Roundtable interview with Diagon Alley designer Marcos Bessa

On Friday, Blockwarts along with five other LEGO Fan Media sites found our virtual seats around Marcos Bessa for a roundtable interview about the 75978 Diagon Alley set he was the lead designer of. With sharpened pencils ready (we’ll leave the Quick-Quotes Quill for Rita Skeeter), we started with a few initial words from Marcos followed by a barrage of questions from the Fan Media sites. Here is what we learnt…

Marcos started the conversation briefly explaining the history, mentioning the process designing the set started 1 ½ years ago. And as the discussion continued, he emphasised a number of times the end product was the result of combined effort of a larger team, and they all shared the initial excitement of being part of the project, frustration of not being able to share what they were working on with others, but were now truly being rewarded by the positive reactions from the community.

Team Effort – the team behind the amazing Diagon Alley set

Marcos also pointed out out Diagon Alley wasn’t the largest Harry Potter set out there. With 6020 pieces, the 2018 Hogwarts Castle (set 71043) got that prize, but – as he added – it would be the longest Harry Potter set (as when set up in one row, it measures 102.4 cm).

Then we took turns asking questions. As they overlapped somewhat, I’ve grouped the discussion into different themes below.

Size matters?

The size/piece count did trigger a few questions during the rundtable.

It was noted that the 2018 Hogwarts Castle with 6020 pieces had it as a homage to the lead designer Justin Ramsden’s first set, Magic Shop (set 6020). The Magic Shop was also the first set to include a wizard minifigure. So did the 5544 piece count in Diagon Alley have a similar hidden meaning?

But no, there is no easter egg hidden in that number. Rather, it is purely a result of the design process, as it is most often the case. Generally, the designers target a price point – not the number of bricks. Different price points target different audiences and shopping occasions. For Diagon Alley, the target audience was the same as for the Hogwarts Castle, and basically the design team was to come up with the most impressive Diagon Alley they could deliver for that price.

While the piece count wasn’t an Easter egg, the colours of the Portuguese flag can be found in one of the buildings as reference to Marcos home country.

Design process

When questioned about the design process, we were told the initial idea was to have fewer, but larger buildings. The first concept had just three buildings (Ollivanders, Quality Quidditch Supplies and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes) each with three levels. But the source material (see next section) didn’t really provide much guidance as we didn’t see the top of the buildings, nor much of the interior. So basically, the design team had to make up all of that, with each such idea having to be cleared with the licence holder Warner Bros.

In the end, it was decided to move to more, but smaller buildings. And to appeal to both collectors and kids, the buildings are made with a good display front, but also open back. Reducing the size of the buildings led to the most compromise for the Weasley joke shop, being a corner store.

In the end we got six buildings rather than 3

The lack of reference material also lead to a floor representing the Daily Prophet office being scrapped and replaced with something more generic.

Personally, I like that they ended up with more buildings. Some may want to add another floor or a back wall (or a Daily Prophet office floor) and will modify the set accordingly, but most would appreciate getting so many buildings that display really well together.

A clever mechanism allows the arm and hand holding the hat to move up and down as in the movies.

Marcos was also congratulated for the mechanism moving hat and arm of the big Weasley shop figure up and down. It works nicely, and is well hidden within the model itself. He explained how the use of digital design process helped speeding up that process trialling a number of different options.

Reference materiel

During the roundtable, the reference material available to the design team was discussed numerous times. Given the license with Warner Bros, the movies rather than the books should be their main reference. But while we don’t get to see much of many of the Diagon Alley buildings in the movies, the actual movie set had a lot of detail, and they have had access to internal Warner Bros photos and drawings from that, which helped showing what the buildings looked like in the early movies.

This was less important for Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, as it didn’t appear till the Half-blood Prince, and the set used in the movie is the Diagon Alley now showed at Harry Potter Studios Tours in London. But the other shops generally represented how they looked in the first three movies, which is quite different from the appearance in the Half-blood Prince. The exception is the door to the Daily Prophet, which instead matches the one seen in the later movies, as the door and sign were a lot less interesting in the first movies.

