3 Cinematographic Quality Techniques in Sherlock

Sherlock is a British series, freely inspired to the work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, about the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. The very first episode aired on 2010 in UK, while the last one was in 2017. It is composed by 4 seasons, 3 episodes per season, plus one special, The Abominable Bride, which takes place at the times of the famous detective and his loyal assistant. Created by Steven Moffat, also starring Mycroft Holmes, and Mark Gatiss, it is starred by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Dr John Watson), who managed to catch the spirit of the characters, making them more contemporary.

The series received a great reaction from audience and critic, not only because of the fortune of the character, but also about quality, either on photo-video techniques and on the performance. It sticks out among the bulk of Tv-shows out, thanks to innovative inputs and high quality cinematographic quotations. Let’s take a look. (SPOILER ALERT)

1 – On-screen Text

Along the last years, informatization has changed the written communication. About old series, some information was shared by means of letters or notes. Correspondence was perceived by the audience as something deep. In case of short messages, the framing of the written paper, from a fake subjective, was informing the public about the subject of the message. Instead, longer messages were shared by an off-screen voice, intensely reading the text, in order to enforce the message.

On the last years, written paper has been replaced by a faster and smarter way of communication: computers, smartphones, etc. Privileged solution to get involved the audience is a solution “look-a-like”. The camera frames the medium, or, in alternative, the actor reads aloud the text (usually as he’d ask a question, otherwise he’d appear like an idiot).

Sherlock introduces a different way for an identical goal. Text messages are showing on the screen, essential part of the scene. It is a technique, masking out, we can watch at since the very beginning of the series: it is the business card of Sherlock, TV shows, and Sherlock, Holmes. Indeed, Holmes is not yet on the scene, but he is introduced on spirit. We can feel it, thanks to a group message popping up on the screen. The same technique (with some little difference) is present in the recent movie The Circle, from the homonymous novel by Dave Eggers.

In addition, Sherlock moves over on this way, going down the essence of the message. On-screen text, less schematically depicted, as the objective is different, get used for the expression of Holmes’ visual thinking. The public can participate of the deductions of the detective, because his processes are clearly figured: what and how.

2 – Bullet Time Effect

Directly from The Matrix, a cult quotation: at the wedding between John and Mary. The episode is The Sign of Three. After the ceremony, at the church front, it is the moment of the official photo: everyone is fixed while the camera moves around; it seems the time is fixed, the result is very strange. But efficacious, at the same moment (it does not matter if it is why time is surrounding everything; or the representation of the point of view of Sherlock, who is casually near to the photographer; etc). In order to achieve the goal, Colm McCarthy, the director, prepared a camera rig with many cameras shooting the entire scene at the same time, from different angles.

3 – Spatio-temporal alterations

Strictly connected to the bullet time effect, visual techniques are frequently used in Sherlock. The final goal is to visually reproduce a sensation. When there is a critical situation Sherlock moves with an internal time. For example, when he gets shoot by Mary, the detective don’t fall suddenly, as normal, but by a slow-motion, his body is tilting back slowly with respect to the floor. The falling lasts few seconds. The body unnaturally falls down, the knees doesn’t bend, the chest is upright. The reason is poetic, of course, but also technical. Cumberbatch, indeed, was fitted in a mechanical body in order to achieve the effect. A short time before, Cumberbatch was freeze, fixed in a scene moving. Body is still, but consciousness is going: Molly is turning around him.

To close this little collection, a small error, maybe, in Sherlock. About spatio-temporal alterations, Holmes and Watson get drunk during the bachelor party of John. At the end of their London pub crawl, both of them are at their Baker Street flat with a client. McCarthy’s choice is that of blurring what surrounding Sherlock, as someone gets drunk: focus is smaller than normal. It follows that Sherlock, centre of the screen, is clean, but the rest, including Watson, is fogged. The effect becomes clearer when the camera frames the client: focus is perfect everywhere. The spatio-temporal alteration looks like to be incoherent with regard to other ones. In fact, usually it should be used a subjective, in this case: drunks’ vision is compromised. Moreover, it is not fit with the character: Sherlock is centre, not suburbs.

Wanna shoot something yourself? Have look at some wonderful studios at misterlocation.com!