Behind the scenes: designing the props for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s head prop designer, Pierre Bohanna, explains the creative decisions behind Newt’s case to Jacob’s baked goods.

Jacob Kowalski at the counter of Kowalski's Bakery
No-Maj Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler.

Pierre Bohanna is well versed in the intricacies of the wizarding world, having served as a supervising modeller on all the Harry Potter films. So, when a request comes through for an Ashwinder egg (‘very translucent, almost like a snake’s egg’) or Mooncalf cowpat (‘big’) it is all part of the day’s work. Nevertheless, compared with the strange appurtenances of Hogwarts, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has presented some varied challenges. The list of props – far too mundane a word to describe the incredible items Bohanna and his team have conjured up – crossed the spectrum from typewriters to New York street signs. Most prominent are the hand props that belong to a particular character. Items that play their part in the story and with which the characters interact such as the wands, Newt’s case, or Tina’s ID badge.

Here, Bohanna and Molly Sole would often work from concepts provided by the graphics department headed up by Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima.

The prop department was also responsible for the layers of intricate, not-to-say eccentric detail that determines the signature aesthetic that production designer Stuart Craig has created for the wizarding world. Items that might appear incidental, but tell you something about the characters. On Percival Graves’ desk in the Aurors office there is a reduced-size version of the magical barometer from the entrance hall, as well as a giant light bulb that senses magical activity. Other props might be used specially as sight gags such as the bejewelled, telescopistick that Red, the dwarf lift operator, extends to hit the top buttons, or may be used to enhance the particular flavour of a setting.

Concept artwork for The Blind Pig from Art of the Film.
Layouts © HarperCollins Publishers/© WBEI. (s18) Art of the Film

‘The musical instruments were really nice pieces,’ says Bohanna, referring to the magical instruments belonging to the jazz band in The Blind Pig. ‘Stuart Craig came up with the idea that there should be an upright piano but an upright grand piano. So we had to produce that, and it was slightly open so we had all the strings in it. Then the banjo player had about three different necks, it was like three banjos grafted into one. The brass player had about a dozen different types of brass and wind instruments gathered and hanging around him, held together by a magical charge, so that he could play multiple instruments. So we had to mount all these for real in the sense that they were all stood on blacked-out stands so they looked as if they floated in the air.’

Then there were props designed to connect the new film back to the Harry Potter series. ‘Seraphina Picquery’s throne was a riff on Dumbledore’s original throne in Hogwarts,’ reveals Bohanna. ‘It’s a Gothic-inspired piece, but much more regal and finished fully in gold leaf.’

Seraphina Picquery the President of MACUSA stands in front of her President's Throne wearing black and gold robes and an impressive headdress
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

While the beasts themselves would finally be rendered in CGI, the puppets used on set for reference also fell to Bohanna’s industrious workshop, and each one came with a different set of remits. Award-winning puppeteers from the stage version of War Horse were employed to actually play the beasts.

Some puppets were fairly rudimentary – the Demiguise was basically a fur coat for the actor to wear and cuddle Eddie Redmayne. Others more elaborate. ‘The Erumpent was a big job,’ claims Bohanna of the epic twelve-foot tall quadruped. ‘Visual effects needed an in-camera reference to get scale and movement, so we made a puppet out of carbon fibre tubes for them to see a general size and silhouette.’

An Erumpent takes chase
An Erumpent takes chase

It was about as big as you could go and still be a puppet. The only interactive parts were the eyes and the last three feet of its horn which was hollow and translucent for the electrical department to install a lighting effect – as the female Erumpent gets more and more excited, the horn begins to glow.

On other days, Bohanna would be faced with the more commonplace but no less detailed challenge of helping to bring New York to life. Overall, while set decorator Anna Pinnock would source and populate the real-world sets with real pieces, it fell to Bohanna to create those No-Maj items that they simply couldn’t find or were specific to their story.

‘The street lights were a big, big job,’ he says. ‘In the main exterior set, along with many other things, we produced over forty twenty-eight-foot-high period street lights.’

For the bank sequence they had to make a full interior of the vault with 15,000 safe deposit boxes which all get thrown open. All the wall panels and the boxes were produced from scratch.

Newt Scamander and Jacob Kowalski sit on benches in the bank with their almost identical suitcases
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Bohanna estimates that three-fifths of what they did was to replicate the period rather than anything fantastical or magical. It took a ‘colossal’ amount of work to achieve Craig’s authenticity.

‘It’s funny,’ reflects Bohanna, ‘when I first started on the film and realised it was specifically 1926, it took me a while to figure out why J.K. Rowling had chosen that period. But if you watch all the black and white films you become aware it is such a visually and stylistically strong period in America’s history, especially for New York.’

Read more behind-the-scenes facts in Inside the Magic: The Making of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, from HarperCollins.