1994 – present
(revised September 2021)
Leavesden Studios – or more accurately ‘Warner Bros Studios, Leavesden’ – are located north of Watford just a mile or two inside the M25, about the same distance from central London as Pinewood is. These two major studios are about 17 miles apart from each other, round the M25.
Before the 1930s the present studio site was part of a farm and called One Mile Field. The clue to its size is in the name. In 1932 the local council were looking for a suitable location to construct an airfield and this was one of two that were considered. Interestingly, it was also proposed that film studios should be constructed here and this was the preferred choice of the local parish council. In fact, neither project happened. The field was purchased by the council and in 1937 an enormous park including several playing fields was planned. It was to be called the King George V Recreation Ground. Some preliminary work commenced in 1939 but the park was not completed. In any case, the declaration of war in September 1939 put all such projects on hold.
At the outbreak of war the Handley Page aircraft company requested that other factories be built around London to help assemble its Halifax bombers. The De Havilland company agreed to do this and began to look for suitable sites to construct an airfield with associated factories. The King George V Recreation Ground was ideal and work was begun in January 1940.
George Wimpey Ltd constructed a single tarmac runway, about 3,000 ft long by 150ft wide. They also built two factories – No.1 factory was built to the north of the runway and No.2 factory on the eastern perimeter. There were also two ‘flight clearance’ sheds built – one near each end of the runway. These were very large hangars where aircraft could be prepped ready for their first flight.
Many years later, No.1 Factory formed part of the film studios used for the Harry Potter movies.
No.2 Factory was demolished when part of the airfield was sold off to construct a business park in the 1990s and was never used for film making.
But – back to the war. No. 2 factory was used to construct Mosquito fighter/bombers. The Mosquito was a very fast 2-engine aircraft made mostly of plywood that had a variety of versions including night-fighter and tactical bomber. An astonishing 1,476 of them were made at Leavesden. The Mosquitos also used the flight shed at the western end of the runway near the A41. This building was used from the mid ’90s to 2009 as an occasional overspill film stage. It has now been replaced by a brand new stage.
Meanwhile, No.1 factory was used to assemble Halifax bombers. The Halifax was a large 4-engine bomber, almost as successful as the more famous Avro Lancaster. 700 were built here. In the same way that bits of Airbus airliners are manufactured now in various factories all over Europe, different sections of the Halifax and its engines were constructed in factories around London. Before the war these all manufactured cars, lorries and buses. A new company – the London Aircraft Production Group – was formed to coordinate this process which ended with the assembly of the aircraft at Leavesden prior to their first flights. It is said that pilots liked the Leavesden Halifaxes because the seats were beautifully made in green leather. The company that made those previously constructed London Buses. The Leavesden Halifaxes also had superior riveting, which increased the top speed of the aircraft by 10-15 knots. Very important when being attacked by a prowling Me 110 night fighter somewhere over Germany.
The last Halifax made at Leavesden was named ‘London Pride’ and was rolled out on 16th April 1945 with great celebration from many of the great and good including Sir Frederick Handley-Page.
Following the war, No.1 Factory was taken over by the DeHavilland Aircraft Engine Division. This was one of the first factories in the world to manufacture commercial jet engines. For example, the Ghost engine was made here in 1947, which powered the Comet airliner and the Venom fighter.
During the Korean war which ran from 1950-1953, DeHavilland anticipated a significant increase in orders for military aircraft. They decided to double the size of the Leavesden factory so constructed workshops alongside the existing hangars and a new admin block with a control tower at the runway end. These new facilities were completed in 1954. They are still in use today as part of the new WB film studio complex.
In 1959 the DeHavilland company became part of Hawker Siddeley which in turn was taken over in 1966 by Rolls Royce. They based their ‘small gas turbine division’ at Leavesden, where many engines for aircraft and in particular for helicopters were made. The last engine manufactured here was a Gnome for a Wessex helicopter in 1993.
