Shooting `Les Mis`

Victor Hugo`s novel Les Misérables, first published in 1862, became a major stage musical in 1985. Translating it to film required the vision of Director Tom Hooper and the talents of the creative team from the stage version, plus an additional writing team, a huge ensemble cast headed by Hugh Jackman,
Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, and an enormous crew. Unlike most movie musicals the majority of the singing in Les Misérables was done live as the actors performed, often in quite challenging conditions. This meant songs could be full of emotion, not simply belted out over playback.
The production needed three full-time camera crews, with more added when necessary. `A` camera operator Zac Nicholson aco (Johnny English Reborn, The King`s Speech, Pirate Radio, This is England) and `B` camera operator Luke Redgrave aco (Jack Ryan, Mamma Mia) share memories of this amazing and unique project.

Zac Nicholson ACO had to find quieter knee pads to film Anne Hathaway singing.

Demanding Style

Les Misérables was by far and away the most mentally and physically challenging job we`d ever had the privilege to work on. It was shot in a relatively short space of time and at an extremely high tempo. Tom Hooper is a man who has huge stamina, pace, and a razor sharp mind. He has exacting standards, and expects no less from his crew than he is willing to give of himself. 
Tom Hooper and Director of Photography Danny Cohen bsc were extremely clear about what they wanted in shot conception, shot composition and style of each frame. The actors of course were being given the freedom to express themselves; the operators were expected to adapt and change their blocking accordingly, still delivering interesting and challenging frames. We`d almost always shoot the rehearsal.

It was a tough shoot. It`s always quite a physical process with Tom, a great deal of handheld and a lot of Steadicam. We estimated that roughly 90% of the film was either handheld or Steadicam. Handheld is absolutely part of Tom`s style. He likes the camera work to be quite visceral when it`s appropriate. Also, he likes the camera to be as free as the actors. With that in mind, he prefers not to be tied down to a dolly and a track. This in turn gives the actors as much scope as they want in terms of freedom of movement. We had some huge sets, and Tom really enjoys having the cameras make use of the whole space. This would include running full pelt over the rubble or going over a barricade, through a tiny gap in the doorway or through cracks-places where a dolly just wouldn`t go. 

It`s hard for a person carrying a camera to go there too. All the operators incurred a few bumps and scrapes but somehow we found our way. 
An example of this is when Marius-Eddie Redmayne-is badly wounded on the barricade. Hugh Jackman rescues him by carrying him through the back of the café and crawling into a sewer to make good their escape. The camera of course follows him in. And when Hugh Jackman frees Russell Crowe ( Javert), they also take the same restricted route through the back of the café. When the students get charged by the cavalry, it wasn`t like being in a riot, we actually were in a riot! There was no structure to it; the operators were just thrown into the riot, each with our own brief to stick to a particular principal artist. It was really just a question of trying to fight your way through, with the grips and focus pullers often acting as blockers or minders to protect the operators. Often we were just carried along by the crowd whilst desperately trying to operate the camera.

It really was the best fun you can have at work.

Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is handed the candlesticks which leads to `What Have I Done.`

Getting the sound

All kinds of issues came up because of the cast singing live all the time. We`re all used to working in conjunction with the sound department so they get good material, but when recording live singing in a musical it was even more crucial to work together. We had to keep everything much quieter than is normally required whilst filming. During any solos of the main cast, you could have up to two operators handholding cameras, and with them of course two focus pullers, two grips, and often one or two sparks [electricians] carrying handheld lights or reflectors. So a minimum of eight people all tiptoeing around while the singing was recorded live. One stray foot noisily banging into a chair leg could ruin a take. 

