Thursday, September 20, 2012

We Actually Hear the People Sing!

I’ve been hearing for a while how the actors in the Christmas Day-opening Les Miserables film did all of their own singing (yawn) on set (huh?), in contrast to the near-universal practice of recording the score in-studio and then lip syncing to playback on set. The short preview feature below goes into some detail into the rationale behind the move as well as how they did it.*

I’ve long felt that movie musicals suffer from that lip syncing model simply because we can see and feel the physical tension caused by singing, and when that is absent we, sub-consciously perhaps, miss it. But the point made within this video about not having to make acting choices months ahead of time—especially for a musical like Les Miserables that is through-sung—is one I had never considered, and really a big deal. So many choices are locked in ahead of time when you pre-record, and the live singing really does open up a whole new world in terms of creating character and scenes.

But the method they used—of having a live pianist on set playing the songs directly into discrete ear pieces—seems to have engendered a kind of freedom for the actors I’m not sure will serve them well. A few actors here, Hugh Jackman among them, talk about how the technique enabled them to play freely with, not just phrasing and dynamics, but tempo and rhythms. And my immediate instinct was to question that—after all, isn’t tempo and rhythm the composer’s arena? I’m not sure the music is going to be best served by the actors second-guessing the choices the composers long ago made. Does Jackman really know better than Claude-Michel Schönberg what speed a song should take?

I’m fascinated to find out.

Until Whenever

*One tidbit they don’t discuss, but that was in, I believe, the Entertainment Weekly preview article, is that they could get around the difficulty of capturing solid recordings on set and in live atmospheres by giving all the actors body mikes—which, in post, were then just digitally erased. Genius.

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