RISKY BUSINESS: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
How “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions
Few movies have reached the iconic levels of cultural saturation as the Harry Potter franchise. What began as a roundly rejected book became one of the bestselling works of literature in history, a blockbuster eight-film series, several theme parks, a billion-dollar merchandising juggernaut, and a steadfast staple of internet discussion, fanfiction, and cosplay.
There is little left to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t already been said. In fact, we covered the first film in the franchise from a COVID-19 safety perspective already. But the one subject surrounding this mega-property that doesn’t get much discussion is production safety.
As risk managers, we want to dive into this beloved series of films and evaluate the production’s safety record. Our hope is that by examining one of the highest grossing film series of all time, we can help everyone see how risk management can increase safety on film sets.
So grab your brooms and get ready for a wild ride. This eight-part adventure through the Wizarding World includes broken ribs, severed spinal cords, cut faces, gouged hands, near-drownings, hypothermia, bruised bodies, infections, allergic reactions, bloody mouths, psychological trauma, sets burning down, fire falling from the sky, ruptured eardrums, fractured bones, and so much more.
Let’s begin by spinning our time-turners back to the fall of 2000 where we’ll find Chris Columbus directing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Wingardium Leviosa: Safety Issues on Set
When travelling to the past to examine safety issues like we are, it is important to note that the year 2000 is well over twenty years ago. Much has changed in the time since “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (HP1) was filmed – the internet, social media, cellphones, the map of the world – including how we make movies, visual effects technology, and on set safety procedures.
Many of the safety issues we found in our research were quickly fixed by the production, which is not always the case. This was a carefully made and well-funded film, and everyone involved had the best of intentions.
And yet, the actors were put at risk of injury – and in a few cases, actually harmed – during filming. We would like to highlight four instances that help make the case for risk management on the set of HP1:
- Daniel Radcliff’s Swollen Eyes
- Lit Candles Falling from the Ceiling
- Rupert Grint’s Cut Face
- Spoiled Food
Let’s start with Harry Potter himself and the very first day of shooting.
Daniel Radcliff’s Swollen Eyes
Production on HP1 began in England at the North Yorkshire’s Goathland railway station on 2 October 2000. While the majority of the film was shot in sequence – in the order it appears in the script – the first day of shooting was actually the last scene of the movie.
According to many sources, including this behind-the-scenes featurette, the producers tried to turn Radcliff’s blue eyes green, like Harry’s are in the book, by using contact lenses.
Radcliff had a very painful allergic reaction to them that left his eyes swollen and red. You can still spot those swollen, red eyes in the actual film. The creative team used the allergic reaction to their advantage and shot the moment where Harry says goodbye to Hagrid right after they took Radcliff’s contacts out.
For the rest of the film, Radcliff’s eyes stayed his natural color. This may sound like a minor issue and certainly production acted quickly to rectify the situation but the risks at play here are quite severe. Before we get into those risks, however, let’s turn our attention to the day it accidentally rained fire.
Lit Candles Falling from the Sky
In the recent Harry Potter reunion video on HBO, the cast and director Chris Columbus admit that the candles in the great hall scene were, originally, real. The production designers built a sophisticated apparatus that allowed real candles to hover in the air and float up and down in real time.
This sounds amazing and likely helped the child actors stay in character by establishing a magical setting. Well, that spell broke the moment those candles began falling on the children.
The flame from the lit candles burned the wires that kept them suspended from the ceiling, and the candles fell on the set. No injuries were reported, but this is a seriously risky thing to do.
But it wasn’t the last time the production team would send dangerous items hurling toward the actors.
Rupert Grint’s Cut Face
Many behind the scenes featurettes used to promote the film show the production’s reliance on practical effects. The chess scene is no different. The production team exploded practically built giant chess pieces.
While this certainly aided the visuals of the film and potentially helped our lead actors believably play the scene, it also put them in danger of being hit by the shrapnel.
This happened to Rupert Grint and the shot of it remains in the film.
In the scene, Grint’s Ron Weasley sacrifices himself to allow Harry to win and progress to the next challenge. When shooting the moment where this chess piece explodes and sends pieces flying, the production chose to use real debris. This debris was thrown at Grint in the scene and hit him in the face, cutting his cheek.
[Some fans of the film claim that the cut is CGI but our researchers were unable to find evidence to support those claims.]
From a risk management perspective – it should go without saying – real debris should never be used when it will be directed at an actor, let alone a child actor.
