Inspiration: The Genius Eye of Tom Hooper

Have you seen Les Misérables yet? If not, cancel your plans for tonight and go see it! And don’t forget tissues.

The movie is a visual and musical work of art. As a long-time fan of the musical, I went into the movie feeling a tiny bit skeptical – as I’m sure many other hard-core Les Mis fans did. All my reservations were gone within 5 minutes of Hugh Jackman’s performance and my amazement just kept rising as the movie went on. I will be surprised if this movie does not dominate tomorrow’s Oscar nomination announcements.

A huge part of the movie’s appeal, to me at least, was Tom Hooper’s directing style. From a photographic point-of-view, the way certain scenes were filmed added to the mood immensely. Two techniques in particular caught my eye, as they had during his previous Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech.

The first was placing the actors on the edges of the screen. Here are a few examples from both Les Misérables and The King’s Speech:

Anne Hathaway Les Miserables

Hugh Jackman Les Miserables Jean Valjean

Amanda Seyfried Cosette Les Miserables

Anne Hathaway Dreamed a Dream Les Miserables

Amanda Seyfried In My Life Les Miserables

These are not the best quality photos, I apologize. But they demonstrate the director’s love for composing his takes with actors on the side of the image – something he does very often during both films. This technique allows the viewer to take in both the actor as well as the scene’s environment. It places the scene, gives it a context and conveys more information than a simple close-up shot.

Colin Firth The King's Speech

It allows us to soak in the dark and dirty setting of the boat where Anne Hathaway’s Fantine works as a prostitute, or the peeling yellow and green wall where Colin Firth’s King George VI takes his speech lessons. Environment is just as important in photography as the subject and Hooper’s use of the side technique – both the way he does it and the frequency with which it appears in his films – is inspiring. It is definitely something I will be working to incorporate in my shoots to come.

Helena Bonham Carter King's Speech

The second technique that often appears in both films is an extreme close-up of the actors’ faces into the camera. We’re talking almost-smacking-into-the-camera close. This is done by using a wide-angle lens, a lens that has minimal zoom, and is usually accompanied by placing the actors very close to the camera. Wide angle lenses capture a large portion of the scene they are aimed at, and at times distort the environment and the actors, making them appear taller, larger or longer. Think of it as if someone was right in your face and you were looking at them in relation to other objects around you – they would appear distorted, different than they are in reality.

For example, in the shot below of Jean Valjean kneeling, the church seems stretched out. Our eye has a hard time understanding how high the roof actually is and how close Hugh Jackman is to the wall beside him. This is because this scene was filmed at a very wide angle and from below:

Hugh Jackman Jean Valjean wide angle

Tom Hooper’s use of wide-angle lenses instantly adds intensity. By intentionally distorting the factory women as they are trying to get Fantine fired, Hooper is intensifying the drama of the scene and creating the effect as though they are towering over Fantine, adding to her vulnerability.

Fantine Factory Les Miserables

Vulnerability is also present in the scene where Jean Valjean decides to start a new life, as well as when King George VI practices speaking or gives a speech. We see both men raw, exposed and in pain, and feel heart-break for them:

Jean Valjean Soliloquy

Colin Firth The King's Speech

Similarly to the first technique, the use of wide angle also allows the viewer to take in more of the scene’s environment, as seen in the below stills from both movies:

Les Miserables children

Les Miserables Russell Crowe

Geoffrey Ruch The King's Speech

I’ll just finish by saying that I am in no way an expert on cinematography or on Tom Hooper. These are just elements I have noticed while watching these films that made the photographer in me flutter with excitement, just like when I watch Downton Abbey.

If you have any comments, you agree or disagree with the above, please leave them below. I would love to hear what you think. Thank you for reading!

(Disclaimer: All the above images belong to Universal Pictures, The Weinstein Company and Momentum Pictures. Images are used for educational purposes only.)

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