Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Reassessing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

In 2001, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” arrived in theaters, turning an already popular book series into an unmatched global phenomenon. So, grab your wand, order some butterbeer, and let’s head back to Hogwarts to reexamine the first Harry Potter film.

Based on a book by J.K Rowling—that rivals the Bible in sales figures—”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” launched the careers of Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. The movie is anchored by the performances of an all-star cast: Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Fiona Shaw, Warwick Davis, and John Cleese.

Directed by Christopher Columbus from a script by Steve Kloves, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” needs no synopsis. It became the highest-grossing film of 2001 and, at one point, it became the second highest-grossing film of all time (now #46). It helped spawn spin-off franchises, multiple theme parks, and a rumored forthcoming TV series.  

Over twenty years later, the Harry Potter universe is still a cultural touchstone and remains immensely popular. Let’s all put on our house colors, fix our glasses (oculus reparo), and take a closer look at “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. To do so, we will break it down into three sections:

  • Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
  • Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
  • Strategies to increase safety

This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Let’s begin by looking at the ways this film is already safe.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

When Christopher Columbus began production in the UK back in the fall of 2000, he was not thinking about COVID-19 safety. Yet, some aspects of the film are relatively safe from a pandemic safety perspective.

We want to highlight two areas that will help keep any set safe from COVID-19:

  • Core Cast Isolation
  • Thoughtful Scheduling

Let’s look at both of these and see how they can make things safer.  

Core Cast Isolation

While there are several large scenes in this movie, the story’s main action follows the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they discover mysteries and set about solving them.

This focus allows much of the movie to involve our trio and only one or two other characters. As we have mentioned before, we recommend keeping lead actors out of large, crowded scenes when possible. This decreases the chances of infection and, therefore, decreases the chances that our production will get delayed by COVID-19 infection protocols.

Thoughtful Scheduling

With only a few exceptions, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was shot chronologically. As a veteran director of child-led movies, Columbus understood that shooting scenes in order is helpful for young performers. It allows them to comprehend where they are in the story far more easily. Most films shoot all scenes set in a specific location in a block, regardless of when the scenes appear in the script.

The two major exceptions to the chronological shooting were the scenes at Hogsmeade train platform and the Quidditch scenes. The former were shot first due to scheduling the actual, live train. The latter were filmed last because of how complicated they were to shoot.

Since the beginning of the pandemic we have advised that it is best to schedule complicated scenes at the end of the shoot. This is especially important when dealing with large groups of people. By moving large, complicated scenes to the end of the schedule, we can minimize the impact of a possible outbreak on the production as a whole.

By keeping the majority of the scenes between the main cast and thoughtfully scheduling the production, the creative team behind “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” would have been well on their way to making principal photography safer in a pandemic.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

The large scenes in the Great Hall, Kings Cross Station, and the Quidditch field are obvious safety issues. Having already discussed the issues associated with large scenes, however, we want to focus on a safety issue central to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” – child actors.

Child actors create several unique issues when filming in a pandemic. We want to highlight three:

  • Second Booster Eligibility
  • Additional Personnel
  • Longer Schedules

Let’s look at each of these and see how they complicated things in the COVID-19 era.

Second Booster Eligibility

As of this writing, a second COVID-19 booster shot is not authorized for persons under the age of 50 years old without certain preexisting health issues. This film was shot from September 2000 to March 2001. During this time, Rupert Grint was 12 years old, Daniel Radcliff was 11 years old, and Emma Watson was 10 during filming. None of the main actors would have been eligible for a second booster.

The best-case scenario for any production is to have every member of the cast and crew vaccinated and fully boosted. While vaccines do not necessarily confer immunity, attaining full vaccination with boosters would dramatically decrease the chances of an outbreak and allow for a less stressful production environment. In the case of the first Harry Potter film, full vaccination with boosters is impossible.

This puts even greater pressure on our on-set safety personnel and procedures. When our lead actors cannot be vaccinated and boosted, we must rely solely on our sanitation procedures, PPE, and testing. It is still possible to shoot safely in the pandemic with only these at our disposal. We would, however, not recommend it.

