RISKY BUSINESS: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

How “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

How risky was Harry’s third year at Hogwarts? Find out as Epitome's risk managers analyze “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”



One look at that poster and you can easily see that change has come to the Wizarding World with Harry’s third trip to Hogwarts.

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” marks the beginning of several significant changes to the franchise. This is the first installment to be directed by someone other than Chris Columbus. At one point in the development process, the production team offered Columbus the opportunity to direct all the films. Columbus decided to bow out after two but stayed on as a producer.

Alfonso Cuarón stepped in to helm this production and changed just about everything. From the look of the uniforms, the layout of Hogwarts, and the day-to-day wardrobe of the characters, to the color palette, the production design, and the filming style, Cuarón left his mark on the franchise.

After the untimely death of Richard Harris, producers scrambled to find a replacement Dumbledore. Both Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee reportedly turned down the role. The producers eventually settled on Michael Gambon. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” introduces audiences to Gambon’s new, rougher Dumbledore.

This film also marks the first time several major elements and characters are introduced. The Patronus Charm, The Marauder’s Map, Animagus, Professor Lupin, Sirius Black, The Knight Bus, Dementors, Hippogriffs, Divination, and Prophecies all make their first appearance in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

[It also marks the unfortunate introduction of the Time-Turner. Which created a plot problem so large that author J.K. Rowling wrote an entire play to attempt to justify the existence of the time traveling device.]

Finally, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has the distinction of being the only film in the franchise not to include Lord Voldemort. In fact, one could argue that there is no real villain in the movie at all. The plot has no antagonistic force, just miscommunications, misunderstandings, withheld information, and mistaken identities.

Despite all these changes to the franchise, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was just as risky as ever. This movie saw physical violence, still more eyewear mishaps, set incursions, and vandalism.  

So grab your copy of The Daily Prophet, your Marauder’s Map, hop on the Knight Bus – and remember to get your permission slips signed – because we are going to read the tea leaves as we travel back to the Wizarding World in the third installment of our eight-part investigative series on the Risky Business of Harry Potter.

Let’s begin by taking out our Time-Turner and spinning it back to February 2003 where we’ll find Alfonso Cuarón and the cast and crew beginning production on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”


I Solemnly Swear I Am Up to No Good: Safety Issues on Set


When reading tea leaves that are nearly twenty years old, it is important to remember how much has changed since this movie was made.  Since “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (HP3) was filmed the list of things that have changed, been invented, or discovered would include, at least, social media, cellphones, and mapping the human genome. Most importantly for our purposes, how we make movies, visual effects technology, and on set safety procedures have all changed as well.

The safety issues we found in our research were the result of poor communication, lax security, and mistakes, not malicious intent. This was a beautifully made film and everyone involved had the best of intentions.

And yet, people were hurt, property was damaged, and production was delayed. We would like to highlight four instances that help make the case for risk management on the set of HP3:

  • Draco Gets Hit (Again)
  • Professor Trelawney’s Glasses
  • Hogwarts Express Vandalized
  • Set Incursion

Let’s begin with a common issue. One so common it happened on the last film. To the very same actor.

Draco Gets Hit (Again)

Production on HP3 began on 24 February 2003 with a return to the now-familiar studio Leavesden Film Studios in Watford. But not before the producers found a new director.

According to reports, Alfonso Cuarón was not the first choice to direct this film. Guillermo Del Toro, M. Night Shyamalan, Mark Forrester, Callie Karrie, and Kenneth Branagh were all considered before Cuarón.

Along with Cuarón, production saw a new editor (Steven Weisberg) and new cinematographer (Michael Seresin) joined the team. The core production staff, especially in the costume, make-up, and production design departments all remained relatively unchanged.

This combination of new and old led to a film that managed to do the impossible: change the aesthetics of the franchise while still, somehow, maintaining its core vibe. This film feels both different and yet still a part of the whole.

One aspect of production that didn’t change: actors hitting other actors. Poor Tom Felton is the victim yet again.

In our coverage of HP2, we detailed how the Draco Malfoy actor was injured by co-star Jason Isaacs. In HP3, Felton was hit in the face by Emma Watson during rehearsal.

In the script, the confrontation scene called for Watson’s Hermione to slap Felton’s Draco. According to Felton, he and Watson joked that she should really hit him. While Felton thought it was a joke, Watson took the suggestion seriously and slapped her co-star in the face.

A slap, even a poorly executed one, can cause damage to the facial bones, the brain, and potentially even the eyes. And based on Watson’s form in the no-contact take that made the final film (by then changed to a punch), she could have easily broken some fingers and sprained her wrist. It obviously goes without saying, but no one should be hitting anyone on set.

