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Revolutionary spirit drives ‘Les Mis’ biz

Eye on the Oscars: Below the Line

Above: Director Tom Hooper on the set of ‘Les Miserables.’ Full collaboration among all crew was part of his vision for the film.

One of production designer Eve Stewart’s best days on the set of “Les Miserables” came when she wanted to involve more than just her fellow designers in the finishing touches of one of the film’s key sets: the streets of Paris where the young revolutionaries would stage their protest. She asked “everyone,” as she recalls, including the makeup, vfx and costume departments to take a stroll up that street with her.

“I asked them to think about who worked where and what shop went where, and describe the street with infinite accuracy,” she says. Every department adopted a shop and “put their own identity into it,” says set decorator Anna Lynch-Robinson. “That was how we realized the street — we got help with dressing it up.”

Every film requires a certain amount of “it takes a village” attitude if it’s going to achieve cohesion; hundreds of talents and creative minds thrown together often for the first time can only create a finish product if they’re willing to work together. But for “Les Miserables,” which struggled to create an epic musical on a mid-range movie budget with constrained shooting time — a collaborative esprit de corps was exponentially more vital.

“It was massively important,” says cinematographer Danny Cohen. “Everyone’s got to feel they’re doing the same thing — not just me with camera sound, but production design, the AD department, all the people who facilitate things to make them happen. Nothing happens without everybody making it happen.”

Collaboration was part of director Tom Hooper’s vision from the start: “We had big meetings about how we would have to work as a real team to deliver the singing dream,” Hooper says. For example, any extra sounds during the live singing on set would have interfered with the audio track, so everything on the sets had to be muted or designed in such a way as to avoid excess noise. That meant Stewart had to create floorboards that looked rustic but did not squeak, and costume designer Paco Delgado had to choose fabrics that wouldn’t rustle, and everyone had to work with the sound department.

“I’ve never felt so much in all my life how one utterly depends on the variety of individuals to make a film,” adds Hooper.

Cohen, for example, struggled with the issue of using multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously: “When you shoot with three cameras, when you light something there’s a sweet spot with one camera that has the best angles — the A camera may have the best angle, and the B and C cameras may not.” Cohen says he worked closely with the lighting department to at least have a shot at getting equally solid performances with all three cameras at once, he says.

Meanwhile, those long multiple cuts would end up being sent to editors Melanie Oliver and Chris Dickens, who had to “go through all the materials to find those moments of spontaneity,” that were worth preserving, Oliver says. They had to change the takes, which featured long sections of singing from the live-performing actors, multiple times to get the right one, and “every time we made a change the orchestration had to be altered,” Oliver says.

That meant an even closer alliance than usual with the music programmers, music editors and CGI effects team. “We were constantly discussing how to adapt the score to the voices — it’s a big leap from the piano they play on set to the full orchestration — and we did our best to protect the integrity of the actors and their performances.”

Meanwhile, the more traditional association between production design and costume was woven even closer. Says Delgado, who was working on his first big-scale production: “On the whole I had a lot of freedom, but there were always conversations between me and the director and the production designer.”

Costume often liaised with design to compare fabric samples or color swatches painted on walls. “We’d have costumes come down and stand in front of the (painted walls) and take photos of key actors and look at their skin tones to make sure they’d look their finest,” says Stewart, adding that “Les Mis” brought together “people at the pinnacle of their careers. They were showing everything they can do, everyone in every department. Whether it shows or not — I don’t know. For me, it was like a climax of skills. And that’s satisfying.”

Eye on the Oscars: Below the Line
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