September 21, 2012

Reinventing the Movie Musical: Recording Live Performances with Tom Hooper's 'Les Misérables'

Academy Award wining director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) is taking an untraditional approach to making a movie musical with his new film, Les Misérables. While musicals will typically go into a sound studio months before to record the singing, Hooper has decided to have his actors actually sing on set, and use that audio the same way one might use recorded dialogue. Click through for a behind-the-scenes look at the film and an explanation of the technique.

Most of you will probably never be in this position in your filmmaking careers, but it's definitely an approach that applies to other areas as well. Getting something on set will more often than not yield more interesting results that will be different from take to take, whereas doing something in post is much more static. It's interesting to hear Hugh Jackman talk about being able to change his performance to however he was feeling. This is something that would be impossible to do if it was recorded before.

Live performances (whether singing or dialogue), also have a more realistic quality to them. Something done in a studio typically has a certain sound to it, and it can be "too perfect," which is one of the things that can often give away dialogue as being ADR. The more you can get cleanly on set, the more engaged an audience will usually be to what they are hearing, because the performance matches the voice perfectly. An interesting approach if you have no other choice could be to go back to the same exact location to re-record dialogue. It's not perfect, but if you don't have a professional team of people working on audio, it can be the cheapest way to get a realistic result.

While this is yet another remake of Les Misérables, it's good to see a director at the top of his game trying something different.

What do you guys think?

Link: Les Miserables Video Featurette Explains the Emotional Advantage to Singing On Set -- Film School Rejects

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16 Comments

Interesting timing, I just did a tutorial where I gave myself a challenging filming location and filmed how I would go about working around the obstacles. The "scene" involved shooting a dialogue scene right next to a waterfall. Couldn't really go back to the location and do ADR but I think recording your ADR outside for scenes shot outside really helps. There's just a natural reverb/acoustic that is really hard to nail in Editing.

September 22, 2012

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That's Fantastic! I always love hearing about new approaches and techniques when it comes to filmmaking. To me it makes sense to record musicals like this, of course locations and schedules may not always make it the most practical approach. I'll definitely be checking it out when it hits theaters... plus the cast looks great.

September 22, 2012

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"Reinventing" is a too strong word. I remember of "Canção de Baal",

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1554924/

Is a musical and the songs was recorded on set. And i hate that movie, but they did it yet in the past, and I believe there are many others.

September 22, 2012

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Samuel

The difference is that the movie you mention is diegetic music - meaning we should be hearing it because it's actually happening. Real musicals are a totally different thing, since there is a full orchestra accompanying the singing. The movie Once did the same thing as the Brazilian movie you mention - many others have as well. But a real movie musical is entirely different, because for the most part only the audience knows the characters are singing - they are not technically singing to each other within their world, and they are usually not playing the instruments we are hearing.

September 22, 2012

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Joe Marine
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In the 30's when sound first came out and 40's in the golden age of musicals, all the musicals were recorded live on set. It's not really reinventing, it's recycling.

September 27, 2012

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AE Randall

Recording live singing is a great idea! But the technique that's used here is not new. The opera Tosca (Giacomo Puccini) was filmed and broadcast live for television in 1993 in the precise settings and times of the libretto. TV director was Brian Large.
[source: imdb]
This production [Tosca] was originally broadcast live in three parts - each part corresponding to each act, each act performed and broadcast from the actual building in which that act takes place in the plot, and at the exact time of day the action in the particular act occurs. None of it was filmed on sets especially built for the production. To accomplish this unheard-of feat, the singers were outfitted with tiny, nearly invisible radio transmitters plugged in their ears, which enabled them to hear the orchestra playing the accompaniments in the studio as the singers actually sang live in their respective locations.

There's also the movie 'The Death of Klinghoffer' based on the opera by John Adams. The singers perform live. Directed in 2003 by Penny Woolcock. I don't know which technique they used here for musically accompanying the singers

September 22, 2012

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Eric

This is really big. I had some doubts about this movie because of some of the casting (just some personal preference) But with this news I definitely have to go see this.