From contact lenses and falling fire to cutting one of the leads with debris, we have covered some pretty obviously risky choices. The largest risk on the set of HP1 was likely one that few would notice, and many productions don’t think twice about.
The great hall scenes were filmed at Leavesden Film Studios. Chris Columbus and company wanted the feast to dazzle the children on set as well as the viewers in the theater and at home.
To achieve this, they chose to use real food.
Two chefs are credited with overseeing the creation of the food for the great hall banquet. This suggests to us that at least the production team wanted the food to be delicious. But real food can spoil, and it certainly did here.
Under the hot set lights, the food expired quickly, often creating quite a bad smell. But the smell is the least of the safety issue when it comes to using real food during production.
No issues were reported other than the smell and production had new food brought in regularly to replace the spoiled dishes. But, in a room filled with child actors and extras, the production is unbelievably lucky that no child dared to eat any of the bad food.
To many, all four of these issues – contacts, candles, debris, and food – might seem like no big deal. And certainly, we have worked in this industry long enough to know that many productions would likely not see much of an issue here. But that is precisely why production risk management is essential.
Let’s take a closer look at these four issues, but this time, let’s fix our glasses first.
Oculus Reparo: How Risk Management Could Have Made Hogwarts Safer
As always, we want to stress that this is not an exercise in performative superiority. By examining big-budget films like this, we hope that we can help others to make their sets safer and avoid the potential dangers on display here.
The Risks of Contact Lenses
According to the FDA, issues with contact lenses can escalate rapidly, leading to corneal ulcers and potentially even blindness. Equally as alarming, there is no way to know if someone will have a bad reaction beforehand.
If the worst-case scenario is blindness, reactions can escalate quickly, and it’s a roll of the dice if someone will have a bad reaction, we advise our clients to stay away from contact lenses on anyone who doesn’t require them already.
This is not just an issue of actor safety it is one of production liability.
Let’s put this another way: an eleven-year-old child with blue eyes was hired for a job and his employers put him at risk of blindness because they wanted to change his eye color to green.
These are the types of seemingly minor decisions that can have major repercussion for the actors, the production company, and the insurance company. And just the type of potential danger that risk management helps you avoid.
If green eyes were so important to the story, the production team should have prioritized that in casting. In reality, the casting team looked far and wide for their Harry Potter and kept coming back to Radcliff.
And certainly, Daniel Radcliff is Harry Potter. We are not suggesting that another actor should have been cast in this role. What we are suggesting, however, is that the production should have looked at other ways to rectify the situation.
We advise everyone to on-board risk managers during pre-production, in part, because that is when so many important decisions get made. In this case, the production cast a blue-eyed actor to play a green-eyed character and their first choice was to change the actor’s eye color.
If we were hired as risk managers on HP1, we would have looked at this problem from the other side, asking production a vital question: What is most important about Harry’s eyes?
When we look at it this way, we can see that what’s really important here is that Harry and his mother, Lily, have the same eye color.
After the painful contact lens experiment, production came the same conclusion. The creative team consulted with J.K. Rowling to see if it was okay that Harry had blue eyes. Rowling’s response was that what matters is that Lily and Harry Potter have the same eyes.
As a result, the production cast blue-eyed Geraldine Somerville to play Lily Potter. But eleven-year-old Danial Radcliff could have been spared the pain he went through had the production team looked at things from a different angle first.
The Risk of Floating Candles
Columbus and company should be applauded for their reliance on practical effects but in this instance, they should have turned to CGI.
When it comes to safety, CGI is almost always a better bet than practical effects. And it pains us to say that. We are huge fans of practical, in camera work. But it is our job to minimize risk and there are far fewer risks associated with computer work than with building tangible objects, especially when fire is involved.
And, in fact, the production did end up using CGI for the candles. Only after lit candles fell on their cast and crew.
Risk managers could have identified this issue during prep and helped the production not only make the set safer, but also save valuable shooting time.
In every subsequent film, the production wisely chose to use CGI for the great hall’s magic ceiling.
The Risk of Debris
Accidents happen on set all the time. And in the case of the chess scene debris, this is obviously an accident. No one meant to hit Grint in the face with a hard, sharp object. They simply meant to bounce these objects across the floor in front of him.
But, oddly shaped objects – like debris – will bounce in unpredictable ways and, in this case, the debris hit Grint in the face.
Risk managers cannot prevent someone from making a mistake. What risk managers can do is help productions see around corners.
Risk management is necessary precisely because accidents can and do happen. We are there to help productions see around the corner and predict the accidents that others more closely associated with the project often don’t see.
