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October 2014
Issue: December 1, 2012

The Sound of 'Les Miserables'

By: Jennifer Walden
In Post’s November 2012 article Mic’d Up, I talked with production sound editor Simon Hayes about the recording process for the musical Les Miserables, which is coming to theaters December 25. While we don’t cover the production side of things, the film took a very unusual approach to the soundtrack. The whole idea from the beginning of the project was to allow the actors to perform at their own pacing and then use those performances right through to the finish of the film. 

Here I talk with re-recording mixer Mark Paterson from Goldcrest Post London (www.goldcrestfilms.com/post_london). Having handled the sound effects and Foley in the final mix, he was able to shed some light on the audio post side of things.   

When Paterson finally got to hear the production tracks, he was confident that they could achieve what they set out to do. The recordings sounded great. He says, “The work that Simon Hayes did was absolutely vital. It was vital that all the recordings from the set were usable. We were very happy with what we heard and knew we might only need to do a little ADR. In fact, there is hardly any ADR inside the actual principle characters’ performances.” 

To get clean recordings, careful attention was paid to making sure no extraneous noises made their way onto the vocal tracks. Paterson noted that Hayes used several tricks to keep things quiet on the set, like using a rain machine adapted to make extra fine rain, and using material made from horses’ hair to deaden the sound of the rain landing. Although that made for clean recordings, it also meant those sounds had to be replaced. That’s a normal part of the audio post process to some extent. You need to hear things like footsteps and horses feet, otherwise it won’t sound real. The key is to have control of it. 

“In this film, the lack of production sound was important because it worked completely in our favor,” Paterson says. “It became apparent when we were going through this process that when we tried to use the real world, in a conventional film making way, it didn’t work with the music. It takes you away from the song and the performance.” 

Paterson (pictured below) used an array of tricks to make the sound effects enhance the music. For instance, he timed the horses’ hooves and the carriage sounds to the music, so the horses trot along to the song. That allowed him to establish the real world and then move away from it, when the song to takes over. Paterson adds, “All of those things were ideas and concepts that we had but they were still evolving throughout the process. Having recordings where we weren’t tied into the production sound elements was a massive advantage in the end.”  

The music was an evolving process. When there were picture changes, it would change the performance. Since the characters weren’t performing to a click track, using a different production take would then impact the audio timing, which would then affect the music. “The music was something that all came together at the end, much later than normal. We had some music to work with throughout the whole process, so when we did things like time the horses hooves to the music, we had to make sure those sounds were retimed as the score evolved.”

When it came to creating the sound effects and Foley, Paterson found he couldn’t be conventional.  Everything had to be musical. For example, he would try to make a door closing sound land on a beat, and make it musical, so that it worked with the score. “There were often areas where we couldn’t do that for technical reasons, like when something on screen wasn’t timed musically,” he notes. “In those cases, we found it was best to have the sound effects be less distracting.” 

When the effects couldn’t be timed to the music, Paterson chose sounds that were from a more distant perspective, just so the listener was aware of the sound but it wasn’t overly present. “The real world is always there but it’s under the radar slightly. How the sounds fit into the music was the most important thing. There wasn’t a single effect that went into this movie that wasn’t thought about in its relationship to the music, and whether it distracted from, or added to, the music.” 

From a sound effects perspective, Paterson enjoyed working on the battle scenes. “It was fun because we got to go gung-ho and do the big Hollywood effects thing. For us, overall, it was just a fantastic project to be working on because it really was experimental and covered new ground at times. The whole film was full of interesting challenges we had to tackle." 

For the mix, Paterson prepared each scene as he typically would, with all the effects and Foley. Then he’d step back from the individual details that he was concentrating on, and try to watch the scene as part of the whole movie. “In this particular movie, we became very aware that we can break rules in a way that is beneficial to the musical. The real world doesn’t have to be quite so literal, but if the real world sounds aren’t there, it becomes more like a music video. You’re walking a fine line between the two.” 

The film was edited in Pro Tools 10, and the final mix was on an AMS-Neve DFC Gemini console. For the final 7.1 mix, Paterson, and re-recording mix partner Andy Nelson, started with a concept of using the side surrounds for music and the rear surrounds for atmospheric-type sounds and effects. “That was our starting point,” notes Paterson, “because it was a great way to achieve separation and width between the effects and the music. Pretty soon it became apparent that the rear surrounds could provide a great way of unleashing the music. We ended up using the rear surrounds during big points in the music, to open it up and use the whole room, to really give you that feeling that you’re wrapped in music. We didn’t strictly adhere to the ideas we started with. For this film, we had a lot of creative license.”