Additional Personnel

Child actors come with additional personnel that adult performers do not. For instance, if shooting during the school year, an on-set tutor must be present to keep the child actors engaged in their studies while filming. In the case of the first Harry Potter film, the child actors were doing actual school work during some of their study scenes.

When filming in a pandemic, we want to reduce on-set personnel as much as possible to decrease the number of people we need to test, track, and sanitize. The fewer the people the less likely an outbreak occurs.

Longer Schedules

Child labor laws in the entertainment industry restrict the number of hours a child can work on a given day. While these restrictions vary by age and location, let’s look at working child actors who are 10 (Watson), 11 (Radcliff), and 12 (Grint) in the UK.

In this case, here are just a few of the restrictions placed on our main trio:

  • They can only work between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
  • They cannot work more than four hours at a time.
  • During school term, they cannot work more than 12 hours per week.

Production schedules have grown much longer during the pandemic to accommodate all the added safety procedures. Longer shoots cost more money. Shooting with child actors in normal times means longer shooting schedules. The combination of child actors and a pandemic could mean an inordinately long and expensive shoot.

Strategies to Increase Safety

Each one of the above risks could be addressed by casting different actors. If we cast slightly older actors, we could fully vaccinate and booster our main trio. If we cast actors who are over 18, we could eliminate the additional personnel and the scheduling issues. This would most likely require adjusting the characters’ ages to make them a few years older since an 18-year-old would be unlikely to believably portray an 11-year-old. 

But these are not plausible solutions. Finding the right actor took a long time. The casting process for Harry Potter auditioned over 5,000 children for the title character, and Columbus had to convince Radcliff and his parents to sign on. Additionally, J.K. Rowling is notoriously controlling of her intellectual property and would not likely sign off on increasing the ages of her main characters.

In the end, the right actors were cast. Daniel Radcliff is Harry Potter. Emma Watson is Hermione Granger, and Rupert Grint is Ron Weasley. These actors own these parts, and we would never dream of recasting them. To address the issues of child actors, we must then look to other solutions. Possible examples include:

  • Delay Production: By waiting, we would have time learn more about the spread of COVID-19 sub-variants and give scientists time to develop a vaccine that is successful against them.
  • Schedule During School Breaks: Back in 2000, this film was shot primarily during school terms. By adjusting as much of the shoot as possible to take place during school breaks, we could decrease some of the additional on-set personnel. We would eliminate the need for a tutor and also have slightly longer shooting days. This would also allow us to minimize some of the budgetary effects of working with child actors.
  • Separate Tutors: All child actors need a tutor, not just our leads. But to increase the safety bubble around our lead actors, we would make sure our trio had a separate tutor from the rest of the children.

Working with child actors during a pandemic will also require additional precautions and procedures. SAG-AFTRA has outlined some important safety tips to help child performers work safely during the pandemic.

From a production perspective, we also want to emphasize the need for increased sensitivity toward young performers. Carrying a movie is stressful work for an adult and unfairly so for children. And these are not normal times.

During a pandemic, child actors will likely be more stressed than usual and grow tired more quickly. Stressed and tired actors – especially ones who don’t have fully developed brains and bodies – are far more likely to get injured on set. In a pandemic, stressed and tired actors are also more likely to accidentally overlook necessary sanitation procedures.

As risk management professionals, we encourage you to sit down with your creative teams and develop a production strategy geared toward both child actor safety and their emotional well-being. With a bit of extra planning, we can establish a filming environment that is friendly to the specific needs of children during these uncertain times.

Final Thoughts

The magic of the Harry Potter films resides in watching these children grow up over the course of eight films. Childhood is a magical time, and these films capture it in a way few ever have.

Child actors bring additional issues to a pandemic production. Still, with a little planning, some creative decision-making, and additional child-specific accommodations, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” can be made not only safer but less stressful as well.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” enchanted a generation and continues to sort new witches and wizards into Hogwarts houses each year. As we head back to Hogwarts, let’s not forget that good safety precautions are the greatest patronus charms. Join us next time as we celebrate one of the greatest meals in cinema history when we look through the COVID lens at “Big Night.”   

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

UPDATED: This article was updated on June 8, 2022.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.