We will get into how to make this scene safer in just a moment, but we do want to point out that, according to all accounts of this incident, this decision was entirely left up to the actors. The absence of fight choreographers is noteworthy.

Let’s turn our attention to an issue that we have seen (pun intended) before in our risky business series: problematic eyewear.

Professor Trelawney’s Glasses

Trelawney actor Emma Thompson joined the company of Hollywood legend Orson Wells and co-star Daniel Radcliff when she donned those coke bottle glasses to play Professor Trelawney in HP3.

Thompson’s giant, magnified eyes are not the work of CGI. Those are real lenses, and they caused her much discomfort. She suffered from frequent headaches and dizziness during production.

While the risk to Thompson’s eyesight is certainly a real concern – she could have permanently affected her vision – the risk to her health and the safety of those around her is also a major issue here. When we effectively blind our actors with prop glasses like this we invite risks like tripping, falling, stumbling, and knocking things over.

Blinded actors can cause damage to themselves, the set, and fellow cast and crew members. These injuries and damages can easily delay production.

Speaking of delaying production, let’s look at an incident that did just that.

Hogwarts Express Vandalized

The iconic train that escorts the young witches and wizards of the UK from London to the Scottish Highlands and the castle of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – The Hogwarts Express – was a real locomotive used for production.

When not in costume as The Hogwarts express, this train, called the Olton Hall, takes summer tourists between Scarborough and York. The production team kept the train at the trainyard in Scarborough during production. According to reports at the time, a group of vandals spray painted and tagged the train cars. 

Repair costs were estimated at $5,000 and delayed production by several days.

Finally, let’s look at an incident that also stems from lax security and one that could have ended badly.

Set Incursion

During the filming of the Knight Bus sequences, a car drove onto the set and nearly caused a major accident. The driver of the car had apparently failed to see the signage that the production had put in place to keep drivers from entering the set.

Set incursions are a major safety issue and automobiles can – and do – kill people. Sadly, we have seen this issue far too many times in our production lives: in adequate traffic security.

This is a common production problem because shutting down roads and hiring trained personnel are expensive. But keeping our sets secure is vital. Everyone on HP3 is lucky that the driver of that car stopped in time…and didn’t have malicious intent.

Let’s take a look at how risk management could have help production avoid these situations.

Expecto Patronum: How Risk Management Could Have Made Hogwarts Safer


As always, we want to stress that this is not an exercise in performative superiority. After all, if the production team had a Time-Turner like we do, they would undoubtedly go back and fix these safety issues. By examining big-budget films like this, however, we hope that we can help others to make their sets safer and avoid the potential dangers on display here.

Fight Scenes Require Fight Choreographers


As we mentioned in our analysis of “The Princess Bride,” anytime there is any sort of  violent contact between actors, even if it is “just a slap,” we need to make sure that a Subject Matter Expert (SME) – for instance a fight choreographer – is present to oversee the action.

Far too often, productions – and actors – believe that they can safety perform something as basic as a slap, a shove, or a punch without the need for experts. This belief leads productions to take unnecessary risks.

We have seen mistimed slaps result in scratched corneas and burst eardrums, misplaced punches that have dislocated jaws and knocked out teeth, and shoves that have led to broken wrists and bloody scalps.

In this scene from HP3, Hermione is supposed to slap Draco. During rehearsal, Watson hit Felton for real. Throughout all of our research on this incident, we could not find one mention of the fight choreographer on set that day. This likely means that the production team thought they could go without.

At Epitome, we would have flagged this scene during our script risk analysis and recommended that the production have a SME on set that day to choreograph this slap. Had an expert been present, they would have helped to eliminate the risk of actual contact between the actors. 

Remember, this is a movie. It is fake. None of this is real. There is never a need to actually strike another actor.

Try Not to Blind Actors


The Harry Potter franchise contains three famous glasses. Harry Potter’s round (often broken) glasses, Dumbledore’s half-moon spectacles, and Trelawney’s coke-bottle eyewear. Of these, only Trelawney’s contained real lenses; Harry’s were often lens-less and Dumbledore’s were fake.

Professor Cassandra Trelawney is described in the books as:

“Harry’s immediate impression was of a large, glittering insect. Professor Trelawney moved into the firelight, and they saw that she was very thin; her large glasses magnified her eyes to several times their natural size, and she was draped in gauzy, spangled shawl. Innumerable chains and beads hung around her spindly neck, and her arms and hands were encrusted with bangles and rings.”

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”

The production team along with Emma Thompson certainly achieved the right look for this character. But we can make the costume choices a little safer without changing the look of the character.

