Mysteries Solved: Creating the Complex Visuals for 'Sherlock'

"I’ve found that you’ve got to be just as clever as the main character in how you approach things," says cinematographer Neville Kidd.
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Novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories captivated readers right from the start. The genius detective has since lived on in more than a century of filmed adventures, both on the big screen and on television. Historically, the long-running series of films featuring actor Basil Rathbone as Holmes has been the best remembered, along with Jeremy Brett’s turn on television. While Rathbone’s first two films in the role were Victorian era efforts, his last dozen screen performances were set in then-contemporary times, with him squaring off against the Nazis—a cost-cutting measure, but one that also demonstrated how the character could live comfortably outside his century of origin.

The 1970s saw the great detective in a very different light, with Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes showing him duck an amorous suitor by claiming to himself be enamored of aide Dr. Watson. The novel and subsequent film adaptation of The Seven Percent Solution features Holmes [Nicole Williamson] undergoing psychiatric treatment by none other than Sigmund Freud, while 1979’s Murder by Decree had Holmes and Watson (Christopher Plummer and James Mason) squaring off against Jack the Ripper. By 1980, there is even the novel Sherlock Holmes in Dallas, recalling the aged detective to duty for a consult on JFK’s assassination.

Bringing Holmes into the 21st century for the ongoing series Sherlock—produced by Hartswood Films for BBC Wales—was the idea of show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. Still based in London, Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is aided by Iraq War veteran Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman). The series has made a virtue of visual invention in its portrayal of how Holmes’ mind views the world, utilizing shift and tilt lenses and Time-Slice frozen-time camera rigs. Sherlock’s cinematic language—which has earned it Emmy and BAFTA citations for visual effects and cinematography—includes a slick approach to depicting electronic messaging, with texting data superimposed over live action rather than resorting to more pedantic type insert shots of a smartphone screen.

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Mary Watson, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Photo by Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films 2016.

The first season was shot on a Sony CineAlta F35 by cinematographer Steve Lawes, while subsequent seasons have used ARRI Alexa cameras. DP Fabian Wagner, BSC, succeeded Lawes for the second season, while Matt Gray, Suzie Lavelle, Stuart Biddlecombe and David Luther have each lensed latter episodes, along with Neville Kidd, responsible for the acclaimed season three episode “His Last Vow” and the fourth season’s upcoming “The Lying Detective,” both of which were written by Steven Moffat and directed by Nick Hurran.

Kidd’s prior work with the pair on a Doctor Who project led to this assignment, which was free from many constraints associated with joining a popular series with well established settings. “I found that as a cinematographer, I was completely free to add my own style and imprint to Sherlock,” Kidd reports. “And that’s very important, because I’ve found that you’ve got to be just as clever as the main character in how you approach things, given the high standards. It’s no small task now as we go into a fourth season, since he just keeps getting more clever.”

Because of the ambitious approach to shooting each installment, with coverage often involving trick shots and multiple setups, Kidd explains, “We prep to within an inch of its life. This is just a given, a necessity, because so much coverage is necessary to get all the plot points and character POVs. Sherlock’s point of view requires special treatment, since he sees things so differently from the rest of the characters, and we need to reveal that to the audience in an exciting and engaging way. You couldn’t ever just turn up and shoot when dealing with such complex stories, so a detailed plan is needed, with solid ideas about just how much of the work is going to be accomplished on the set, as opposed to happening in VFX.

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Photo by Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films 2016.

“For really sticky stuff, we’ll storyboard,” Kidd continues, “so even if you wind up going off in a different direction, there is still a solid basis for fancy shots and action/stunt cues. We’ll put the boards up on a wall near the set so all departments have access to them and any questions can get answered right away.”

Season four episodes usually rely on two Alexa cameras, while Kidd sometimes adds a Canon Cinema EOS C300 as what he calls a “trick camera.” He notes, “It is lightweight and I can get in position quickly even in tight surroundings. That’s what is needed when you customize to facilitate a particular approach, and I’ll often shoot those angles myself.”

