Listen Up: "Les Misérables" hits the Silver Screen

The much-anticipated film adaptation of London and Broadway's smash hit, "Les Misérables" debuted last week with a fresh new approach to film-making. Unlike typical musicals, "Les Mis" didn't use a pre-recorded vocal score, but instead, the actors sang live on the set.

 In the past, movies from "The Sound of Music" to "Funny Girl" to more recent films like "Chicago" recorded the songs months before filming begins. On set, the actors just lip-sync to the pre-recorded score. Did you really think that Julie Andrews was singing live on that hilltop in Austria, or Barbra Streisand was belting it out holding onto that tugboat in the New York City harbor?

Director Tom Hooper wanted to do something that's never been done before. He wanted to record this as a live musical, to give the actors a chance to perform the songs on set, without being restricted to a previously recorded score. This gave the actors a chance to interact with each other on set, and gives the performances a unique sense of realism. 

Hooper said, "With this story that's so much about the grind of living, you know, real people suffering, I wanted to, in a way, give the power back to the actors and allow the actors to do what they do best. If you're singing to playback, you've surrendered one of the most powerful mediums of acting communication, which is the control of time and pace. ... It's not conducive to really getting to a raw, emotional place."

"The challenge I laid out to all my actors when I cast them was, 'You are all performing these globally iconic songs, and yet you need to make it appear that your characters have invented these songs in these times of crisis - have ripped them from their soul. You are not doing a rendition of a song, you are offering a song as a character does a soliloquy.' And I want to give them all the weapons at their disposal to do this."

When Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean is moving quickly across the room, his voice has a breathlessness that matches it. When Amanda Seyfried's Cosette gets up out of a bed, we hear her clothing move and her voice changes as she moves from sitting to standing. And in what is sure to be an award-winning performance, Anne Hathaway's Fantine "I Dreamed a Dream" has an exposed and explosively raw emotion that is captured flawlessly.

A live pianist was playing along with the actors, fed through induction loop "earwigs" that were concealed from the cameras. The final score was created after the perfect performances were edited. The difficulties this created were unique. Each different take could have different tempos.  The sound effect designers had wanted their effects to blend in musically. Horse hooves were edited in time to the music, and if the tempo changed from one take to another, they had to adjust the beat of the horses.  The most challenging, perhaps, is how to record high-quality sound on the set, when most films these days rely heavily on ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) that lets engineers replace the sound recorded on location which is usually unusable, due to uncontrollable elements.

Capturing the performances on "Les Mis" was especially challenging. Extraneous sounds needed to be eliminated so that the voices could be used in the final production. This video is a fascinating look behind the scenes.  

Production sound mixer Simon Hayes discussed some of those challenges in an online forum, in particular the scene where screen newcomer Samantha Barks is singing in a rainstorm. In the film, you can heard the change in her voice as she turns her head down to her clothing – again, this is something that would never be heard in a pre-recorded score.

Hayes reported, "From the outset the whole movie was planned to avoid re-records and ADR, from set design to special FX. The Production Sound/Post Production Sound and Music depts. were all one team who collaborated from the beginning to help Tom (Hooper) achieve his vision. We had many tricks up our sleeve to achieve the highest quality singing possible on a movie set including 3 Boom Operators on main unit at all times who were part of a 7-man Production Sound Team."

"If we are to look at just one difficult sequence shown, which is Samantha Barks singing in the rain I can tell you how we achieved what you hear. Every roof top and every piece of floor not in shot was covered with rubberized horse hair to deaden the rain hitting it. Cameras were covered with a 'horse hair roof' attached over the top of it to stop the noise of the droplets hitting the polythene bag keeping it dry. The camera department were wearing ponchos made from black 'bolton' fabric over their wet weather gear to 'soak up' the sound of the water hitting them. Samantha Barks was wearing 2 radio mics, and they were changed on every take for fresh dry ones to eliminate possible moisture affecting the lavaliers. The Special FX team made sure that the actual droplets falling around the camera were adjusted into a fine spray to reduce impact noise."

"The guys at Abbey Road asked me to record the whole of Les Misérables without the use of limiters and that in itself was a fantastic challenge, because there was no safety net, the actors were trying different performances (volumes!) on different takes, but the results were worth it. Using the complete dynamic range of the equipment and trying not to ride the gain gives a more real and truthful performance ultimately because when the actor goes quiet you are not 'equalizing' their performance by bringing them up, and by the same token when they go loud, you are not eroding the dynamic of the performance by 'bringing them down'."