In this case, a good risk manager would have suggested that no hard objects be used in this shot. And likely we would have asked the team if debris was necessary in the shot at all.
The Risk of Real Food
Most major culinary capitals across America and the world require their kitchen staff and servers to have the equivalent of a food handlers’ certificate. This certificate ensures that anyone handling food has had a minimum amount of training about how to keep the people eating the food safe from both food-borne illnesses, allergies, and dietary issues.
This is because food-borne illness can infect food quickly. And there are myriad food allergies, some deadly. Additionally, dietary issues like hypoglycemia and diabetes require special attention to avoid trips to the emergency room.
Some major productions today off-load the responsibility of food safety to someone called a food stylist. While there is currently not a governing body that oversees certification and qualifications for food stylists, most food stylists are trained chefs who have picked movie sets over restaurant kitchens.
Food stylists are a luxury that only larger productions tend to hire but they can work magic. Food stylists devise ingenious workarounds that allow shelf stable food to take the place of potentially dangerous food (watermelon for sushi, for instance).
Some food stylists, like Chris Oliver, make sure that their staff all have a food handler’s certificate.
But none of these safety steps is required. Not the food stylist. Not the certificates. Not the workarounds.
In fact, today’s film sets – especially independent film sets – often see untrained, uncertified people handling/making real food for actors to consume.
The role of food stylist was barely in its infancy during the late 1990’s. And as mentioned above, HP1’s production team did hire two chefs to make the great hall banquet food. But that didn’t stop the food from going bad.
Equally as important, there is no evidence to suggest that the production took any steps to ensure the food was safe for each actor and extra to eat. Food allergies are serious, and many allergies are to ingredients – nuts, garlic, etc – that can easily hide in large dishes like the ones on this banquet scenes.
Proper risk management makes sure the food on set is just as safe as the food you get in a high-end restaurant. When we are hired for a production that wants to use real food and have the actors eat it, we require that all the food be handled by certified and trained professionals. We also take detailed dietary requirements from the cast to ensure that each cast member receive food that is safe for them to eat.
In the end, food on set comes back to reality versus believability.
This feast needed to be believable, not real. We would suggest that any production that has to shoot a large feast like this use fake food as often as possible. In HP1’s case, there are so few shots of children eating this real food, that it seems both needlessly risky and wasteful to use real food for this scene.
You’re a Wizard: Bottom Line
Harry Potter – the character, the books, the movies, the theme park…all of it – is an indelible part of pop culture. These stories have lit up the imaginations of several generations of children and helped many through tough times.
In fact, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” came out in the wake of 9/11 and helped many young people feel safe in the world again.
As Mikey Neumann says so well over at FilmJoy, making a movie on this scale – one that must be the foundation of multi-film franchise spanning a decade – is a monumental task that requires so many critical decisions to be made perfectly in order for the entire enormous project to be a success.
Director Chris Columbus, writer Steve Kloves, producer David Hayman, and the rest of the creative team, hit home run after home run on so many fundamental decisions. From the look of the world to the actors they cast, this first team built a foundation that could support all that was to come.
But, they also created a few safety issues along the way that could have been avoided with proper risk management.
By not subjecting children – and your leads – to painful prosthetics, relying more on CGI, requiring trained professionals with food handlers’ certifications to prepare real food, and using fake food whenever possible, the production team on “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” could have made their set – a set filled with minors – a far safer place to work.
With only a few exceptions, all of the cast members in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” – including those who are essentially background actors here – remained with the franchise throughout its eight installments. They were all exposed to many more dangerous situations.
As this series continues, we will highlight risky behavior that led to broken ribs, near drownings, cut lips, paralysis, psychological issues, and much more. Stay tuned to Epitome’s blog for more Risky Business.
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.
Major Sources and Further Reading:
- Harry Potter Page to Screen: Updated Edition: The Complete Filmmaking Journey by Bob McCabe
- Harry Potter: Film Wizardry by Brian Sibley
- “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts” for HBO Max
- “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” on IMDb
- “Creating the World of Harry Potter: The Magic Begins”
- “A Conversation with JK Rowling & Daniel Radcliffe (Extended Version)”
- Movies with Mikey “The Story of Harry Potter”
- 14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists by Alyson Sheppard for Mental Floss
- “Inside Harry Potter” for Entertainment Weekly from 2009
- “Harry Potter Actors Who Injured Their Co-Stars While Filming”
- The Mayo Clinic