Unique VFX Challenges for Live One-take Shooting on Les Miz
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Debra Kaufman : Unique VFX Challenges for Live One-take Shooting on Les Miz
Much has been made over the "live action" in Les Misérables: all the actors sang their roles in a single take, making the feature film even closer to its theatrical origins. Although the actors sang live, not everything in the frame was as spontaneous. The production turned to several visual effects facilities -- The Mill (London), Double Negative, Rushes, Utopia, Digital Film Bureau -- to put the action firmly in 19th century France.
At the start of filming, The Mill created on-set previsualization at Pinewood Studios, helping the production envision the journey of Jean Valjean from the south of France to the north and various Paris locations. The Mill had previously worked with director Tom Hooper on The Damn United, Elizabeth I and Longford as well as commercial work, and this successful completion of the previs job for Les Misérables led to The Mill's involvement in the visual effects for the film.
After completing that first trailer, work began on the film itself, focused on that scene of the crowds at the barricades. "They shot nothing on green screen because of the way the director was filming in one shot with people singing the songs," says Spencer. "It was all handheld with several cameras moving around, so our job involved a lot of rotoscoping and tracking involved and a lot of removing of cameramen moving the shots. That was all done with lots of 3D camera tracking in Nuke, and patching up buildings or whatever we could."
The Mill erased cameramen captured in shots some 30 times...but didn't take out all of them. "Once we turned a cameraman into an extra," he says. "We removed the camera off the shoulder and put a hat on him to make him look like he was in the world of the movie. When this cropped up, we approached it differently depending on the situation. For example, if the cameraman was in the front of actors, we'd cover them with other people we'd steal from other shots."
The fact that the actors sang their roles live required another removal job: the earpieces the actors wore to hear the piano playing the music to their songs. According to Spencer, one marathon tracking-and-painting job involved erasing the earpiece on Hugh Jackman in a 1,800 frame-long sequence.
Much of the movie is set at a cafe, a center point of the revolution, which was shot at Pinewood. The Mill's challenge was to add skies -- and not just any sky. In the Victor Hugo novel, God is an ever-present force controlling the destiny and fate of the main characters. Adding the CG skies was The Mill's task. "The skies were supposed to be an extra character to the film," says Spencer. "We picked a hero sky from each scene and did a comp and put them in front of the director to see if he liked them. That gave him a chance to decide what worked for the whole scene...and the different skies did change the feeling of an entire scene. We tried to get them out as quickly as possible, and this worked out well."
The Mill faced multiple challenges with a shot like this, including choosing whether to bask the sky in god-rays or over-expose to flatten the skylight, difficult rotoscoping to pull out any gaps between buildings, and making the shot look as though it was shot outside. Image credit: Mill Film /Universal Pictures
In one sequence, dawn rises over the cafe. "Originally we were going for this god-like sky but, as we were watching it, it really didn't work," he says. "It was too dramatic and slightly unreal and took away from the action. We pulled it back a bit and ended up slightly over-exposing the sky and flattening it off a bit, basically removing some of the details we had in there."
Another challenge was perfecting the sets, especially to make them look as if they were shot outside. "You could often see the gaps through the buildings, which were only two or three buildings deep," Spencer says, "and because it was all shot handheld in one shot, it was challenging. The production didn't have a huge amount of time to put in tracking markers or green screen, which meant a lot of difficult rotoscoping."
The Mill was key in creating realistic 19th century Parisian city scenes. Credit: Mill Film/Universal Pictures
The Mill took LIDAR scans of the set to get a 3D representation, which enabled them to move around the set in Autodesk Maya. "Because the cameras were handheld and moving quickly, because it was often quite difficult to make out which buildings were which," he says. "With the LIDAR scan, we could figure out which way we were looking and know where we needed to put buildings. We had to make sure we put the same buildings in all the shots, which sounds easy but it wasn't."
Smoke going through the set added a challenge for both skies and digitally enhanced sets. "In some cases, our 3D artists had to emulate the movement of the smoke when there was no way we could get the real smoke back into the image," Spencer says. "When set lights shone through the smoke, the smoke would disappear, and instead of live action smoke, we had to do something that was roughly similar. In those cases, we had to find elements of smoke to put in." The Mill also erased lens flares that marred dark and moody skies.
In some cases, 3D artists had to emulate the movement of the smoke when there was no way to get the real smoke back into the image.
Image credit: Mill Film /Universal Pictures
The Mill also created wide-angle matte paintings of the area around the cafe. "We took the live action plates we were using and make them fit into the matte painting, which took a lot of bending and warping of the live action plates," he says. "The director really wanted them to be photographically real and he has a good eye for detail, so we had to perfectly position the people on the barricades in the live action shoot. We did a film shoot where we took a lot of compositors here, got them dressed up in Les Misérables costumes and shot our own elements to put into these matte paintings. If you look carefully, you can tell. They're all the ones who look really tired and have bags under their eyes. I think some of them were just excited to be out of the office for a while."
Another interesting task was developing the look of a ghost sequence for Anne Hathaway's character Fantine. "We went down one road where we started creating a proper ghost," says Spencer. "But Hooper wanted it to be very subtle and classy. In the end, we placed a trio of candles behind Anne Hathaway every time she's in the scene. Using the particle generator in Nuke, we attached candles to her shoulder. We added subtle camera flares and enhanced the scene to give it an ethereal feel."
"Tom so loved in-camera photographic effects and he was keen to keep it like that so it looks like it was shot in camera," Spencer adds. "You'll watch it and never know we even touched it."
In the final analysis, one of the aspects of the film that makes it seem so real -- shooting a scene with many handheld cameras in one take -- ended up being the most challenging for visual effects artists.
AMANDA SEYFRIED as Cosette in 'Les Misérables'.
Spencer says that The Mill was making subtle tweaks up to the last moment. "It's the closest I've been to deadline," he says. "It was strange to work on it the night before and then go to the cast screening the next day. The biggest shots -- the matte paintings and ghost -- were more noticeable than the invisible shots. But again, sometimes, it's nice to spend loads of time on shots that no one will ever see. It was a slog but it was worth it!"
Invisible effects at their best draw no attention whatsoever to their existence. Given the number of hankies that have been soaked by tears of the audience, clearly The Mill, as well as the other VFX houses involved, have done that job well.
Title image Right: ANNE HATHAWAY as Fantine in "Les Misérables", the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywhere in its 28th year.
Title image Left: ISABELLE ALLEN as Young Cosette in "Les Misérables", the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywhere in its 28th year. Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
AMANDA SEYFRIED as Cosette in 'Les Misérables', the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywhere in its 28th year. Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Mill Film /Universal Pictures