Behind the scenes: designing the giant wizard chess set

Director Chris Columbus explains the challenge of getting the dramatic chess scene in the first film right.

The giant wizard chess on the way to get to the Philosopher's Stone.
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Extracted from Harry Potter Film Wizardry.

Of all the scenes in Philosopher’s Stone, director Chris Columbus has said that he was ‘most excited’ to shoot the scene where Harry, Ron and Hermione encounter a giant version of a wizard chess set and must play their way across the board. According to Chris, great scenes like that make him feel like a ‘kid in a candy store’.

A giant chessboard and enormous, twelve-foot-high chess pieces were constructed. The chessmen were radio-controlled, which was a far from simple operation because of their height and weight, and the fact that their bases were relatively small.

‘Not only did we have to move the pieces,’ says special effects supervisor John Richardson, ‘we had to have them battling with one another, blowing up, and crashing to the ground.’

There were also flames for the burning wreckage of the destroyed chess pieces and, as John puts it, ‘pretty much a bit of everything that we’ve ever come across in special effects!’

As Chris reflects: ‘The combined movement of the camera, along with the pieces mechanically moving across the floor, created a real sense of terror and suspense. While we talked about trying to make the pieces move more quickly, I just love that, in the end, this sequence happened at its own pace.’

Though surprisingly little visual effects work was required, there were a couple of moments of digitally created magic – for example when one of the pawn soldiers comes alive and draws its swords.

For Chris, the scene was remarkable not just for the effects, but for Rupert Grint’s performance as Ron: ‘That is just an amazing performance by a kid who was starting to feel very comfortable with his character. And when he sees the power of these things and realises he must sacrifice himself for his friends, I sensed a real moment of fear, but also courage, from Rupert.’

The scene was also a highlight from Rupert’s own perspective. ‘It was really exciting,’ he later recalled. ‘I got to sit on the horse, and I remember really enjoying that. The set was huge, and it was incredible when the pieces got smashed. I’ve actually still got a broken piece of horse! That was so cool!’

‘Harry Potter Film Wizardry'

Extracted from
‘Harry Potter: Film Wizardry'