Making “Les Miserables” Sound Real
Not surprisingly, Les Miserables is one of the most talked about movies during the 2012/13 Awards Season. Based on the hit musical that first burst upon the scene in 1985 at London’s Barbican Theatre, LES MIZ, as it’s affectionately known, has been continuously wowing audiences worldwide in multiple languages for over a quarter of a century. When time had come to finally bring the musical to the big screen, producer Cameron Mackintosh hired THE KING’S SPEECH director Tom Hopper (left) to helm the project.
One of the challenges of adapting Les Miserables to the screen is the fact that, not only is it essentially an opera, with very little spoken dialog, it’s an opera with a very demanding score. Traditionally, the makers of movie musicals had always pre-recorded songs and then had the actors lip sync to the pre-recorded material. But, as has been widely publicized, Hooper wanted the songs recorded live on-set so that the actors had total flexibility in delivering their performances.
While recording actors singing their parts live had been done before, it was always to a pre-recorded orchestral track. But Hooper wanted to give his cast the freedom to organically vary the pacing and musical beats of their songs. So he had a pair of pianists on set, each of whom had worked on LES MIZ for at least 15 years. Cast members wore ear buds to hear the pianists, who, in turn, were instructed to let the actors determine the tempo, instead of vice versa. It proved to be quite the challenge, not just for the sound team, but for just about every other department on the production.
Recently, production sound mixer Simon Hayes and re-recording mixer Andy Nelson spoke at length about the challenges of making Les Miserables at an Awards Season screening. Hayes was confident he could properly record the songs live, having done so with two of the songs for the movie MAMMA MIA, which was built around songs by the musical group ABBA. “What was unique about this production was that the acting took precedent over the musical tempo,” said Hayes. In fact, the mantra for the entire production was, “it’s all about capturing the performances. The performances would always take precedent.”
Hayes was in perfect sync with Hooper’s desire to record the songs live because he believes that, even a perfectly recorded ADR session has a negative subliminal effect on the audience. He says that while audience members watching may not even know what ADR is, they sense that there’s something phony about the scene. In traditional musicals, because the songs themselves tend to be less than three minutes and are surrounded by naturally recorded dialog, filmmakers can get away from lip synching, or “miming,” as Hayes calls it, because it takes several minutes for the subconscious to catch on to the lip synching. But since almost all of Les Miserables is sung, with only a handful of spoken lines, that technique just wouldn’t work. “I don’t know of an audience that would sit through two and a half hours of miming.”
There was one exception to the policy of recording everything live, which was the opening sequence, set in the Toulon shipyard where convicts use large ropes to pull ships into the dock. This particular scene takes place during a rain storm. Hayes told Hooper that he wasn’t going to be able to cleanly capture the ensemble singing, but Hooper didn’t believe him. “I told him you’re going to have wind machines being run by V8 engines. You’re going to have wave machines hitting actors in the chest. If I get it live, it’s going to be compromising the visuals to such a huge extent it’s not going to look like those men are pulling in a ship in a storm. We ended up doing a wild track of the actors actually pulling on the ropes. We played that back through speakers and they mimed to that.”
With the decision made to record virtually everything live, the next challenge was determining how to properly cover each take. With traditional musicals, because the songs are all pre-recorded and lip synced, directors tend to shoot snippets that would then be assembled in post. But with live performances, if Hooper had done that, it would have been virtually impossible for Chris Dickens and Melanie Ann Oliver, the film’s editors to cut the film with any semblance of musical continuity because everything would have come from different performances. So the decision was made to not only shoot much longer takes, but also to cover each take with at least three cameras, giving cinematographer Danny Cohen the first of many challenges.
Hayes used both highly directional boom mics and wireless lavalieres to capture the sound. “Normally on a movie, your sound priority is with the boom mic, because that’s what’s going to give you the best sound.” Hayes explains that the boom mic is compromised by shooting multi-camera, so he had to start rely more on the radio mics. There are special challenges with radio mics beginning with the way the small size of a lavaliere microphone lacks the dynamic range of the much larger boom mics. To address this problem, Hayes used DPA’s line of miniature microphones, which he said, while not quite as good as boom mics, “they were a damn close second. In fact, unless you’ve got the boom in a really good close up position, the DPA is going to win.”