During the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and into the early ’90s the airfield was used for general aviation and several business and charter aircraft were based here – as was the Goodyear Blimp.
In ’91 and ’92 there were no orders for Rolls-Royce helicopter engines, partly due to the recession and of course to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This led to big cutbacks in defence spending. Sadly but inevitably RR decided to close the facility. They had left the site by June 1993 but the airfield remained open for a few more months. However, on 31st March 1994 the last flight left the airfield and it was closed to aviation.
In 1994 the Bond film Goldeneye was unable to use Pinewood as the stages there were fully booked. Eon, the production company, looked for an alternative studio but only this airfield offered the large stages they needed by converting several of the old hangars.
What at first was seen as a temporary fix to a problem turned out to be rather more permanent. The old aircraft factory No.1 proved to be an excellent place to make feature films. The arrangement of several large hangars linked to thousands of square feet of workshop space was ideal. Also of course, being an airfield there was and is a large area upon which to build exterior sets. This back lot has the added advantage of a very low horizon with no visible buildings.
In 1995 the airfield was bought by ‘Millennium Group’ who intended to turn it into a theme park based on movies. They also planned to keep some film making here and to sell off part of the site for housing and a business park. The housing and business park went ahead but the theme park plans were never submitted to the council for approval.
In 1996 George Lucas returned to England to make the first of his Star Wars prequels – The Phantom Menace. The original three films had of course been made at Elstree Studios, a few miles south of here, but those studios were no longer able to provide sufficient space. Leavesden was ideal. It could be sealed off from the rest of the world and there was more than enough space to construct large sets and fill stages with spaceships, alien worlds and giant greenscreens.
In 1997 the studios were used to make Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. No, me neither.
1998 saw Tim Burton move in to make Sleepy Hollow. Most of the film was shot here but curiously, the spooky forest was built on the 30,000 sq ft H stage at Shepperton. Odd, since A and B stages here were a similar size. As a complete contrast, An Ideal Husband was also filmed here in 1998.
In 2000 Warner Bros leased the whole airfield and began to make the first of the Harry Potter films – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. They made 8 movies in total, completing the series in 2009.
During this time there were 7 stages including a huge one over 74,000 sq ft. These were adapted from existing hangars. The old flight shed on the west side of the airfield was also occasionally used as a silent stage. Stage D had an underwater tank 60ft x 60ft and 20ft deep built within it, so nearly twice as big as the underwater stage at Pinewood. This was constructed in 2004 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which contained several underwater scenes.
The original stages were as follows:
A – 243 x 132 x 30ft (32,000 sq ft)
B – 231 x 132 x 30ft (30,500 sq ft)
C – 122 x 92 x 28ft (11,000 sq ft but had a temporary extension added)
D – 123 x 96 x 28ft (contained underwater tank)
E – later used as a workshop area
F – 15,300sq ft
G – 19,200 sq ft
H/I – 74,500 sq ft
Flight shed – 48,000 sq ft
Most of the above had very limited sound attenuation, as they were of course adapted from industrial units.
The back lot had several familiar sets built on it including Privet Drive, the main courtyard at Hogwarts, Hagrid’s hut and part of the rickety bridge at Hogwarts. Most of these had bluescreens built round them and the backgrounds were added in post production. None of these sets now remain in situ but Harry’s house and part of the bridge were dismantled and reconstructed in the exterior part of the Warner Bros Studio Tour.
In 2010 Warner Bros announced a proposal to buy the freehold and to redevelop the site as a major international film studio. The plans were agreed and construction began. The stages dating back to the wartime Halifax factory were demolished and replaced with new ones. All are now fully insulated sound stages. This is particularly important as most are positioned next to each other. I have read that many of the original steel frames of the old hangars were incorporated into the structures of the new stages. This explains why they follow very similar outlines and must have saved quite a bit of cost in their construction.
Other buildings were refurbished or had extensions added. There were some new construction workshops and offices added too. The new studios opened on 11th June 2012.
