'Fantastic Beasts': How the Muggles Brought the Wizarding World to 1926 New York

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

With settings around the U.K. from London to Hogwarts Castle, the Harry Potter books came to the big screen with the fantastical production design of Stuart Craig, who worked on all eight Potter films and earned Oscar nominations for four of them.

But for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, director David Yates’ return to the wizarding world, which opens Friday, the three-time Academy Award winning production designer was tasked with shifting to 1926 New York.

It was an “interesting juxtaposition” to the prior films, Craig found as he got started. “The Harry Potter movies are contemporary stories but because Hogwarts is a Medieval castle, they felt like period films. The real period film, set in 1926, felt more modern,” he explains.

To begin, he visited New York and did extensive research into what Manhattan looked like during the period. “At that stage we were investigating actually shooting there,” he says. “But since so much of the film was exteriors, it proved impractical [as we] couldn’t close streets for that long.”

And so the majority of the film was shot on sets built at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in England, with some location work to the north in Liverpool.

The most challenging set was a main street, which was an 800 ft. set that remained faithful to the real city. “[We built the set] with the real dimensions of New York. [Even] the sidewalk widths were taken directly from maps and were accurate, so that you believe you really are in New York. That was the fundamental challenge, getting that set built,” Craig said, adding another tricky element for the street scenes was locating nearly 50 classic cars to populate the streets.

Another key set was the headquarters of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), which is housed in the Woolworth building on Broadway (and like the Ministry of Magic, is hidden from the muggles). Completed in 1912, the Woolworth was the world’s tallest building at the time in which the story is set.

“JK Rowling’s script is quite specific sometimes; she specified this building,” Craig says. “She did pretty extensive research, and it was immediately apparent why she had chosen it. It was very richly decorated on the outside with gothic structure and gargoyles. And in the Harry Potter series, Hogwarts was gothic in style, so the gothic style became synonymous with the magical world.”

The film also includes an elaborate scene set in a bank — inspired by the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan, which was built in the second half of the 1800s. The architecture of New York’s Tribeca section, meanwhile, became the basis for the film’s jewelry district. “There a lot of cast iron buildings in Tribeca, which for Europeans is very unusual and they are very beautiful,” says Craig.