Another challenge with using wireless mics was the way they interacted with wardrobe. Hayes said that normally he would hide the wireless mics in the actor’s wardrobe so that it would be invisible. They would then clean up any muffled sound with ADR sessions. But again, since the priority was in capturing the musical performances as pristinely as possible, he worked very closely with both Cohen and costume designer Paco Delgado, who worked with him to use the most sound-friendly fabrics and costume designs possible and then provided him with samples of all the fabrics that would be used for the costumes so that the lavs could be more effectively camouflaged during long shots. For close-ups and medium shots, Cohen framed the shots so that, most of the time, the wireless microphones were out of frame. The microphones were digitally removed from the shots where they were still visible. Likewise, when the ear pieces that the actors used to hear the pianist were still visible in the shot, they too were digitally removed.
Les Miserables went through eight weeks of rehearsal before shooting and Hayes took advantage of that time to fine tune his recording game plan, testing the microphones and playback system and essentially treating the rehearsals as if they were actually shooting. “While Tom was working with the actors, I was learning about the differences in dynamic range, including what my microphones could do and what they couldn’t do.” Because Hayes was specifically asked not to do any limiting or compression during the recording process, he used the entire 24 bit recording bandwidth. “But this meant we had no safety net. If someone suddenly decides to go loud, you haven’t got anything that’s going to stop it from distorting. In sonic terms that means you have to record with a little bit more headroom. It wasn’t about the sound quality. It was about the performance quality. If these actors put in a fantastic, emotive performance in a take and it was all in tune, which was what would go into the movie. Performance took precedence over everything else.”
This meant that many of the departments had to make compromises in order to accommodate the performances. For example, towards the end of the movie, there is a scene between the characters Eponine and Marius that takes place in the rain. It’s Eponinie’s death scene and very emotional. But the sound of all that rain water hitting various surfaces would have ruined the sound quality of Samantha Banks’ heartbreaking performance. Hayes got the art department to lay down hog hair dampening pads on sidewalks and rooftops that were off camera and used black bolting fabric to make impromptu ponchos for the camera crew to wear over their wet weather gear. Otherwise, the mics would have picked up the sound of the rain hitting the raincoats during the quieter parts of Banks’ song.
They even set up the sprinklers so that the water flow could be adjusted in ways that photographed as rain, but made as little sound as possible. “Those droplets were as small as possible. Any smaller and you wouldn’t have seen them on camera.” But there was still the matter of how Danny Cohen was going to photograph Banks. Normally he would use a silver reflector board to bounce diffuse light onto her face so her eyes would be highlighted. But the rain hitting that board would have been too loud. So the shot ended up visually compromised in order to best capture the performance.
When re-recording mixer Randy Nelson received the tracks at the end of production, even though he was the one who recommended Hayes as the location mixer, he was still blown away by the quality of the audio. “The quality and humanness of the voices was what I loved. Simon gave me completely clean tracks. There was no processing, compressing or limiting that would normally go into location recordings. Simon knew I could handle that at a later point.” Hayes went on to explain that over the years he developed the practice of bypassing the commonly used practice of recording via three band EQs on set so that he can give people like Andy Nelson recordings with completely flat responses so that they have as much flexibility as possible in working with the original, raw and unprocessed sound. “This idea of adding a pinch of mid-range here and taking a bit of bass out there doesn’t work when you start putting sequences together.”
Before Nelson began work and the full orchestral accompaniment recorded and mixed, Les Miserables had to be cut together. The actual mix was essentially a trial and error process for Nelson. “We did it song by song. The surrounds were a huge deal because we wanted a very immersive feel since it’s all music. But it became very clear that if we did that for every song it would be too overwhelming.” Finding the right balance of surround-intensive versus a less immersive mix proved to be a challenge for Nelson, especially because he had a looming release date to meet. “I actually went through the film three times very quickly because the only way to learn this film was to actually mix it, then sit back and watch all two and a half hours and ask ourselves what we learned. Each time was very revealing and the third time is what we ultimately used.”
As both Hayes and Nelson pointed out during the conversation, although rare, live musical recording on movies has been done for a long time. But the new techniques that Hayes and his team incorporated to capture the performances in Les Miserables sets a new gold standard for the way movie musicals may be produced in the future.