As production risk managers, we encourage producers to on-board risk management during pre-production precisely because so many important decisions are made at that time. In this case, Emma Thompson’s thick glasses would have raised some concerns for us.

We would have flagged them as a potential risk to the actor, her co-stars, and the crew. Blinding people on set is risky. There are many ways to make this choice safer. Here are a few that we would have suggested to the creative team.

Tips to Make Trelawney Safer

  • Limit Thompson’s time in the glasses – By keeping Thompson out of the dizzying glasses as often as possible, we immediately decrease the risk. We would encourage the production to design the shooting day and their shot list so that Thompson doesn’t need to wear the glasses for long stretches of time.
  • Keep her stationary – Moving around when blind is the real risk here. So we would recommend that the creative team limit Thompson’s blocking so that, when she is wearing the glasses, she doesn’t have to move much at all. This will keep her and everyone around her safe.
  • Consider CGI – This is, after all, a magical world. We would ask that the production consider relying on post-production visual effects to create Trelawney’s signature look. In this case, we could make her look even more bug-like by augmenting her eyes beyond the point of Muggle lenses. All while keeping the set, the crew, and the actors safe.

As we pointed out earlier, problematic eyewear is a common issue in film production. One so common that the Harry Potter franchise has already dealt with this issue on the set “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

It is one thing to “suffer for your art.” It is another thing entirely to be made uncomfortable – and to put everyone’s safety at risk – for the sake of a costume.

Limiting the amount of time Thompson wears the glasses, restricting her movement when wearing them, and relying on CGI to achieve an even more comical (and magical) look would practically eliminate the risks associated with this particular set of problematic eyewear. 

Hire Professional Production Security


Delays cost money. Sometimes into the millions of dollars. Production Risk Management helps prevent delays.

An often overlooked part of risk management is financial risk management. At Epitome, we focus not only on production safety but also on keeping the assets of the production safe and saving the production money and time as often as possible.

Proper security services could have prevented the vandalism of The Hogwarts Express. Epitome’s elite, special-forces-trained security teams have helped keep high-value assets, VIPs, and entire productions safe on practically every continent on the planet. Protecting an integral piece of Wizarding World would have been just a day at the office for our security specialists.

When it comes to The Hogwarts Express, the issue appears to be that the production relied on the threadbare security of the train company. This was an understandable mistake.

But it is important to remember that The Hogwarts Express is a prop, an actual mode of transportation, and a set all at the same time. When an element is this integral to the production, it requires professional security to keep it safe.

By hiring their own professional security teams to maintain round-the-clock security of the train cars during the time period where they are in costume as The Hogwarts Express, would have easily cost less than the delays brought about by the vandalism.

Let’s turn our attention to another instance where professional security would have been helpful.

Prioritize Set Security


Traffic issues are common when filming on-location in city streets. Production not only needs to navigate the often labyrinthine permit process, but they also must provide their own traffic control personnel and equipment.

Often, productions will focus the bulk of their traffic control efforts on major intersections and simply rely on signage for low-traffic areas, side streets, and alleyways. This appears to be what happened on the set of HP3.

While filming at night on the streets of London, the production team didn’t properly secure the perimeter and a driver drove his car into the action. Luckily no one was injured, and no property was damaged.

Distracted driving is a serious issue and a common one. If we rely primarily on signage to keep cars out of our sets, we are inviting the very likely risk of a set incursion from a distracted driver. This issue is even more likely when filming at night, as the production team on HP3 was doing at the time of their set incursion.

Active Risk Mitigation

Professional risk management involves active risk mitigation. This is why Epitome has our RMD (Risk Management Director) on set everyday of production, to ensure active risks are minimized in real time.

Active risk mitigation is also why we offer security as part of our Full Spectrum Risk Management package. This service allows a production to, in all practicality, “set it and forget it.” We have the ability to take care of all risk management, safety, security, and active risk mitigation needs. This allows the production to have a unified safety culture and continuity of care throughout all aspects of a production.

Recent Tragic Events

Set security is more important now than it ever has been. With actual murders taking place on several film and television sets recently, we are all much more aware of just how vulnerable our sets are.

Securing a perimeter requires special training. This is not something that most off-duty police officers or run-of-the-mill security firms can do properly. Set security must be a priority in these uncertain times. To do it right, we need to hire security teams that are specially trained.

Also worth noting: Over the last decade or so, vehicles have been used as weapons. Set incursions by vehicles these days cannot be treated simply as mistakes by distracted drivers.