@Eric - I have not seen the Tosca but that sounds like a something different but similar. It sounds to me like that was the same as filming a live stage production with a multiple camera set up, but it was on location rather than in a theater. What seems to make this production of Les Mis so special is how they are going to cut between shots. I a multi-camera shoot it's easy to cut because its one event. I looks to me like this was shot like a normal movie production so one song could contain literally hundreds of separate events with the number of different takes. Which takes a ton of planning on when you are going to cut from shot to shot to maintain the integrity of the music. And what seems so intriguing to me was hearing all the actors talk about the spontaneity they were allowed because they were shooting like this, and as we all know sometimes when you allow actors that freedom all the 'planing' goes out the window because they do something brilliant that doesn't fit with how you planned on cutting. I'm very excited by this.

I'm sure all the pieces of this production have been done in some way before (for there is nothing new under the sun) but putting it all together in this way in a production this size is exciting. It also allows the singers a freedom that doesn't exist, or only happens in certain set moments of a show, in live theater. On Broadway they've rehearsed with the orchestra and under the guidance of the musical director and director. Yes it's live and different every night, but its not that much different. When its good the challenge is not making it different but keeping it from becoming stale.

This really puts the actors in the drivers seat. Yes they will rehearse and plot a course, but if something happens, and once it's caught on 'film' that event is now a viable option for telling the final story. It brings much of the spontaneity of cabaret singing to big budget Hollywood musicals.

Joe, thanks for posting this hear. I'd seen it on Facebook already, but glad this community will look into it.

And Hugh Jackman is going to be brilliant in this thing.

September 22, 2012

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@Michael Markham Yes you're right, the projects differ in many ways. Tosca was a multi-camera shoot and it was live, so one event. But it is very different from filming a live production on location. It was made and directed for camera (no audience present), as is Les Misérables. As you say the intercutting is interesting here and certainly a reason for me to go and see Les Mis.
With Tosca they went a couple of steps further in drawing the audience in, by shooting in the Settings and at the Times of Tosca and broadcast live (in over 100 countries). In three parts - each part corresponding to each act, and each act performed and broadcast from the exact location, and at the exact time of day the action in the particular act occurs: (Rome, 1800) Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo
Here's a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=NL&v=a_DAAlCbhag

September 22, 2012

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Eric

I've actually seen that Tosca, it's wonderful.

It's definitely interesting the way they did it, and it's one of the things that makes opera singers so special, being able to get the vocal performances they do out on location - and still act the entire time.

This film is doing things quit a bit differently, and let's not forget it's a big Hollywood movie with Hollywood actors. I do think though it would be fascinating to see a film done with an opera in exactly the same way as this production of Les Misérables.

September 22, 2012

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Joe Marine
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I don't know if this is done in exactly the same way (probably not) but there's live singing in the movie based on the opera The Death of Klinghoffer:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_za_H8d2X4A

September 22, 2012

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Eric

Yeah I'm not sure, but I don't really know anything about that particular movie, did not actually know this opera existed, either. Interesting stuff.

September 22, 2012

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Joe Marine
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I wouldn't necessarily count out Hollywood actors. Jackman is a Tony winner for Boy from Oz, and before he was Wolverine, he was Curly in Oklahoma on London's West End. Anne Hathaway, though I can't stand her usually, has a very nice voice and a musical background. Sascha Baron Cohen has a very legit voice, and was the only good thing about Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Crowe is a very well cast in the character of Javert but I'm curious if he can sing it or if they are going to need to bolster him a lot in post. But for the most part it seem they got real singers this time, which is nice to see for a Hollywood musical.

I haven't had the chance to watch much of the Tosca, which looks brilliant, but it sounds like it was recorded in a theater. There is zero environmental sound. Is that possible? or has the youtube link been doctored in some way? I'm curious to know.

September 24, 2012

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Definitely wasn't counting them out at all, just mentioning why this is different - it's Hollywood we're talking about, and it's on a scale and production value that no one has seen with this technique.

Actually if anything Jackman is the certainly the one who has the most experience - I mean he did this for a living before.

September 24, 2012

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Joe Marine
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@ Michael Markham - My guess is that with the sound levels the opera singers were producing not much environmental sound was recorded with Tosca.

September 28, 2012

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Eric

oh god, musicals *shudders* so boring. the horror, the horror! I remember having to watch the umbrellas of cherbourg for one of my classes.

September 22, 2012

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john jeffreys

Brilliant movie. One of the best musicals ever. Great ending too.

But why am I letting myself get trolled by jj..

Shame on me.

October 1, 2012

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Daniel Mimura