The Wizarding World always sparks imagination – as we’ve seen with so many interpretations of the Harry Potter stories over the years. As Cursed Child unveils new reimagined artwork, we step back with their design team Muse to study the evolution of its design.
From the cinematic creations conceived by design team MinaLima, to the carefully detailed illustrations of Jim Kay, so many facets of the wizarding world have been brought to life by an endless number of talented artists.
Whether it’s a lovingly hand-painted piece of fan art, or an epic installation at the Warner Bros. Studio Tours, it seems like every nuance of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts stories has, at some point or another, been invigorated by talented minds. Just think of the delicate carvings of a characters’ wand or the glorious CGI magical creatures we see in the films designed from scratch. We’ve seen it all. Because what could inspire an artist more than the impossibilities of magic?
In 2016, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was unveiled at London’s Palace Theatre, with the front of house adorned with a lone child trapped in a mysterious nest with wings. After years of associating Harry Potter with round glasses, the lightning bolt scar, or the rustic turrets of Hogwarts castle – the eighth story in the franchise had invented a new moment of iconography for a new Wizarding World era.
Now, the hit play has rejuvenated its artwork as it prepares to reopen in theatres across the world, showing two figures swirling through time in swaths of deep purple. So, what do they denote? And how was it conceived?
It was a team effort to achieve the finished product, with Cursed Child’s production team and marketing agency AKA all contributing to the look and feel you see below. But it was down to creative agency Muse Creative Communications to fully conceptualise this fresh visual celebration of the play – and to build upon the original concept.
We spoke to co-founders of Muse, Shaun Gale and Marc Evanson on how they retold the tale of Cursed Child through a number of artistic concepts – and how they tackled such a challenge in the throes of a pandemic lockdown. The first job? Taking the original concept and building upon it with something fresh.
“It feels like quite a long time ago now,” Marc said, when we asked him how it all started.
“Shaun and I didn’t actually know each other before Cursed Child came along. Shaun had designed the original nest concept and when it came to actually realising that and creating key art, we met on the photoshoot, photographing the ‘child’... so in an odd kind of way, if it wasn’t for Harry Potter, Muse wouldn’t have formed. After that, we became friends, stayed in contact and things aligned in 2018 to create Muse. We were heavily involved in that first concept and it was really nice that Sonia [Friedman] and the producers reached out to us again recently to see how things could evolve.”
In the beginning, fans were urged to ‘keep the secrets’ of Cursed Child, to respectfully give time to those who wouldn’t get a chance to see the magic of the play for a while. This posed a challenge for the posters and artwork, with Muse creating something both ambiguous but layered with meanings. During his time at previous creative agency Feast Creative, Shaun conceptualised the child in a nest idea, which would soon go on to grace poster artwork for several products of Cursed Child across the world. It even sparked fan theories on what it all meant.
“We were given fundamental key points: time travel, abandonment and protection,” Shaun explained. “I thought this was such a strong metaphor for abandonment, when a lone bird is left on its own in a nest – I just couldn’t think of a better way to reflect abandonment than that. And the wings kind of evoked time travel in a very metaphorical way. But fundamentally, ever since the beginning, there was also a subliminal image of the Snitch within the image that wasn’t coincidental.”
“It’s always the classic part of the brief – we want to have something iconic,” Marc added. “it’s probably the most overused phrase, but everyone wants it, whatever that is. And to us, it’s something visually simple and often symbolic that really encapsulates the essence of the play. Creatively, we’ve been in this industry for many years and it’s a difficult thing to do – it’s probably the hardest thing to do, to create something simple. And actually, to have that memorability image that people do recall and to have longevity. What Shaun created so beautifully and brilliantly was this metaphoric creation, this image, which ended up being iconic.”
With seven books and eight Harry Potter films already out and beloved by fans across the world, Muse faced the secondary challenge of trying to create iconography that was as well-known as what the book covers, and film posters had already tackled. The Harry Potter theatrical campaigns of the films, for example, famously employed darker themes in the artwork as the films progressed.
As fans of Harry Potter already, (“I’d read all the books and seen all the films,” Marc laughed) the pair tried to remove themselves from what they already knew.
“When you’re working on something so well-known and there’s an automatic visual that people recognise, that was part of the challenge as well, to disconnect. It was still Harry Potter but a reimagination of it. And that was very important to convey that difference,” Marc said. “Everyone was involved, everyone was inputting their thoughts. It was very much an evolving process which I think really helped because there’s so many layers to the play. There’s such an enormous team involved, the set designs and costumes and lighting and sound – it’s phenomenal.”