Those colours…

The 75978 Diagon Alley set has been received well, but one thing that has been brought up is the pink colour of Quality Quidditch Supplies, which is quite dominant given the size of the building. Marcos explained that based on the source material available, there wasn’t an exact match to LEGO’s current colour palette, and pink was found to be the closest available. The old lighter pink colour or sand red (which hasn’t seen much use for any sets) would have been more accurate though. I’ve seen some rebuilding it with light grey, but does make the first half of the street very grey indeed.

We were told that a lot of consideration went into the colours and how the buildings would look together. With the first two buildings for instance, while both to be greyish, to differentiate them they used warmer colours for Ollivanders and cooler for Scribbulus.

This included using transparent yellow windows for Ollivanders, which gives a warmer look and make it appear like it is lit up inside. The 2×2 window glass has not appeared in that colour before, and as other LEGO designers, like Mark Stafford, noted to Marcos – the fans of LEGO’s classic space theme would be really excited, as it it was part of the colour scheme used for the original space LEGO released in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Leaving a legacy

Apart from the trans yellow windows, Marcos leaves another legacy – the 1×3 wand box. He told us, he was really keen to get that element for the interior of Ollivanders. This is a brand new mould and I’m keen to see how it will be used by AFOLs in the future for other purposes.

The wand box – and the transparent yellow glass panels visible in the back

But there is more. I pointed out the inclusion of the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff Quidditch uniforms and asked into them. Marcos explained that as a Ravenclaw, he right from the start really wanted their uniform in the Quality Quidditch Supplies – and adding Hufflepuff as well, would ensure all four houses have Quidditch uniforms in their colours, as sets previously have been heavily focused on Gryffindor and Slytherin. I’m sure a lot of Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws appreciate their inclusion!

What is not there…

We have talked a lot about what is included, but a part of the discussion covered what wasn’t included. It was clear that the choice of buildings were in agreement with Warner Bros.

When asked if the three buildings that were included in the 2011 Diagon Alley (set 10217) had any influence on the those of buildings in this year’s set, he confirmed that was the case. In 10217, Gringott’s Wizarding Bank had been the focal point and they wanted to create something different with 75978 Diagon Alley, with the Weasley shop being the main attraction. I’ve seen many using their 2011 Gringott’s bank with the new set, and that seems to work well, in particular for those who have added a third level to it.

Gringott’s Wizarding Bank was the focal point of the 2011 Diagon Alley set

While Gringott’s isn’t there (it wasn’t discussed, but hopefully we’ll get to see it in a future set), Marcos told us we had the entire one side of the Diagon Alley set from the early movies, with the exception being a smallish broomstick repair shop just across from Gringott’s. The other side of the street is however not represented, but I’m sure some with come up with models of some of the lesser known buildings like Slug and Jigger’s Apothecary, Potage’s Cauldron Shop and Madam Malkin’s Robes for all Occasions.

Customer experience

I’ll complete this write-up covering what Marcos told us about the customer experience. He was asked if the order the buildings were built meant anything particular, and he said it was it was a journey somewhat similar to the movies. The key shopping experience in the first movie was at Ollivanders, hence starting with that. The second of the four modules is the Quality Quidditch Supplies, which was seen briefly ahead of Ollivanders – but as Harry didn’t enter it didn’t seem as a strong enough reason to have it first. The third module includes both the book store from the second movie and Ice Cream shop which was seen in the third movie. Lastly, of course, we get Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, which didn’t feature till the sixth movie.

We also asked into whether there were any cool building techniques he wanted to mention. Marcos pointed out a few things to look for, such as the piles of brick built books inside Flourish and Blotts to match those seen in The Chamber of Secrets, but in particular the windows. Many of the buildings uses very clever brick geometry to create the shapes seen in the movies – the big bay windows and the curved windows of the Weasley’s joke shop.

Personally, I really like the forward leaning window of the Quality Quidditch Supplies set, which perfectly captures the leaning buildings seen in the movies.

The design team also thought of how to create an ever lasting memory – such as including something unexpected. It can be building techniques as discussed above, or unexpected content. And who knows, maybe there is a surprise hidden inside the box…

Have you built the set? Please let me know in the comments what your thoughts are. My review of this set is still a few weeks away, as I had to travel overseas just around the time it was released, but it will come as I return home and enter my mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Till then, Build the Magic!

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