If you’ve seen Hamilton on Disney+ you probably had two prevailing thoughts once it ended. 1. Holy crap that was perfect and 2. How in the world did they film that? Indeed, the Broadway smash was filmed four years ago, towards the end of Lin-Manuel Miranda and much of the original cast’s run, and only just now saw the light of day. But as you may or may not know, a Broadway show runs six days a week. And the Disney+ version showed not only an audience, but also had close-ups on the stage. So how did they pull it off? How did they get cameras that close? Very, very carefully.
This filmed version of Hamilton was directed by Thomas Kail, who directed the Broadway show. In an interview with Inquirer.net, Kail says he and Miranda began talking about filming Hamilton in late 2015, after the show had moved to Broadway and had become a worldwide phenomenon.
Many Broadway shows are filmed for posterity, so researchers can look back on a particular production. But few are filmed with such vigor and cinematic storytelling as Hamilton. Indeed, what you saw on Disney+ is wholly unique and absolutely not the norm, but then so is Hamilton. When it came to capturing the stage performance, Kail and Co. did not want to throw away their shot.
Kail explains in that interview that they filmed this version over the course of three days in June 2016, with two live performances and once without an audience:
“I made the film over the last three years, but we shot it in three days. We shot on June 26, 27 and 28 of 2016. We shot two live performances straight through with an audience—no stopping. That was the matinee on the 26th and the evening on the 28th. We had a little bit of time on the 26th after the show, all day on Monday and a little time in the beginning of the 28th to then be onstage, get some over the shoulders and get the Steadicam in there without an audience.”
The director says most of what you see was captured in those full live performances, but the close-ups where the camera is on the stage is the result of filming specific numbers on their day off:
“So, we have two performances that were live. The film you see is taken from both of those. Then, we also had 13 numbers of the possible 46 that we got onstage and did it without an audience. So, the vast majority of the 33 numbers was all taken from the Sunday or the Tuesday. Then we had some of the bigger numbers out there—‘Hamilton,’ ‘My Shot,’ ‘Satisfied,’ ‘Helpless,’ ‘Non-Stop,’ ‘One Last Time,’ ‘The Room Where It Happens.’ Those were numbers that we were able to get onstage, and we did a couple takes of those without an audience. Then we sifted and sorted.”
How many cameras did it take to capture the whole thing? A lot:
“I had six cameras that were shooting on the Sunday with different operators and then three fixed cameras or nine total. Then, I changed all the positions for the fixed cameras for the Tuesday so the multiple gets high really fast, but that’s how we made it… Our show is not just about the principals—it’s about the entire ensemble, and so much of our storytelling is done in the physical vocabulary. If I’m going to close up, it means I’m not on that dance step. It’s very hard to do both those things. So, it was a real balance of making sure that I wanted to give intimacy and proximity, which you have in cinema.”
It’s worth noting that while this was filmed during the final week of June, Miranda’s last regular performance as Hamilton came just days later on July 9, 2016. That date also marked Leslie Odom Jr.’s final performance as Aaron Burr and Philllipa Soo’s final performance as Eliza, with Daveed Diggs bowing out later in July and Renee Elise Goldsberry and Anthony Ramos exiting the show later in 2016. So this filmed performance was quite literally one of the last times this original cast would be together performing this now-iconic musical.
Truly, what Kail has accomplished with Hamilton on Disney+ is miraculous. The stage show leaps off the screen, but also finds new depths in the characters that you can’t experience from a balcony seat. This wasn’t just a case of “point and shoot.” Kail thought heavily about how and where to place the cameras to best transfer this live performance to a filmed medium, and it shows.