Les Misérables

Have too many words already been written about this movie? Probably, but I’m here to share my thoughts about the film from the points of view as both a movie fan and a music editor. WARNING: I’m going to get a bit deep in spots here about the technical side of producing the music for the movie – mind you, I did not work on the movie so my observations will be strictly based on my past experiences working on musicals and SIMPSONS production numbers, so while what I write may not be 100% accurate as it applies to “Les Misérables”, it should give a pretty thorough look at the process.


I have to start with what some may find a shocking admission: I had not seen “Les Misérables” on stage nor listened to the score in its entirety until just last spring. I am a big fan of Broadway musicals and have listened to many of my faves over and over countless times. “Les Misérables” just did not light a fire under me. My wife had wanted to see it for some time so when it came to Los Angeles last year we went. I enjoyed it, but was not bowled over by it and found the story a little tough to follow at times.

Fast forward to this summer when the buzz for “Les Misérables” started building and the one bit of interesting info that kept being talked about was that the singing was performed “live” without lip-syncing. I believe that movie audiences are more savvy about production methods than ever before, but I also believe there were large numbers of people who heard that tidbit and either said “what?” or “so what?”

The first movie musical I remember seeing (and I’m sure this is true for many people of my generation) was “The Wizard of Oz”. Even as a young child I noticed that when Dorothy spoke in those opening black & white scenes on the farm that there was a slight echo to her voice, especially when she fell in the pig sty and screamed. Then when she sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” the voice sounded fuller, rounder and had no echo. (The terms I’m using here were not in my vocabulary when I was seven years old. I felt and perceived these things but couldn’t verbalize them.) I even noticed that the ambient sounds of the scene seemed to disappear when the singing started – no clothing rustle, no body movement, etc. Years later I learned why this was the case – musical numbers were all “pre-recorded” and the actors would sing along with the track during filming. “Lip-syncing” is the popular term for performing to a pre-recorded track, but it gives the impression that the actor is “miming” his or her singing – moving their lips and opening their mouth with no sound coming out. In every case where I’ve been involved with filming to a pre-record the actor actually sings during filming and that singing is recorded but is only used in the editing room to sync to the pre-rcorded track. During the filming the pre-recorded track is played over speakers so that the actors can sing along. For this reason alone (although there are others) the recorded singing during filming cannot be used because the microphones pick up the sound of the “playback” booming in the background.

There are many technical advantages to filming to a pre-recorded track:

  • During pre-recording you can get the musical “take” you really want and it will never change
  • You can pre-determine the tempo and thus the length of the song and it will never change
  • The film editor can cut between multiple filmed takes of the performance with no effect on the music because the chosen musical take “runs under” all of the filmed takes and will tie them all together into a unified performance
  • The actor can sing and dance and turn toward and away from the camera with no effect on the vocal

SIDEBAR: It goes without saying that all singing performances on THE SIMPSONS are pre-recorded because, since the show is animated, the characters can never sing “live” during filming. However, the actors do not always sing to a pre-recorded instrumental track. For example (and quite wonderfully coincidentally for this blog post) Anne Hathaway sang her rendition of “Moon River” for episode LABF20 “Once Upon a Time in Springfield” entirely a capella, but you probably remember that her character was accompanying herself on guitar. I had the pleasure of directing her singing for all the other songs she sang in the episode, but “Moon River” was tacked on at the end of her dialogue recording session and I was not there and neither Alf nor I were told about it in advance. After she sang the song I was told about the need for the guitar. I found a solo guitar accompaniment for “Moon River” edited it and changed the speed and pitch and laid it in as though Anne had performed with that guitar all along. I sent the edited guitar track to Alf and when we scored the episode the great George Doering came in and played guitar, replacing my editing work and giving the episode a fabulous closing.

What are the disadvantages of filming live singing performances? Well, just read all of the advantages above and turn them upside down. Plus how to deal with that playback-in-the-microphones issue? Even the best trained singers cannot sing a song from start to finish and stay in the same key or maintain a strict tempo without an accompaniment. The pitch and tempo drift ever so slightly over time and this makes it difficult (if not impossible) to edit together a performance from multiple takes – yes, we have AutoTune now, but even AutoTune won’t work in group singing scenes where everyone’s voice leaks into everyone else’s microphone. If a duo or trio aren’t singing in tune with each other, you can’t tweak the pitch of one without tweaking the pitch of the others – everything moves in lockstep.