Zac: Near the beginning of the film, Jean Valjean is in the chapel after being redeemed by the Bishop of Digne`s mercy. We filmed the song `What Have I Done` as one continuous Steadicam shot, although there are a couple of edits in the final film. The camera traveled up and down that little chapel area, and involved fast tracking round Hugh Jackman when he turned on the spot. Tom was always very focused on shooting the song in a close-up, so that means you`re moving very fast and every time Hugh turned around, I`d have to track around him extremely quickly. At that speed my shoes were making a noise that the sound recording was picking up. Simon Hayes, the production sound mixer asked me if it would be possible to operate without shoes, something that I would not entertain for a moment in normal circumstances, but as it was uniquely critical to the process, we sent out for some `toasties` (socks with sticky pads on the bottom) and continued with the scene.

Simon who also has a black belt in jujitsu was very grateful, and toasties may well have a new advertising angle. Then there was Samantha Barks`-Eponine`s-song `In the Rain.` As the song actually refers to the rain, it was crucial to the story that it was actually raining. Obviously we had to keep the camera and crew dry, but unfortunately the rain hitting our waterproofs could be heard. Simon Hayes could also hear it hitting the camera and loudest of all on the polyboard reflector being carried by an electrician. To get around this we covered the cameras in soft fabric and we all wore sheets on top of our waterproofs to muffle the sound of the rain. Because Danny wasn`t allowed to use his polyboard reflector, all the camera crews ended up being draped in white sheets to add a bit of bounce light onto Samantha! Any guests on set that day would be forgiven for thinking Eponine was being followed by eight badly dressed ghosts. 

The scene in the end, however, is a good example of how Tom likes to work. The shot is very much composed around her performance. The camera with a wide angle lens stays close to her, but all the while it has to visually reflect the story being told through the song. The song refers to the light shining off the pavement, and so the camera eases back to reveal the shimmering pavement behind her. The street lights have to be seen at the moment she refers to them, and the same with the figure passing in the background as it`s mentioned in the song. Tom always wanted to keep the frame moving, telling the story as it develops. All this has to be done on precise cues while never leaving this powerful close-up.  We shot every song all the way through without cutting, with a few exceptions such as `One  Day More,` which although it`s an ensemble piece, has the actors appear in different locations. 


Blending In

Because we had three cameras running pretty much all the time, inevitably we`d get in each other`s shot in the big scenes like the funeral, the riot and the battles. Tom very early on said, `If you see  another camera in your frame, don`t worry about it; just keep doing your shot.` Unfortunately A, B and C cameras featured so heavily in each other`s shots that Tom came up with a new plan: `You should all just put costumes on because it will help when it comes to painting you out.` Nothing sticks out in a student riot more than a `North Face` raincoat, especially when it`s in a crowd of students or peasants in early 19th century clothes.
Moaning and groaning, every morning the whole camera and grip team were sent to dress up as peasants, students or soldiers, depending on which side of the street you were filming. Surprisingly this made such a huge difference that it was only on the second or third viewing of a take that you would notice, `Is that a camera on that peasant`s shoulder?` The wardrobe department gave us all costumes we could easily work in, and which we all got quite attached to-if you came in one morning and saw somebody had pinched your hat or coat, you`d go off and reclaim it.

Eponine (Samantha Barks) on set for `In the Rain`


`B` camera operator Luke Redgrave, with `A` camera in the background.


Zac: If you look very very closely you might just be able to spot me and my crew in the deep background on a couple of occasions. During the funeral just before the cavalry charge when the students climb onto the hearse you can see someone sitting on top of it at the back. That`s actually me, with the grip hanging onto me, trying to stop me from falling off, and the camera has been replaced [in post] with a flag. Later on you can see the three of us crossing the street, apparently carrying a box. Unless you know where to look, it`s impossible to spot-definitely one for the trainspotters out there.
Peter Byrne the `A` focus puller does admit that on one occasion he was running around the studio doing a handheld when he suddenly looked up and realized he was following the wrong person, and had no idea where the `A` camera was.
Our camera crew has been together for quite a long time-Pirate Radio, Johnny English Reborn, The King`s Speech and so on. As it was such a challenging and demanding shoot, it was essential for us to have focus pullers and grips that we had well-established working relationships with. They all performed admirably, and we couldn`t have done it without them.