So, the nest became a staple at the Palace Theatre in the centre of Leicester Square. And the pair, based in the UK, still get excited whenever they walk past.
“Even now, friends and family send us photographs saying, ‘Look, we know the person who did that’ – and even now when I walk past it, I take photographs even though I’ve seen it a billion times,” Shaun admitted.
Skip five years later, and Cursed Child became an international award-winning success worldwide, earning plaudits on Broadway, with other productions announced for Melbourne, San Francisco, Hamburg, Toronto and Tokyo. When the world stopped in its tracks in early 2020 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, theatres, among other entertainment venues, were left devastated, shutting down in various countries for months.
During lockdown, the producers of Cursed Child decided to use this time of reflection to reimagine the play. It was recently announced that Cursed Child would return as a reimagined singular performance in New York, San Francisco and Toronto, moving on from its original two-part structure.
As for the design side of things, Shaun and Marc returned to offer up new concepts, this time, looking at the story from a different perspective. The finished product is a striking development from the bronzes and browns of the original art – now showcasing grandiose, swirling clockwork, amassed in dark smoke and golden fire. The contrast of the light and darkness was very much intentional.
“We began working up a new look for the artwork in the depths of Covid when there wasn’t a lot of uplift and people needed hope. It was a very dark time for us all, and when we were working on this, it was a serious matter – so having something that could offer that light, that beacon, was really key,” Marc said.
The new artwork focuses heavily on time travel: a key plot point in the play. Shaun and Marc worked on over 70 drafts of the artwork with this theme in mind before hitting the desired effect, all the while keeping the DNA of its predecessor.
“It was evolution, not revolution,” Shaun explained. “This was moving on but to be sympathetic to the nest and the wings and that original shape, that structure, hopefully that’s still reflected subliminally when people see it.”
“We realised the aspect of time in different ways and different plains were all circular,” Marc said. “That Snitch shape was something we found ourselves being draw back to. We did explore other concepts that didn’t have that but we kept on feeling like that synergy was so strong.”
Along with retaining those motifs, Muse were also tasked with other challenges, such as injecting the artwork with the energy of live theatre and weaving more elements of time travel within the entire piece.
“While the nest was metaphorical and poetic – the desire here was to give more of an understanding of what is to come, what this spectacle really is. The energy and electricity and the magic were the key objectives,” Shaun said.
And as for creating this new artwork while working remotely in a lockdown? The team certainly got more creative than usual with their colleagues. In one of their older designs, which featured a wizard holding aloft a wand triumphantly, Shaun and Marc recruited their art director Miles Mittra to pose with... a toilet brush.
“With some clever retouching, he put a cape on himself, we changed the toilet brush to a wand, which was quite important!” laughed Shaun. “And we’d do Zoom calls, send sketches backwards and forwards, there was a lot of experimentation.”
From there, the team worked on post-production with their photographer Seamus to bring the sketches to reality.
“We’ve worked with Seamus many times before – he was the best person we worked with in terms of lighting,” Shaun said. “Even in post-production on the shots Seamus took, it was hours of retouching.”
Seamus was instrumental in helping light the two shadowy figures we see on the poster - Harry and his son, Albus. The team worked together to create mystery in the figures, to pay homage to the several different actors who play Harry and Albus across the world.
“Fundamentally, you’re creating a silhouette image of the two characters. That was part of the challenge of the brief as well – the central figures are Harry and Albus – but for longevity and to create a bit more of an iconic image, they’re recognisable – it’s about making sure their poses and expressions told a story, even if you could not see the expressions on their faces. So, to get the key lighting to create something that wasn’t a solid block of black was really important with the right photographer as well.”
So, with Cursed Child’s various returns to theatres across the world on the horizon, the future looks bright not just for Muse, who have already launched themselves into new projects, but for the many homes of Cursed Child across the world.
“The future’s looking optimistic actually,” Marc said. “There’s a lot of positive producers out there and it’s amazing to see. We’ve been fortunate to be involved in some of these productions, and I know it must be so difficult when you do get a setback, but what it’s shown is – this industry will not get knocked over and stay down and it’s great to see.”
“Shaun and I have had the privilege of seeing this show more than once, and it’s such an amazing production,” he added. “And it’s had a lot of meaning for us for simply being Harry Potter as well. Will there ever be a theatrical event as big and as worldwide as this?”