Last season’s “His Last Vow” opens with one such Kidd trick shot: a blurred frame, with the only sharp element glimpsed through a pair of discarded eyeglasses. “It was very fiddly, but what worked best in the end was using a Lensbaby on the Canon. That way we could put the glasses over the lens and get the result we were looking for.”

The cinematographer often avails himself of a Vision Research Phantom camera, courtesy of Love High Speed. “It gives us the ultra-high speed frame rate. When we need additional resolution, we’ll shoot 4K, which lets us have the option to reframe for VFX or some of our drone work.” Milk VFX handles the show’s visual effects load. Operating from two geographically separate facilities in Cardiff and London, the company employs Pixit Media’s PixCache to accelerate rendering using the cloud.

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Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss) and Sherlock Holmes. Photo by Colin Hutton/Hartswood Films 2016.

With so much specialized camera and lens trickery, the potential for fatally slowing the shooting schedule has to be considered. “Setting those trick shots up often takes quite awhile,” Kidd concedes, “so on those days, production makes sure we have multiple sets ready to roll. While the trick shots get prepped, I have crew and camera ready on the next set for Benedict to come over and shoot on. Our last day of shooting, I actually had five sets cued up and ready for filming. The crew would be leapfrogging from setup to setup, letting us spend the time we needed on the special setups while still letting us make the schedule. Of course, it takes a really well oiled machine and a brilliant 1st AD [Matthew Hanson]. You can’t pull this off every single day, but if you’re selective about when it is necessary, the crew will actually welcome it. Everyone likes to take this creative approach to getting the exciting material as opposed to just straightforward coverage, all of this on a TV schedule.”

Kidd carries a healthy respect for color and its impact on storytelling. “I always go in with a timeline of color in mind, knowing what hues are going in at what point, because I find color helps so much in telling that story,” he relates. “Having said that, I’ll sometimes change my lighting on the day to stay on schedule, knowing that I can get back to where I need to be during the DI.”

From the start of the series, colorist Kevin Horsewood—first at Prime Focus, then Blue 2.0 and currently employed by Technicolor UK—has handled the digital intermediate process, relying on FilmLight Baselight to tweak the imagery and Dolby PRM monitors for client review. Transcoding stations provided by NLEvolution manage the Log-C data transfer from camera.

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John Watson. Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Hartswood Films 2016.

One of the show producers’ stated intents for the series is to “fetishize” modern London in a manner similar to how period Holmes dramatizations depicted Victorian England. Though production was based in Cardiff, Wales, infrequent but strategic London location shoots help carry across this vision of a vigorously contemporary landscape. In the script for “His Last Vow,” the villain’s Appledore home was described as a “Citizen Kane mansion for the iPod generation,” and a striking location was found in Gloucestershire. For the glass elevator and sleek office of a luxury skyscraper in the same episode, London’s Heron Tower was used. “It is great to get the chance to shoot on existing London landmarks,” Kidd enthuses. “When on location, you choose lenses to suit what you are shooting. I always use the very fast Cooke S5s, which are 1.4 and let me open up as wide as possible to see everything in night work. But when you’re shooting nearly wide open while out in the world, that means we often have to employ negative fill as a means to shape and control the light.”

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Kidd estimates that while about half of the series shoots on location, an equal amount takes place on standing sets and a few new ones built for each installment. “Now that the wild west of LEDs has sorted itself out, I’m starting to use ARRI SkyPanels, which give us complete control over the color,” he explains. “On bigger sets, you can’t always gel the lights quickly, so LED lets you just dial them in, which saves us so much time.”

While he was unable to provide details about his involvement on the new season (Sherlock plot points are apparently as closely guarded as secrets from The Walking Dead), he admits, “I’m really excited by how fantastic an episode this is going to be. We’ve pushed it further out visually beyond what we did on ‘His Last Vow.’ Making the locations work is always a big challenge, but this time out, we integrated a lot of specialized custom lighting into these settings. This meant working even more closely with our production designer, Arwel Jones, who made the sets work for my lighting challenges as well as satisfying the story demands. That was all such good fun, and when ‘The Lying Detective’ airs, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”



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