What has been completed is a site with superb facilities for every department. There are now 18 stages in the main complex – the 19th is located on the west side of the airfield. This huge stage (L) of nearly 50,000 sq ft replaced the previous flight shed. Only the 007 stage at Pinewood is larger in the UK at 59,000 sq ft. It also has 50,000 sq ft of hard standing outside its dock doors where sets could be extended if required. In July 2021 three more stages opened, including the V Stage. This is equipped with 7,100 sq ft of wraparound LED screens and a 5,500 sq ft moveable LED ceiling in 8 sections, enabling virtual reality shooting to take place. House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel was the first to use this facility.
All the stages have excellent grids with catwalks over them enabling rigging to be relatively fast and flexible. There are numerous workshops positioned all round the site, supporting the various productions taking place.
The new studios were officially opened in April 2013 by Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge – who all clearly enjoyed visiting the Harry Potter exhibition and in some ways rather spookily resembled the three leading characters of those books and films.
The 2012 stages are as follows:
A – 180 x 130 x 45ft (23,400 sq ft)
B – 180 x 130 x 30ft (23,400 sq ft)
C – 240 x 130 x 45ft (31,200 sq ft)
D – 120 x 90 x 27ft (10,800 sq ft – contains underwater tank)
E – 280 x 120 x 30ft (33,600 sq ft)
F – 280 x 130 x 30ft (36,400 sq ft)
G – 280 x 120 x 30ft (33,600 sq ft)
H – 140 x 130 x 30ft (18,200 sq ft)
I – 140 x 130 x 30ft (18,200 sq ft)
L – (replacing old flight shed) 440 x 112ft (49,280 sq ft) – this is a mute stage
Exterior tank – 250 x 250ft x 4ft deep with an 8ft deep section of 109 x 96ft
In 2015, three more stages were opened:
M – 250 x 140 x 50ft (35,000 sq ft)
N – 140 x 121 x 40ft (17,000 sq ft
O – 140 x 121 x 40ft (17,000 sq ft)
In 2017, another stage was constructed:
P – 250 x 140 x 50ft (35,000 sq ft)
In August 2019, a further two stages were opened:
Q – 140 x 121 x 40ft (17,000 sq ft)
S – 140 x 121 x 40ft (17,000 sq ft)
In July 2021, three more stages became available:
T – 250 x 140 x 50ft (35,000 sq ft)
U – 190 x 128 x 45ft (24,000 sq ft)
V – 190 x 128 x 45ft (24,000 sq ft) This is a VR stage with LED screens and ceiling.
You will notice that most of these stages are very large indeed.
In addition to those listed above, two new stages – J and K – are situated just south of the main block of studio buildings but separated from them. They house the Warner Bros Studio Tour – sometimes known as The Making of Harry Potter. This is not a theme park but an exhibition of actual sets, dismantled from the original stages and re-erected here. There are thousands of props from all 8 movies on display which can be closely examined by visitors. The tour has the highest customer satisfaction rating of any tourist attraction in the world – and quite right too. It is superbly done.
One assumes that if and when the public eventually tire of Harry Potter (maybe in 100 years), this exhibition could cover other WB films. It is also possible that in due course these buildings could become working stages as part of the studio lot. Just to emphasise – Warners have not suggested anywhere that this is planned. Frankly, judging by the continuing popularity of the Studio Tour, it ain’t happening any time soon.
Incidentally, you may have spotted that these stages are J & K – the initials of course of J K Rowling. Coincidence or wizardry? You decide. In 2019 another very large building opened as part of the tour containing Gringott’s Bank and Bellatrix LeStrange’s vault. This ‘stage’ is named on the studio site plan as R, naturally.
In an interview soon after the reopening, the head of Warner Bros UK was quoted as saying that the site contains ‘three smaller TV studios.’ I’m not sure which three of those above he means – H and I are the smallest (although still pretty enormous at 18,000 sq ft each!) so may have been earmarked for TV drama production. None are actual TV studios in the sense of having resin TV floors and production galleries. In fact, all the stages have concrete floors. The third ‘TV studio’ he had in mind may be D, which contains the underwater tank. The Warner Bros website indicates that the tank can be covered over and the stage used for normal filming.
