Les Miserables. Fight. Dream. Hope. Love.

Published on website: January 23, 2013
Categories: 35mm , Feature Films , The StoryBoard Blog
Hugh Jackman stars in Les Miserables. Photo: Laurie Sparham Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen, BSC captured all the drama and splendor of the Academy Award®-nominated musical Les Misérables over approximately 70 days. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, the story unfolds in France in the early 19th century. The cast includes Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.

Hooper and Cohen had previously collaborated on the award-winning film The King’s Speech. Prior to shooting, the two looked at previous versions of Les Mis.

“I think my favorite was that 1935 film with Charles Laughton,” says Cohen. “They all gave us something to think about, even though we were doing things differently as a full-on musical. At the same time, Tom has always gone for something with authenticity. For me, the task was to do something that felt real, something where people seem genuinely poverty-stricken – the conditions were pretty grim. The question was how to integrate and balance the singing with the hideous conditions of the time. The minutia that Victor Hugo described is incredible. But he was describing a world where nobody was singing.”

Danny Cohen, BSC. Photo: Laurie Sparham Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


The filmmaking team also did quite a bit of testing, comparing different mediums. “We compared Alexa and 35mm film,” recalls Cohen. “We looked at 3-D, and 65mm film, the quality of which is amazing. In the end, for a variety of reasons, we chose 35mm film. What film has over digital is that it’s organic, it’s slightly softer, and there’s grain. There’s a certain sharpness to digital; you can treat it, but if you shoot on 35, what you see is what you get. You get an amazing image without a lot of post production.

“We shot well over a million feet of film using (KODAK VISION3) 200T, 500T and 250D. We also shot a tiny bit of 50D,” adds Cohen.”We started off using some 50D, but with the English weather, the 250D gives you a little more flexibility for exteriors as the light fails at the end of the day.”

Photo: Laurie Sparham Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


The format choice was Super 35 3-perf with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “One might think it’s a no-brainer, the film would have to be widescreen because it’s an epic, massive story with armies fighting and lots of action,” says Cohen. “But obviously, when you go widescreen, you lose a lot of the height in the frame. That means you’ve got to come back wider on a wide lens to see more of what’s upstairs. Why not let the spaces have more room on the screen? When you start something like this you ask yourself tons of questions, trying to work out how to do it. In a sense, there’s really no right way of doing it and there’s no wrong way of doing it. Basically, you make some decisions which hopefully are the right choices to tell the story.”

Danny Cohen, BSC. Photo: Laurie Sparham Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


A lot of the film is handheld. “There is a big moment when Hugh Jackman comes out of church, rips up his parole papers and throws them into the abyss,” says Cohen. “We shot part of that at an Oxfordshire church, and that element was to be dropped into a CGI mountain environment. It was planned as a big, sweeping crane move with magnificent vistas. But it occurred to us that to have these spectacular crane moves now and again would be slightly jarring. So what we ended up doing was a handheld move back as Hugh Jackman runs out of the church. The camera operator then stepped back onto a crane, and we turned away from Jackman and headed to the heavens. Rather than a slick Technocrane move, it’s all a bit messy but much more part of the film.

“We tried to stay very faithful to the book,” adds Cohen. “But it’s quite daunting. How do you squeeze that much into a two-and-a-half-hour movie? Of course, a lot of the actual detail in the book doesn’t make it into the movie. The music and songs dictate a lot of the story. I think that’s what is fun about the movie – you’ve got the emotions from the films and the musical. The musical is so familiar; 25 million people have seen it. I’m interested to see how die-hard fans of the stage version are going to feel about it. I’m excited and very nervous.”

The response has been good – Les Misérables received eight Oscar® nominations, including one for Best Picture.


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