Telling the story of legendary rock band Queen would be impossible without including their appearance at Live Aid in 1985, considered by many to be one of the greatest live performances of all time. The team behind Bohemian Rhapsody knew how important that moment was. “There’s no doubt that it was always going to be the biggest moment in the film,” says production designer Aaron Haye.
They also knew recreating it, especially on a technical level, would be a challenge. “From the get-go, we knew that it was going to be a beast to make it happen,” he says. With the film now a contender for multiple major awards, we caught up with Haye and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel to find out more about how they pulled off their uncanny recreation a rock history moment.
Making It Practical, Making It Real
Some filmmakers might have considered primarily using green screens to recreate Wembley Stadium circa 1985, but the Bohemian Rhapsody team never thought of it. “It was never a question of not doing it practically. We really wanted to be able to feel and photograph as much as possible,” explains Haye. And the decision to build an accurate replica was never a question either: “We decided early on that the best way to do it was to create a space that was as authentic as possible.”
The rationale wasn’t just to enhance the immersion for the filmmakers, but also the audience. “The more reality we can bring, and the more tactile the scenery can be for the actors and the camera, the more the audience will feel the reality and the weight of the scenes,” explains Haye.
Researching and Rebuilding Wembley
Building a replica of the original Wembley Stadium meant the team had to first know what and how to recreate it. That meant research.
The existing footage from the original BBC broadcast of Live Aid was a valuable resource, but for production designers, who have to create detailed blueprints, more research was still necessary. Haye and his team went to local council offices, libraries, and Wembley Stadium’s archives to find out more about the venue’s construction. “We took the blueprints from when that particular version of the stadium was built, and used that as a place to start,” says Haye. From there, the building could begin.
Newton Thomas Siegel (second from left) on the set of Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)
Nailing in the Details
Research plans complete, the Bohemian Rhapsody team found a massive airfield in England to build their replica stage, which would end up being 70 feet tall, 70,000 square feet, and 16 feet off the ground – all reflective of the true dimensions of the original stage.
But it wasn’t just the broader dimensions of the stage they wanted to preserve; it was also details like the lights, speakers, microphones, even the playlists. Few details were overlooked. For example, the day of their Live Aid performance, Queen were to be followed by David Bowie. In the movie, when Queen walks off, the instruments set up behind them are actually replicas of Bowie’s band’s setup.
“We went right down to the little tape marks on the stage,” Haye says. “That was just the subtle sort of thing that you wouldn’t normally notice.” But even if most people don’t notice them, they’re still there for the full immersive, authentic effect.
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody
Virtual Shoot Planning
A production designer’s job usually requires building room into sets for cinematographers and their teams to work. But given the size of the Live Aid stage, there was plenty of space for the cameras to move. However, that didn’t mean Haye ignored finding ways to help facilitate Sigel’s work.
After creating 3D renderings of what the set would look like, Haye gave them to DNEG, the film’s visual effects company, who were tasked with creating spherical renders and enabling them for a cinematographer-friendly VR experience. “You’re able to use those spherical renders to put cameras in a virtual set, put on a pair of VR glasses, and look around,” explains Haye.
“We were able to give the director, and obviously Tom Sigel, access to virtual camera positions within that set using VR technology. You could walk around and hold a camera and shoot it in any direction.” Given that the first day of production was set to start with the Live Aid sequence, that gave Sigel invaluable time to make plans even before the stage was actually built.
Shooting for Authenticity and Story
Using virtual reality tools wasn’t the only way Sigel was preparing to shoot the concert performance. He had his own preparations to make in order to create authenticity onscreen. A big part his job was figuring out how to capture the re-creations of others – not just Hayes, but also the actors.
He approached star Rami Malek’s diligent work of physical mimicry indirectly at first. “I knew the choreography, because I knew it was going to be reproducing what you saw in the original broadcast,” says Sigel. But he still closely watched the actors to get ideas. “I saw a number of rehearsals, and I recorded them on an iPhone to be able to study them,” says Sigel. “Seeing those rehearsals was a huge benefit, because it just allows you to plan that much better, and you get inspiration from them. You see things they do and find angles, or you see key moments that make you think, ‘Oh, I want to make sure not to miss that.’”
That was especially important because he didn’t want to echo the original broadcast too much with his cinematography. “You don’t want to just recreate exactly the way that the concert was presented over television by the BBC, because you can go on YouTube and watch that,” he explains. “What’s the point of making a movie to just reproduce what you can already watch on YouTube?”
But it was also that the BBC footage is more “objective,” as most concert footage typically is. “Our story was a different story,” explains Sigel. “We were trying to tell this story from the inside out, to put the audience in the emotional and psychological space of the performers and be on the stage with Freddie and the band.”
He wanted to capture the heroism and triumph of that moment in the film’s story, not just the band’s “real” history. “I designed shots that I thought celebrated the different key moments, and tried to enhance the exuberance that Freddie was bringing to this performance,” says Sigel.
It’s also why they did use some VFX for key moments, and for key effects that look out toward a CGI crowd and the rest of the stadium. “Much of what made that performance great, and made Freddie Mercury great, was his ability to really sing to the very last person in the very last row,” says Sigel. “That’s why the shots that looked past Freddie to the crowd were really critical for me.”
This offers up a microcosm of what was ultimately both Haye’s and Sigel’s mission for the Live Aid sequence; a mission that sounds almost like a paradox. “It was this funny mixture of trying to be slavish to the way that the concert looked, on the one hand, and trying not to make it look anything like the BBC broadcast ,on the other,” says Sigel.
All images from Bohemian Rhapsody courtesy of 20th Century Fox