During the golden era of movie musicals in the 40s and 50s, wireless microphones, wireless in-ear monitors, and the ability to digitally remove those items from view weren’t even being dreamed of. Today, their existence is what made the live singing in “Les Misérables” possible. Both the pitch and playback-in-the-mics problems were solved by having an off-stage pianist alternately leading and following the singing while keeping the performance on-pitch and on-key throughout. Once all the filming of the singing was completed, then the real heavy lifting in editing could begin.

As I mentioned earlier, with a pre-record once the final take is chosen, the performance and the length will never change (well, maybe an edit might creep in down the line, but I digress) so the editor knows exactly what the timing limits of the scene will be. With live singing, each take, just like with acting, will be different – sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in major ways. Now it becomes a little tricky to cut between two takes that have decidedly different tempos or vocal emphases. When you watch “Les Misérables” you will notice long stretches of singing without any cuts – most notably Anne Hathaway’s stirring performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”.

Once the editing of the scenes is complete, then the matter of the orchestra has to be fully addressed. In pre-recording the orchestra is recorded first with the actor then singing multiple takes of the song until everyone is happy. For “Les Misérables” the orchestra was recorded last. I’m not 100% sure how this was accomplished, but I’ll give you my best two guesses. Either click tracks were built for each song based on the tempo of the recorded singing and the accompanying piano track or the orchestra conductor listened to the vocal and piano while watching the filmed performance and led the orchestra the way a Broadway musical or opera conductor would – or a combination of both. The main reason to use a click track is because most recording studios are not the best sounding rooms for listening to music – seems ironic, I know, but recording studios are meant to cut down on reverb and have the ability to isolate sections of the orchestra so that they can be cleanly recorded. A concert hall, on the other hand, is built in such a way that the sounds blends and homogenizes as it floats through the air on its way to the listener. This also helps the orchestra members to play together because they can hear each other. It is rather difficult for orchestra players to hear each other on a scoring stage, so the click track helps greatly with that hurdle.

Using a click track also allows for “pick-up” takes to be more easily edited together. A “pick-up” take is simply a small portion of the larger take. Say a four-minute section of the music is recorded and all but ten seconds of it are perfect. Rather than rerecording the entire four minutes, you would just re-do the ten seconds and edit that into the four-minute recording. A click track acts kind of like a pre-record in that it is always the same and each click will fall in exactly the same spot in the music and the film, over and over, making  editing much simpler.

The “Broadway” or “opera” style keeps the spirit of the live performance going in that the interaction between orchestra and singer would be very much the way it is eight times a week on the stage – very organic, very in-the-moment.

I feel confident that it was a combination of these two methods. Perhaps the music team will be interviewed and tell us how it was done.

So, after my long-winded treatise on musical post-production are you still interested in my opinion of the movie? If so, read on.

I loved it. I found the music, the story and the performances very moving. I thoroughly enjoyed and respected the live singing. I was able to follow the story much better than I did watching the stage version (probably because the words could be more clearly understood than in a large theatre). Much praise has been heaped upon Anne Hathaway’s singing of “I Dreamed a Dream” and I am in full agreement. One of the most astonishing parts of her performance is that she cries through most of the second half of the song but never loses her singing voice. You should just try talking and crying at the same time and see how difficult it really is. Film critics have been rather displeased with the long close-up shots during the solo songs. I find this to be a film criticism that doesn’t jive with the way a musical or opera is staged. A solo song is exposition, plain and simple. The character is explaining how he feels, how he arrived at this point in his life, and what he wants next. In the theatre, these songs are sung directly to the audience so it makes perfect sense to me that the movie shot should be in close-up and sung directly into the camera, something that is verboten in usual film story-telling. There is precious little intercutting during the songs in the movie. Director Tom Hooper allowed most of the songs to be performed uninterrupted by camera angle changes most of the time. I also think this makes critics and audiences fidgety with today’s music video approach to editing where the angle changes every couple of seconds.