The `A` 1st AC was Peter Byrne. 2nd AC was Abby Catto, with Grip Alex Mott. On `B` Camera we had 1st AC Leigh Gold, 2nd AC Max Glickman, and Grip Jody Knight. 

They performed heroically, with good humor and style throughout.
The `C` camera operator was Vince McGahon aco, with 1st AC John Ellis Evans and Grip Charlie Wall. Ben Brown was the central loader.

The Technocrane stretches the length of the set`s main street.


We had three Arri LTs and one Arri ST. The LTs were perfect for all the handheld and Steadicam, but the ST although a good deal heavier is definitely quieter, so when we could, we switched to the ST for that extra level of silent running.
Shooting film vs digital?-absolutely film! Tom loves the medium, and so does Danny, They`re both very committed to shooting on film. Kodak is having a big revival this year. There are many more big productions shooting on film than digital here in England.
When we had (as we often did) a particularly long take, we`d put a 1000` mag on the camera, even though we were handheld, which gets quite heavy after a while. 

Sometimes we did a lot of takes, sometimes we didn`t. But we always needed to get a few takes that were good all the way through, as the songs did change and evolve. There were many days when the old legs took a bit of a beating. 
Tom is passionate about all elements of filmmaking, but he`s particularly interested in camera and the composition. He has his own visual style that the camera department understands because of the various jobs we`ve done together. He loves to be close up on a wide lens. We shot a large amount of the film on 18mm. Tom feels the 18mm in a close-up lets you really see a lot more of the set, the detail, and the other elements of story that may be happening at the same time. 
This style can give an element of richness in the actor`s performance. And so in this particular film where you`ve got some amazing vocal performances combined with great acting, we spent a lot of time really maintaining that visual style, even when it got quite tricky to do so.

Challenging Shots

Zac: A challenging shot for me was at the climax of `What Have I Done,` when Jean Valjean rushes from the church, runs through the graveyard ripping up his `ticket of leave` which identifies him as a convict, and throws it in the air. It was a shot that Tom and Danny had spent a long time developing and conceiving, and it was a very tough one to get right. It involved running backwards with the Steadicam at full speed, up a path with a sideways camber that the designer had built in the graveyard. At the end of the path was a crane platform saving me from a 20` drop. As I reached the platform and my grip clipped me on, Hugh`s character threw his papers into the air and the crane soared into the sky following the pieces up into the clouds.
Tracking back very fast over quite tricky terrain, physically close to Hugh, and then trying to step onto the crane platform at the crucial moment and not fall off into the chasm meant a lot of elements had to come together at once. It also meant a lot of trust is placed in your team.

There were quite a few grips involved in that particular sequence. I had a grip leading me back up the winding path through the graves, a grip who was ballast to hold the crane platform down before I got onto it, and then a grip to shackle me onto the platform for safety. Three grips were swinging the arm.
The crane arm itself was on a scaffold tower. It was crucial to have that many grips as my safety depended on them. Otherwise it could have gone horribly wrong.
There is a paparazzi video of that moment on YouTube. It shows the technical aspects of the shot quite well. In the end it was a classic Tom Hooper shot. 

One of the biggest challenges for all cameras was the filming of `Look Down,` the opening sequence of Les Misérables, which we filmed at Portsmouth dockyard.
It is still a working dock even though it was built in the 17th century. The dock was partially flooded, with the dock doors holding back the sea. `C` camera pulled the long straw that day and shot important details long lens from the relatively dry sides of the dock. `A` camera was on a Hydroscope-a telescopic waterproof crane-with a waterproof Libra head.

Zac Nicholson circles around and keeps the Steadicam close
to Hugh Jackman as they continue through the graveyard.

Note the torn-up piece of Valjean`s papers flying above the church.
Hugh Jackman stands next to the bright cross near the bottom corner of the wall.


Zac Nicholson rides the crane back down after filming the bits of paper flying into the air.