Although these studios were for a while best known for the Harry Potter films, they have been used to shoot some scenes on several other movies and in more recent years – entire films. Some have used stages, others just the back lot. I have mentioned two or three above but others have included Die Another Day (’01), The Dark Knight (’07), Sherlock Holmes (’09), Inception (’10), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (’11), The Dark Knight Rises (’11), Argo (’12), Robopocalypse (’13), Edge of Tomorrow (’13), 300: Rise of an Empire (’13), Tarzan (’14), Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation (’14), Jupiter Ascending (’14), The Man From UNCLE (’14), In the Heart of the Sea (’14), Pan (’15), The Legend of Tarzan (’15), Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur (’15), Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (’15), Alien: Covenant (’16), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (’16), Wonder Woman (’16), The Mummy (’16), Kingsman: The Golden Circle (’16), Paddington 2 (’16), Justice League (’16), The Darkest Hour (’17), Tomb Raider (’17), Bohemian Rhapsody (’17), Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (’17), Overlord (’17), The Current War (’17), Hunter Killer (’17), Mission Impossible – Fallout (’17), Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (’17), Ready Player One (’17), Cats (’18), The Kid Who Would Be King (’18), Wonder Woman 1984 (’18), Men In Black: International (’18), Pokemon Detective Pikachu (’18), Spider-Man: Far From Home (’18), Hobbs & Shaw (’18), Fast and Furious 9 (’19), The Witches (’19), Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga (’19), Tom and Jerry (’20), Venom: Let There Be Carnage (’20), The Batman (’21), Fantastic Beasts: Secrets of Dumbledore (’21), Mission Impossible 7 (’21), The Flash (’21), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (’21), Wonka (’21). (Dates mostly refer to filming, not cinema release.)
When you look at the list above and add all the other international blockbusters filmed in recent years at Pinewood, Shepperton, Longcross etc, you do begin to wonder just what is still being made in Hollywood?
One notable TV drama made here some time ago was the excellent Longitude (’00). The stages have been very busy shooting international blockbuster movies since they opened and the only TV dramas I have heard of being made here in recent years are seasons 1 and 2 of Pennyworth (’19, ’20) and sci-fi comedy Avenue 5 (’19, 21), made for HBO and Sky, starring Hugh Laurie.
Going way back, the second series of the kids’ gameshow series Pump It Up was recorded on one of the old stages here in 1999 for ITV. The first series had been made the year before in a similar very large converted industrial shed in a village a few miles from here called Park Street Studios. As it happens, that facility had previously been used by another Bond movie – Tomorrow Never Dies. By coincidence, it too was originally an aircraft factory – in its case used by Handley Page. Park Street Studios were demolished around 2007 and the land used for housing.
Late at night on 10th July 2019 fire broke out on the P stage. Fortunately, nobody was injured. The stage contained sets for Avenue 5. Director Armando Iannucci thanked and praised the firefighters for all their work in putting out the fire. Reports said that 14 fire crews were involved so it must have been serious. Two episodes of the show had yet to be filmed and it was not known at the time how the fire would affect those. Somehow the show went on and received excellent reviews when transmitted. Season 2 began filming in 2021.
It may not have escaped your notice that these studios are now Pinewood’s main commercial rival in the UK. Had Pinewood been able to accommodate Goldeneye all those years ago, Leavesden Studios might never have come about. I wonder where all the Potter films would have been made? Possibly not even in the UK.
Warner Bros owned Teddington Studios back in the 1930s and 1940s. These studios in Leavesden are on an entirely different scale. They are in fact one and a half times the size of Warner’s studios in Hollywood. With some of the newest, largest and best-equipped stages in Europe with excellent supporting facilities including a huge back lot, they are set to attract some of the biggest films in the world over the coming years.