Lighting "Les Misérables"

Gaffer Paul McGeachan discusses the lighting approach on director Tom Hooper's bold adaptation of the musical "Les Misérables."

Dec. 21, 2012

Gaffer Paul McGeachan worked with director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen, BSC, on the major new movie adaptation of the stage musical "Les Misérables," itself based on Victor Hugo's classic novel. The three had worked together previously on the Academy Award-winning feature film "The King´s Speech" and the TV productions "Longford" and "John Adams.". Hooper made the decision to film all of the songs in "Les Misérables" live, rather than having the actors mime to a pre-recorded track. McGeachan recently spoke to ARRI about his work on the film, which made use of a lighting package supplied by ARRI Lighting Rental in London.


You were working with Danny and Tom again -- you must all work together very well by now.

Yes that's right - I've been with Danny for seven years and this is our fourth job with Tom. It's always been a pretty similar way of working with them; it's just that this job was on a slightly bigger scale. Compared to the size of some films these days "Les Misérables" wasn't a huge production, but it was bigger than anything we'd done before and the whole process of it, with the live singing, made it a really different experience.

Did that idea of capturing the actors singing live as part of their performance impact the way the film had to be lit?

What made it tricky from the lighting perspective was that there were often three - and sometimes more - handheld cameras on the set. That meant we had to put pretty much all of the lighting up on the grid, with virtually nothing on the floor. When you constantly have three different camera angles on everything, there just isn't anywhere to hide lights, so it was quite difficult in that sense.

Where did you do most of the shooting?

We did some location shooting in France and England, but we were based at Pinewood Studios and our main set was on the new Richard Attenborough stage. It was basically one big set, an exterior street set that we had to light for day, night, dusk and dawn. We also had a few other smaller sets, and there was some underwater work done as well.  

How did you light that big set for all those different times of day and night?

We had to rig everything we could possibly need up on the grid and then we used Light by Numbers to create various programs for the different times of day. We had to have everything in position from the beginning because the set was built right up to the ceiling and we had no room to move. We had about 350 space lights, then perhaps 15 full Dinos, half of which were diffused so we could get both soft light and hard, directional light out of them. On top of that there were a few 20Ks and a lot of 10Ks and 5Ks, which were good for picking out specific areas for the night scenes and casting shadows.

Once it was all in, it was a matter of switching it up and down quite a lot and playing with the levels.  We had Chris Gilbertson controlling the Light by Numbers system; he was able to stand on the set and use Wi-Fi to quickly change the settings. For the big sequence that takes place at dawn, we created low sunlight with four full Dinos positioned next to each other and set way down the dimmer, so it was a really warm, almost red light.

With all the lights up in the rafters and nothing on the floor, how did you light faces for the closer shots?

We mainly used reflector boards for closer shots, and the occasional handheld Chinese ball. It was very rare for us to be on just one camera; even for the scene where Anne Hathaway sings "I Dreamed a Dream" there were three cameras on her all the time. That was on a smaller set on M stage at Pinewood; I think we had three Chinese lanterns and a couple of pepper lights for that scene. Often these were quite tight spaces and to see the whole set they were shooting up into the grid, with scaffolding and lights up there, so there was a lot of sky replacement that had to be done in post.

Did your main lighting package come from ARRI Lighting Rental?

Everything came from ARRI Lighting Rental, and we were using a lot of ARRI lights, from the smallest to the biggest stuff. We did use a lot of practical lights as well, in shop fronts and things like that. We had to start rigging the studio about eight weeks before we started to shoot in it, because we had to do the overhead grid at the same time as they were actually building the set.