In the world of Muggles, an owl isn't the first choice for a pet bird. But in the world of wizards, owls are the "in" companion pet, at least according to Harry Potter's friend, Hagrid – they are not only good company, but they deliver the mail.
On the set of the film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," there were a lot of owls – 16 of them in fact. Some were snowies, some were great grays, and others were tawnies. They played the magical mail-carrying birds seen throughout the film. Seven were needed to play Hedwig, the owl Hagrid purchased for the young wizard prodigy: named Gizmo, Kasper, Oops, Swoops, Oh Oh, Elmo and Bandit.
All of the animals that appear in the movie were handled safely and responsibly, according to the American Humane Association, which supervised their handling. Scenes that were deemed risky or potentially harmful to the animals were carefully shot using computer animation or even puppets.
Neither Sleet nor Hail nor the Dursleys …
In the book and the movie, Harry's irascible Uncle Vernon Dursley tries his best to thwart delivery of the wizard's letter inviting him to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But more and more dedicated owls flock outside the Dursley home. Nothing stops the owls from making their appointed rounds.
In reality, only a few real owls were used to film the scenes, along with some fancy photography and computer-generated special effects. The real owls were well trained to fly from one area to another on cue, to be rewarded with a treat.
Some of the flying sequences were filmed with an owl perched on a trainer's arm, with a wind machine blowing on them to simulate flight. These scenes were later added to other special effects that made it appear as if the owls flew at great heights.
The scene in which scores of owls perched on power lines, the lawn and the roof – all waiting to make sure the letter had been delivered – was filmed using fake or computer generated owls. The owl that delivered Harry's Nimbus 2000 broom was real – but the broom was actually made of paper.
Although throughout the movie, it appears the owls carry messages and even the broom, they didn't actually hold the objects. Instead, they were attached to the birds using an invisible harness. When they reached the right point, a trainer pulled a cord, which released the message or object.
Dogs, Cats, Rats and Toads
Animals received royal treatment. In many cases, the animals received better treatment than the human actors – such as the scenes with the cats Mrs. Norris and Professor McGonagall. Many of the scenes take place in a real castle, which was actually quite drafty and cold. For the cats' comfort, they were provided heated floors to keep their paws and their bodies warm. The human actors had no such comforts.
Mrs. Norris was a scrawny, ill-kept and matted creature who constantly patrolled the corridors, looking to catch even the smallest student infraction. Three Maine coons played the part of Mrs. Norris. The unkempt appearance was achieved using a collar with fake fur attached. In addition, hair was spiked up using a non-toxic hair gel. Mrs. Norris' malevolent red eyes were achieved using digital effects, not contact lenses. Three Maine coons were used to play the role.
Rats and toads are also featured in the film. Twelve real rats, a puppet and a mechanical rat were used to portray Scabbers – Ron Weasley's fat critter. During the candy-box scene on Hogwarts Express, the crew relied on the mechanical rat for most of the scenes.
Four toads played the scenes with Trevor. Trevor was a toad that belonged to student Neville Longbottom. When a toad was required, he was placed on an armchair or handed to an actor then retrieved when the scene was over and placed back into a heated terrarium.
Fang, Hagrid's imposing but sweet-tempered "boarhound," was actually played by four Neapolitan mastiffs. One of the mastiffs, named Bully, had been rescued from a junkyard. After the film was over, one of the trainers adopted him.
When Harry ventures out into the Forbidden Forest, he meets a centaur, a creature that has the head and arms of a man and the body of a horse. Although the centaur was computer generated, the special effects crew used a real horse to get the movements perfect. They photographed horses running, jumping and rearing.
Alas, the special effects department did not have a ferocious three-headed dog available to use for reference. Fortunately, they were able to make do without the real-life examples.