On too many occasions for our liking, we were all head to toe in mud! The first time was when Valjean rescued the factory worker from underneath the cart. Tom wanted it to be literally a foot deep in mud to make the scene convincing and of course we had to get right down in the mud with the camera. We had to be hosed off afterwards.
Tom was always right there with us. He obviously has to watch the monitor during the take, but as soon as he yells cut, he`s out in the elements with everybody. He just loves filmmaking. He operated a few shots himself, and I think if he could generally operate it himself, he would, because he just loves that part of the process. He`s not one to hide away. Four handheld crews all in peasant costume filmed a ten minute, one time only, building of the barricade scene. We got the cameras set up with 1000 foot rolls, and the students started by tipping over a carriage as the base for the barricade and then they literally found every bit of furniture they could find in the studio and chucked it out of windows and doors and piled it high. The cast and background artists were told to `grab what you can, empty the houses, pull anything you can from anywhere in the set and throw it on!` I honestly think if any of us had stayed still for longer than a second or two, someone would have picked us up and chucked us onto the barricade.
It was so wonderfully chaotic, and a huge adrenaline rush.

Those shots are just really good fun to do, because there`s no specific plan other than get that moment, get this moment, follow this person-you`re relying on your wits and following your instincts to get you through. The students threw a piano out the café window. The musical department was horrified, seeing a piano being destroyed like that. But Tom wanted the barricade to have some graphic qualities to it, and in retrospect, it makes perfect sense to have a smashed up piano in there. One of the students starts the song `Drink With Me` by tinkling on the piano sticking out of the barricade. That was definitely a one-off moment.

Zac: On quite a few occasions we had to learn the music. For instance, for `Castle on a Cloud` there is an introduction that lasts 6 or 7 bars before the singing starts. The shot started with a 360 around the set, choreographed with background artists, and ended up discovering the young Cosette at the precise moment when she starts singing. This involved learning the intro and the time signature on it. We had a fantastic pianist in a glass box at the back of the studio and she had monitors so she could see what I was doing, We practiced over and over together. I`d give her a thumbs up on the camera and she`d give me a little tinkle on the piano and off we`d go. As a non musician, getting to grips with the musicality was a vital part of the process and one of the big challenges in shooting this film.
The actors and the operators all had earpieces in our ears so that we could hear the accompaniment of the pianist in her far off sound booth. We could of course also hear the artist singing. On top of that, it also meant that Tom could communicate with us during a take. It was tough getting used to, but it was essential for filming this particular job.

Zac: Then there were songs like `I Dreamed a Dream`-the performance was so in the moment and really couldn`t be repeated. Although we did more than one take, each take was different, unique in its own way, because of the performance.
There wasn`t a duel in the musical-that was a new element for the film. It was done during `The Confrontation` between Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman. I got padded up for protection with some equipment from the stunt department and put a helmet on. Russell came at me with a sword, with me in front of Hugh. When Tom was happy with that element I had to turn around and have Hugh Jackman attack me with a wooden club! I`m not sure which was scarier, but it was great fun.
When Russell leaps into the river-he did the jump himself, he wasn`t shy of doing any of his own stunts. We had the bridge that Javert commits suicide from built in the studio. It was about a 12 or 15 foot drop. The stunt department built a large crate and filled it with cubes of foam for him to land in. Of course after we filmed Russell doing it, everybody else wanted to take a go, so on the lunch break everyone snuck into the studio and had a quick go, including me. 

It was very difficult getting out of that box of foam cubes.

Hugh Jackman sings soaking wet.                               `B` camera crew waist deep in the water.

As the scene starts a couple of hundred convicts waist deep in water are pulling ropes that are hauling a huge frigate into the dock. The camera travels down one of the ropes to settle on a close up of Hugh Jackman. 

 The difficult aspects of the shot were the huge wind machines and rain effects and tip tanks constantly trying to take the camera off course. The tip tanks were so fierce that occasionally in the rushes you could see the grip come fl oating through the shot. He was in the water to catch the arm, but he`d get caught by a wave and get knocked off his feet.
`b` camera team members were up to our waists in the freezing water handholding a scubacam, and all the while those same tip tanks were throwing up to two tons of water directly at us, at intervals of 20 seconds. 

