Danny Cohen, BSC, chooses ARRICAM cameras and ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime lenses for Tom Hooper’s bold adaptation of the famous musical

LES MISÉRABLES, the wildly popular musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel set in 19th century France, has been staged in 43 countries; translated into 21 languages; and seen on stage by over 60 million people worldwide. There have been at least 14 film versions and numerous television adaptations. So why did Tom Hooper, the Academy Award-winning director of THE KING’S SPEECH, decide to film it again, particularly under the strain of so much expectation?

Go behind the scenes of LES MISÉRABLES in this featurette about singing live on set

It could seem like the maddest choice ever,” says Danny Cohen, BSC, cinematographer on LES MISÉRABLES, who also collaborated with Tom on THE KING’S SPEECH and two television productions, LONGFORD and JOHN ADAMS. “Tom had never done a musical before – it’s not a genre that really gets produced at all these days – but this opportunity came his way and he had some fantastic and groundbreaking ideas for how to do it.”

An unusual element of LES MISÉRABLES as a musical is that the entire story is told in song – there is hardly any spoken dialogue. The hugely significant choice Tom Hooper made was to record all of the singing live on set. The actors would each have an earpiece to hear a pianist off-set playing the music directly to them. The idea was to give them freedom and flexibility to act their parts in the moment, rather than having to act according to a pre-recorded track, which is the usual way of doing film musicals. As Cohen recalls, “Tom really had to battle to convince people that this was worth doing, and it did mean there would be massive technical implications in how to shoot and light it – but he felt it would be worth it to bring the power and truth to the story.”

To prepare for such an epic production, Cohen first went to the source and read Hugo’s five volume novel. “It’s a really good read, a real page turner and describes just about everything about humanity,” he says. “I also saw the West End show at the start of prep, which was eye-opening. It’s a big production and you get the sense that half the audience has seen it more than once. It’s also very long at around three hours, which is fine in a theatre but unusual in the cinema – we knew from the start that we would have to leave things out, and that’s hard when so many people know the story so well.”

For a period production, film has more of those almost imperceptible qualities like texture, patina and grain.

In addition Cohen watched many of the different film versions and was struck by the variant takes on the story. He also took visual inspiration from Visconti’s classic film, THE LEOPARD, particularly for its street fighting scenes as the Italian revolution unfolds.

However, before any on-set decisions were required, they needed to decide what to shoot on. After testing a wide range of different formats, including 3D, 65 mm, 35 mm, ALEXA, anamorphic and spherical, the choice was eventually made to shoot with a classic 35 mm spherical package of ARRICAM Lite and Studio cameras with ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime lenses. “For a period production, film has more of those almost imperceptible qualities like texture, patina and grain,” says Cohen. "Of course you can do all that in post with digital images, but if that’s what you’re looking for, why bother? Also, with the 35 mm I knew what to expect, so once I’d had discussions with the rushes grader I knew how the film would look.”

Having the actors singing live meant shooting with multiple cameras to facilitate uninterrupted takes. A main unit of an ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ camera filmed throughout: ‘A’ camera was operated by Zac Nicholson, who shot the actors as close and wide as possible throughout the shoot, while the ‘B’ and ‘C’ cameras, operated respectively by Luke Redgrave and Vince McGahon, shot other parts of the action from further away on longer lenses. On heavier set-up days there could be as many as 10 cameras working simultaneously on various sets.

Cohen is a long-time fan of Master Prime lenses, and the broad range of focal lengths provided invaluable flexibility on the multi-camera shoot. “The lenses themselves are superb, that’s a given; but for me, particularly on this job, the choice of focal lengths was the biggest advantage,” enthuses the cinematographer. “I had access to every conceivable lens size I could possibly want, from 12 mm up to 150 mm, plus Ultra Primes at 8 mm, 10 mm and 180 mm.

“Tom likes to have wide lenses very close to the actors,” he continues. “If you go on a longer lens your field of view is narrow and the point of focus is solely on the face, while the background falls away. We wanted to capture not just the performance but also what was going on behind the actor in the sets and scenery, so we shot wide with shorter lenses to keep more of the background in focus and give us more opportunities to tell the story visually.”

ARRI Media supplied the cameras and lenses, while the lighting package came from ARRI Lighting Rental. “It was a massive logistical deal, but I’ve worked with [ARRI Media’s] Russell Allen and [ARRI Lighting Rental’s] Sinead Moran for a long time and they were great – the team really bent over backwards to make everything available as we needed it and it was all easy – one less thing to worry about,” Cohen states.

The core camera crew consisted of around 15 people: three operators, three focus pullers, three 2nd ACs, a central loader and four or five grips, and this number increased exponentially on bigger days. Cohen pays tribute to them: “The whole crew really was phenomenal on this project, there was so much to do in a relatively short time and everyone worked fantastically hard.”

Much of the action was shot at Pinewood Studios, using the enormous new T stage for three key sets as well as M stage for the ‘Lovely Ladies’ number. Lighting the sets was a major challenge due to the style and nature of the shoot. “Having wide lenses close to the actors is all well and good but in some ways we had shot ourselves in the foot – finding places to put lights that created the right mood but were not in shot, was certainly a challenge!” says Cohen, with an air of understatement. “For instance, T stage housed a café set that had solid ceilings, and literally the only place to put lights was next to the beams, so we hung 15 tungsten light bulbs and played with that.”

These self-imposed lighting constraints meant that, on some sets, actors were not always in the light, but Cohen chose to make a virtue of this necessity. “You make a judgment on how far you can just let things happen and create an atmosphere in the room to tell the story. The actors were already under a lot of pressure – they had the pianist playing in their ear, they had to deliver songs take after take, and I felt it wasn’t fair to make absolute demands on how and where they could move. Smart actors can feel the light and know where to go. I wanted to give them the freedom to make it work, and I think having them moving in and out of light and shadows has given it a more period look that works for this dark story.”