Welcome to the Knight Bus

Back in 2003, however, it was, in fact, a distracted driver and not someone with malicious intent. Had the production prioritized set security and properly secured the perimeter of their set – to include all avenues of entry – they would have avoided the substantial risk of having a car drive onto their active film set.

Neutralizing Boggarts: Bottom Line


“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” introduces us to the Boggart: a magical being that transforms into your worst fears. For production risk managers, our Boggart is a tragedy on set. Thankfully, HP3 avoided such a fate (but only by sheer luck).

Alfonso Cuarón introduced so many new visual concepts to the Wizarding World but the most significant, we think, is the visual theme of isolation. In nearly every scene, Harry Potter is separated from his friends, his classmates, everyone. He is isolated and alone visually because he his the chosen one. The burden of saving the Wizarding World is his alone. It is a destiny he does not want. And one that he must do by himself. Or so he thinks at this point in the saga.

As Harry matures and the films progress, he learns that he cannot achieve his goal without his friends, and then eventually without a large supportive group effort.

Production risk management and safety is similar. It is often the job that no one wants to do. Those who do it feel isolated at the start and must shoulder a huge responsibility. But in the end, safety is everyone’s job. One person’s risk is everyone’s risk. It is only when we work together that we can truly maximize safety, manage our mischief, and mitigate our risks.

Had we been hired as risk managers for “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” we would have worked hand-in-glove with the creative team during pre-production to develop a thorough safety strategy that involved high-level security for The Hogwarts Express and lock-down perimeter security during all on-location shoots, especially those filmed on city streets at night.

We would also encourage the production to limit the use of problematic eyewear and ensure that a SME is on hand during all altercations, even ones that are as straightforward as a slap on the face. These steps would help the producers avoid the risks present in their production and eliminate the unnecessary delays these risks caused.

You can’t defeat a Boggart. You can only neutralize them. The way you do that is by visualizing the opposite of your fear. In the Wizarding World, this means something hilarious. In the production risk management world, that means visualizing every step of the process executed successfully and safely.

And if you pay close attention during particularly risky days on set, you might even catch a risk manager whispering “Riddikulus.”

Epilogue

The Olton Hall – a.k.a. The Hogwarts Express – continued to ferry young wizards and witches for all the additional films. The train was built in 1937 and remained in service, off an on, until 2014, when it was retired. It is currently on display at the Warner Bros. Studios in Watford, where it will stay until Warner Bros.’ lease on the train expires.

West Coast Railways – owners of the Olton Hall – have embraced The Hogwarts’s Express moniker and operate the train route depicted in the films, though it doesn’t terminate at Hogsmeade. They replaced the Olton Hall with the Jacobite, and Potterheads the world over can ride The Hogwarts Express for around £52.

HP3 was not the last time The Hogwarts Express was vandalized.

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is the only film in the franchise directed Alfonso Cuarón. But he left quite an impression. Most of his changes were incorporated into all the subsequent films. The muted tones, the geography of Hogwarts, the location of Hagrid’s hut, the use of street clothes at school, the elimination of the pointed hats for Hogwarts students – and so much more – began with Cuarón.

Cuarón went on to direct some of the best and most acclaimed films of the 21st century so far: Children of MenGravity, and Roma. He has gone on to win the Oscar for Best Directing twice, among many other awards and nominations. Cuarón has cemented himself as one of the best directors working today. So it is no wonder that his Harry Potter film is considered by many to be the best of the bunch.

While this film is often cited as the moment when the franchise grew up, the productions itself was anything but. Cuarón encouraged a sense of play that spread throughout the cast and crew. So much so that even stalwarts like Gambon and Rickman got in on the action.

During the scene where all the students are sleeping in the great hall and Dumbledore and Snape walk through whispering while the camera is trained on a not-sleeping Harry, Gambon and Rickman hid a fart-machine inside Radcliff’s sleeping bag and, via a remote control, set it of repeatedly during one take. Resulting in quite a bit of laughter and levity. See for yourself.

Riddikulus, indeed.

As this series continues, we will highlight risky behavior that led to broken ribs, near drownings, paralysis, psychological issues, and much more. Stay tuned to Epitome’s blog for more Risky Business.

[Photo Credits: Warner Bros.]

Major Sources and Further Reading:

Epitome Risk is a Woman-Owned, Veteran-Run, U.S.-Based risk management company, specializing in risk management and COVID-19 safety support for tv & film productions. Epitome Risk works together with the film unions, insurers, studios, and production companies to make every project as safe as possible. 

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About the Author

Brian Smolensky
Brian Smolensky
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. He runs the Script Risk Analysis Department at Epitome Risk and is their lead Script Analyst.

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