SIDEBAR: My wife and I indulge in the guilty pleasure of DANCING WITH THE STARS and our biggest complaint on a weekly basis is that the director constantly cuts away from the dancers’ feet or away from a full-length body shot of the couple to a close-up or overhead spinning shot at the precise moment that they do some really fancy footwork. Watch a classic M-G-M musical sometime and watch how the camera captures the dancers from head-to-toe and uses minimal cuts so the viewer can absorb and enjoy the dance.

On the critical side for me, Russel Crowe makes a very good Javert in terms of the character and acting, but his singing felt a bit strained at times. Not awful, just a little overmatched by others in the cast. I was surprised that most of Valjean’s songs seemed just a tiny bit on the high side for Hugh Jackman’s range, but to change the key for his songs could create a domino effect with much of the rest of the score that would be quite undesirable. In some of the coloratura passages Amanda Seyfried’s voice seemed a bit wispy.

I whole-heartedly recommend this movie to fans of musicals in general and fans of “Les Misérables” specifically. If you don’t fall into one of these two camps, you may still enjoy the movie if you go with an open mind, allow yourself to be consumed by the story and be aware that the entire movie is sung save for three or four lines of scattered dialogue.

One last nugget for the truly die-hard movie musical fans out there: I was fortunate to be one of three music editors who worked on “Gypsy” starring Bette Midler in 1993. “Gypsy”, for the uninitiated, is a landmark in American musical theatre history and the role of Mama Rose has been played by some of the finest actresses in history. It was somewhat of a coup that the 1993 version was even made because author Jule Styne was so disappointed with the 1962 film version starring Rosalind Russel as Mama Rose that he vowed to never let “Gypsy” be made into a movie again. But Bette Midler and the producers persuaded him to let them try again, he relented, and everyone was happy with the final result. I bring this up because while most of the songs for this version were pre-recorded, three of the songs were sung live with Musical Director Michael Rafter sitting off camera and playing piano. We had three music editors on the film – one for editing the songs, one for handling the score, and one (little ol’ me) to handle building the click tracks for the orchestra for the live songs. The biggest challenge of these was for “All I Really Need is the Girl”.  All shot in an alley in downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the night, sung live, piano playing off-camera, then with orchestra added after nearly two weeks of building, refining, editing, and refining again the click track. I’m very proud of this work and I earned my second Emmy nomination for being part of the music editing team. See this finished product below (music starts at 2:11.)

Thanks for hanging in there with me for this post. Back to Springfield next time.

Happy New Year everyone!


4 thoughts on “Les Misérables

  1. Hi Chris! First of all, Happy New Year!!!
    I really like this post. I will study production so this is going to be helpful to me.
    About The Simpsons I´d like to know some notes or the music sheets of Lisa´s Sax Solos of the opening show. I will be very grateful.
    Greetings from Argentina.

  2. Happy New Year Chris! (it’s now 2013 here in the UK)

    Anywho, on topic and I have to say I first watched “Les Misérables” fully just over a week ago, as I enjoyed a couple of songs on YouTube, thought it would be my kind of thing and then stumbled upon the full 25th Anniversary Concert on YouTube. I thought it was great and look forward to checking out the film at some point, because as you said I think it will make the plot clearer, if not just because with the 25th Anniversary the stage design didn’t really change, they just used lighting to hide the background when it wasn’t a full ensemble number (though as you said, I have no problem with close-ups on solo songs – they could just paste Samantha Barks’ stage version in and I’ll be happy to watch! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYWIVmTBECE )

    Great article about the process. I have to say, as I get watching more and more musicals and getting through my favourite singers’ film backlogs I do notice the difference (especially if there’s dialogue in between the singing, like Bing’s “you must be one of the newer fellows” in “Well, Did You Evah?” from “High Society”), but in many MGM musicals and the likes, unlike Broadway, the song is less an emotional monologue and more a jolly good time, for lack of a better term, and so it’s much better to have dancing and moving then a plain shot.

    Anyway, long comment over!
    Happy Holidays,

    P.S. I’ll add the 1993 “Gypsy” to my to-watch list

    • Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. Nice to know I’m not the only one who is relatively “new” to Les Miz. I hope you do get to watch “Gypsy”. It was a wonderful experience for me and a great version to have preserved on film.

      Happy New Year!

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