Wind machines and rain effects were very convincingly recreating a gale. so just staying on our feet was very difficult. However, the scene in the end looks epic! And Hugh Jackman managed to put up with all of the above, stay in character and sing live, and he didn`t have a wet suit on!

`C` camera crew at the barricade.

Director Tom Hooper (right) at the barricade.  DP Danny Cohen is back to his right in black.



The camera had to land on Isabelle Allen (young Cosette) just as she started singing `Castle on a Cloud.`

`When Russell Crowe was on the parapets above Paris-those were tough, involved crane moves, combining the close-up that`s telling the  story with the delicate moves to reveal the stars in the sky and at other points, the panorama of Notre Dame. 

There were also shots of his feet walking right along the edge of the parapet.`
-Zac Nicholson, `A` camera

  The Cast

The cast were all fantastic. Hugh Jackman is possibly the nicest person you`ve ever met in your life, and that seems to be a fairly universal opinion. He called Fridays `lucky Friday` and gave everybody a lottery card-he went around with a huge stack of them and he didn`t miss anybody out. He is a very friendly and chatty and supportive person to work with.
Anne Hathaway is such an amazing performer. She had her hair cut off for real in the film-it was one of those nervewracking shots where we only had one chance to get it right. She was really practical and friendly and jolly and often singing and chatting with the crew.
Luke: Russell was fantastic to work with, and I was lucky enough to often get to do his close up as Zac might often be on Hugh. I don`t think he was quite used to Tom Hooper`s method of working, but he quickly threw himself into it. He is such a professional and a real perfectionist full of great ideas and often extensive notes for the operators about what changes he might make in the next take. It was a real privilege to follow him as he prowls around in the chaos.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were enormous fun as the Thenardiers. Sacha can be very irreverent and spontaneous; this makes him very funny but also quite difficult to anticipate.
Helena is great fun on set as well. She has such an original and very English sense of humor. They`re both naturally very funny people and wickedly anarchic. 

They ended up being a welcome bit of comic relief in the middle of all this misery.


`I was so mesmerized by Anne Hathaway singing `I Dreamed a Dream` that I almost forgot to operate the camera! It is an astonishing performance to watch onscreen. Can you imagine what it was like to
actually be there with her? I had to keep pinching my leg to make myself concentrate on the job at hand.`
-Luke Redgrave, `B` camera 

Colm Wilkinson (left), who originated the role of Valjean on stage in 1985, in the movie plays the
Bishop of Digne who helps Hugh Jackman`s Valjean find his path.  

DP Danny Boyle has to get a light read on Hugh even in the water.

It`s tight quarters to get all the cameras into the room to film the students planning their uprising. 

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenardiers who housed young Cosette.

Zac Nicholson aco on `A` camera (center) and Vince McGahon aco on `C` camera (far right foreground).  Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) on far left. 


Try your hardest on every take you do. Feel good about the takes that go well, learn from the takes that don`t, hopefully put what you learned into practice on the next take, and with a bit of luck, get it right.
Make it your goal to try to gain enough experience to join an Operating Association. The ACO in the UK and the SOC in the USA are fantastic organizations and a great way to network. Being invited to join is an endorsement by your peers. What other endorsement could you ever wish to get?


The Association of Camera Operators (ACO) has only been in existence for about two years. It got started because a group of camera operators in the UK wanted to create something equivalent to the American organization, the SOC, to promote camera operators and their importance to filmmaking. 
In European cinema for a time it became quite common for the DP to operate. Les Misérables however had a large number of operators involved and a lot of operators who are members of the ACO. It was a great resource. The ACO as an organization is growing, as is people`s awareness of it.
On a film like Les Misérables you need operators, especially when it`s largely handheld-the director and the DP are very much relying on the instincts of their operators to get the shot they need, and to get the shot in the way that they`re anticipating. 

That`s what we camera operators do.