"Every scene was approached with this level of attention to detail and when a Sound Department has the director and the actors working with them and backing them up to try and achieve something extraordinary a lot can be achieved."

Even the set designs were based around creating the best sound for the film.  More from Simon Hayes:

"One of the questions Tom Hooper asked me in the very early stages of pre-production on Les Misérables was whether I would prefer to record the exterior scenes on real exteriors and contend with the background noise issues, or whether I thought we could get better results on the vocals by building the exterior sets on an interior. My answer was I would definitely prefer to build the sets in a sound stage where we could guarantee quiet backgrounds. He told me the sets would be so big he didn't think there were any sound stages in the UK big enough to house us. He was of course talking about the Rue Plumet set which is the Paris street where the barricade is built, the battle is fought and there are many scenes there."

"Of course we have 007 stage at Pinewood but it isn't a Sound Stage and frankly has an awful acoustic, with reverb and you can hear the backlot studio traffic and a distant motorway. I told him that given the choice between a 'warehouse' like 007 or a real exterior I would go for a real exterior but the big issue would be aircraft. Wherever you go in the UK, because we are such a small island, aircraft noise is a big problem."

"A couple of weeks later Tom gave me some great news. Pinewood was building a new Sound Stage called "The Richard Attenborough Stage" and it was going to be the biggest in the UK, and it would be ready in time to shoot Les Misérables. In fact, much of the shoot was planned around the availability dates of the stage and we watched it being built with daily updates of whether the builders would hit their planned finish date because if they hadn't it would have caused huge timing problems with our shoot."

"Eve Stewart, the Production Designer, built a fabulous set, which literally filled this huge stage with the buildings going all the way up to the space lights! It was truly a sight to behold. So, we had a great, dead acoustic to record the 'exterior' Paris street scenes in which really helped with our effort to capture superb live vocals from the cast. The first step to being able to use the live vocals is making sure the backgrounds are not polluted and when editing between shots there is no background change, and the stage build allowed us to do that."

"Speaking of Eve, she asked me how to approach building a set that was going to be helpful to record live singing on and my reply was to try and build everything for real. When she put cobbles in, they were REAL cobbles, and the same for flagstones. She used a lot of big heavy timber frames so the sets sounded natural and unlike a movie set, so that the Foleys that we picked up under the vocals would at least sound real if we had to use them."

"Of course there was some cheating, like the fantastic idea of putting rubber shoes on the horses and replacing the steel wheels on the carriages with rubber. This allowed Tom to build up busy background action in the street scenes which didn't compromise the vocals. I also use rubber backed carpets whenever actors' feet are not in shot to again allow cleaner vocal recordings and give the Foley editors the chance to use some really beautiful Foleys. I am a great believer in getting the dialogues (vocals) as clean as possible to allow the re-recording mixer to push the FX, music and Foleys more. That is impossible if the vocals are already swamped with 'onset' background noise. On Les Misérables we had a dedicated truck that was full of rubber backed carpet and sound blankets, and one of my sound team's whole job was dedicated to getting that carpet onto the set as soon as the lenses were tight enough to allow it."

"We also had an extremely helpful Special FX team. One of the systems I have been using on films in my collaborations with Matthew Vaughn is something we call 'silent wind'. When you build an exterior set inside, or work on a green screen interior that will become an exterior scene when CGI is added, one of the main issues for sound is the actors needing wind in their hair and on their costumes. What we developed is a system where the wind machines (fans) are left outside the studio and the air is piped in through holes in the wall inside flexible air conditioning tubes. Then a special FX technician holds and points a tube at each actor.This means the director gets the realism of wind, but the Sound Department only needs to deal with the actual noise of air moving rather than the electrical engine noise and rotor noise of the fans. The wind noise is just a high frequency constant that can be adjusted later, whereas the engine noise is so loud and broad frequency it usually leads to ADR. On Les Misérables we used silent wind, and with careful special FX technicians with precision aiming, and the use of wind gags on interiors we managed to get clean vocals even when the wind was blowing!"

As a fan of the show, and an audio post-production engineer myself, I went in to "Les Mis" with extraordinarily high expectations. They were exceeded. I can honestly say that this is a classic, and with such exemplary performances, one that will live on for years. Is every note pitch perfect? No, not at all, but this just adds a realism that matches the gritty reality of the story. Go see this movie again and again. I know I will.