry Potter movies, Beauty and the Beast, or Ready Player One, you’ll have seen evidence of the prop master’s craft. Bohanna ran the bat suit shop for The Dark Knight and sculpted boats for James Bond in The World is Not Enough, but it’s his work as a Harry Potter wandsmith that he gets asked about the most.

Since his bow as “the real life Ollivander” - or “supervising modeler” as it says on the credits - on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, he estimates he and his team have made tens of thousands of wands. Daniel Radcliffe, alone, went through 70 wands during the making of the Harry Potter films.

“It’s well into four or five digits,” says Bohanna. “It’s important to note that I represent a team of people. It’s not just me. It’s a lot of work for a lot of people. Deathly Hallows, for example, has a lot of battle scenes, involves a lot of wands, and that very quickly gets into the thousands.”

Pierre Bohanna has a history of making things. Photograph: Travis Hodges
Pierre Bohanna has a history of making things. Photograph: Travis Hodges

Throughout the Potter books, JK Rowling includes detailed descriptions of various character wands: Harry’s is 11 inches long and made from holly and phoenix feather core; Dumbledore’s Elder Wand is 15 inches of wood and Thestral tail-hair; Bellatrix Lestrange’s wand is made from walnut, and dragon heartstring. None of the canon, however, actually indicates what dragon heartstring or unicorn hair core might look like.

“That’s right,” says Bohanna. “With the Potter films it’s true that the wands are described in the books, but they’re not visually described. With Grindelwald, you’re starting from scratch: you have to think about what’s special about the character and what kind of choices they might make in order to come up with something bespoke for them. It’s the same intensity in the design process for every wand.”

It’s complicated. The wands require input from various departments, including a wand choreographer, the SFX team, and, occasionally, from the actor. For the Grindelwald films, Bohanna suggested that Newt Scamander’s wand include an “animal component”, such as Fawkes’s phoenix features, as found in both Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s wand, but Redmayne refused: he was “insistent there would be no leather or horn involved. Newt wouldn’t stand for that. Which definitely ruled out anything macabre like bone.”

 Unboxing Harry Potter wands videos remain hugely popular on YouTube: one video featuring “almost all wands” has been viewed more than 1.5 million times

“There’s always a lot of crossover and a lot of collaboration between different departments and people,” says Bohanna. “Many hands tend to fall onto one object. That’s all part of the work. At the end of the day, we’re all after the same thing. When people see the film they shouldn’t be thinking who did what. They should just be thinking about how wonderful it is and how good the film is, That’s the biggest compliment that you can get for your work. When people don’t think about your work.”

Wands are a big deal in the Potterverse. Obviously, they’re important to the characters; Lucius Malfoy is reluctant to hand over his wand even when his dark master, Lord Voldemort commands it. They’re equally important to the fans. A Chinese-made entry level wand purchased at the official Harry Potter shop online will set the buyer back  - or the buyer’s parents back - €35. Thriftier shoppers can expect to pay €33.43 euro on Amazon.

 Unboxing Harry Potter wands videos remain hugely popular on YouTube: one 2016 compilation video featuring “almost all wands” has been viewed more than 1.5 million times. There are even gigantic versions: five-metre replicas of the wands used in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were first displayed in London to coincide with the film’s theatrical release. This year, Dublin has been selected as a potential host for the Wizarding World wands exhibition tour, subject to an online vote.

“It’s Harry Potter so the replication is of a good standard,” says the prop-maker. “It’s a bit surreal seeing them at that size.”

Aspiring prop-makers should note that Bohanna has a history of making things. He served apprenticeships making cars and boats before he started making models and tabletop effects for television commercials. In 1989, he began working for the satirical puppet show, Spitting Image.

“It was great fun,” he recalls. “It was incredibly creative. There was great team and a great combination of fun visual stuff and great writing. They were always happy to take a risk. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But that made for great TV overall.”

By the time Bohanna signed on for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2000, he had already completed work on what was then the biggest film of all time.

Edge of Tomorrow was Bohanna’s biggest challenge to date. Photograph: Warner Bros productions
Edge of Tomorrow was Bohanna’s biggest challenge to date. Photograph: Warner Bros productions

“For Titanic, we set up a department in the UK and did a lot of work that basically got shipped out to Mexico where they were filming,: he says. “We made a lot of light fittings, radiators, pieces for the ship’s bridge, the comms systems. There were a lot of fittings and details that you couldn’t find anywhere else; they had to be moulded.”

His most challenging piece to date, was for the Tom Cruise actioner. Edge of Tomorrow: “We had to produce these mechanical suits and that was just an enormous amount of work,” he says. “We ended up with a crew of about 170 people making all these detailed suits in different sizes. We had to produce 130 of them. It was a colossal undertaking.”

Bohanna has just completed work on the trilogy-closing Stars Wars Episode XI and Wonder Woman 1984.

“You have to bite your tongue a lot in this job,: he says. “Because there is normally an enormous gap: it can be good 12 months from when we finish shooting until when the film comes. That’s really quite nice for me because you tend to have forgotten all of the difficulty. So when you eventually get around to see the film in the cinema you’re just like the rest of the audience.”

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald; You can vote for Dublin at fantasticbeasts.co.uk/wandsready 

The original Rosebud sleigh was was thirty-four inches long, made entirely of balsa wood, and fastened together with wood dowels and glue
The original Rosebud sleigh was was thirty-four inches long, made entirely of balsa wood, and fastened together with wood dowels and glue

Three iconic movie props

“Rosebud”, Citizen Kane: According to Robert L. Carringer, in his book The Making of Citizen Kane (1984): “The original Rosebud sled was custom-built in the RKO property department. It was thirty-four inches long, made entirely of balsa wood, and fastened together with wood dowels and glue. Actually, three identical sleds were built; two were burned in the filming.” It also provided Orson Welles’s debut feature with a clinching final shot.

Lightsaber, Star Wars: Using Graflex (camera) handles, wood, and a piece of an old calculator, set decorator Roger Christian and SFX consultant John Stears fashioned the first lightsaber for around $12. Stears also created James Bond’s lethal Aston Martin DB5, Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder, and the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO.

“Wilson”, Castaway: Wilson, the makers of volleyballs ,took some persuading to get involved with Robert Zemeckis’s shipwreck drama. Property master Robin L Miller was given just 20 balls for the Fiji shoot. Getting the handprint and hair to match required scenic painters and the effects department. Miller says he guarded the balls”with his life”.

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