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‘Sherlock’: Modern Mysteries, Layered with Inventive Visuals

Cinema history tells us that the first filmic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes was in a Mutoscope production of 1900. When the makers of Sherlock decided to update the durable, pipe-smoking detective for today’s television audiences, they knew they’d need a fresh approach. Guinness World Records lists Holmes as the single most commonly portrayed character in film and television history. The resulting Masterpiece Mystery series has been a smashing success—ratings for the BBC broadcasts of Sherlock have been terrific, and praise from the critics has been fulsome. The Wall Street Journal called Sherlock, Season 1 “wonderfully weird,” and BAFTA awarded the show its 2011 prize for best drama series.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (standing)
and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson
in “A Scandal in Belgravia”

The scripts are based on classic Arthur Conan Doyle tales but place the action in 21st century London. Brisk pacing and eye-catching visual techniques define the look. The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as a deadpan Dr. John Watson, and Andrew Scott as the villainous Moriarty, who in this incarnation augments his treachery with computer expertise.

The first three 90-minute episodes comprising season one were photographed by Steve Lawes. For season two, director Paul McGuigan (@paul_mcguigan) turned to Fabian Wagner, who grew up in Munich and studied filmmaking in Denmark, Prague and London.

“I enjoyed meeting new people and getting to know many different cultural influences,” he says of his education.

Boom operator Stuart McCutcheon, Benedict
Cumberbatch as Sherlock (seated), focus puller
Jamie Phillips and Fabian Wagner (with camera)

Today, Wagner’s other credits include the BBC series Spooks: Code 9, Hustle, Ashes to Ashes, and Accused. “I was very keen to work on Sherlock because I thought the first season took a really innovative approach visually,” he says. “The characters are so extreme, in a way, which allows you the freedom to do things you probably couldn’t do on any other show. There was a style established in the first season that we took on, but we elaborated on that to some degree as the show evolved.”

The main set, Holmes’ apartment, is in Cardiff, Wales, and the filmmakers spend roughly five days there out of the 24 it takes to make each episode. The rest of the show is shot on practical locations, which often include London exteriors.

A variety of photographic techniques are used to communicate Holmes’ superior powers of observation. One such technique uses a series of as many as 40 still photographs to create a fast zoom-in. Wagner uses a Canon EOS 5D or 7D camera to capture these still images; the small HDSLRs are also used to catch moving images of interesting or tight angles during more “normal” scenes.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson

Another unusual technique involves inscribing words on camera filters. The result is that the words are seen projected onto the highlights of the final image. “I generally don’t use soft filters because I like to use a lot of practicals and torches, and you can get an ugly tic from the way the filter glass breaks the light. You can sometimes end up with strange dots within the image,” Wagner says. “But for this trick, we made up ND filters with the words written in, and when we tested it, it worked.”

High frame rates are another way to set images apart. A Vision Research Phantom camera is sometimes brought in to shoot at speeds of up to 500 frames per second. In a recent episode, the technique heightened tension in a scene where Holmes figures out that a safe contains a gun that will fire when the door is opened.

“It’s tricky because you need so much more light,” says Wagner of high frame rate shooting. “It takes time, especially when you’re working on location, and that’s difficult on our schedule. But for particular moments, it works.”

Holmes in the lab in “The
Reichenbach Fall”

For the majority of the show, Wagner’s camera of choice is the ARRI ALEXA. The camera is set up to capture in 4:2:2 color space. “Season one had been done with the F35, but I pretty much use the ALEXA for everything I can,” says Wagner. “When I came aboard, Paul had recently shot something with the ALEXA, and he was also really happy with it. In addition to the speed and the [light] sensitivity, I just think it’s a great camera. It’s simple and straightforward to use, it’s well balanced for handholding, and loading and unloading the SxS cards takes seconds. It’s a basic camera, but it produces great images.”

The main lenses are Cooke primes, but the camera crew also carries a set of uncoated Zeiss Super Speeds, used when Wagner wants to add an interesting flare to the image. Sometimes he even adds a length of fishing wire between the lens and the camera as a low-tech way to create an anamorphic lens flare effect when the camera is aimed at a light source.

“When you have the opportunity to get a flawless image in the first place, it’s easy to mess with it in interesting ways,” says Wagner. “It’s a high-definition image, which is a very hard image, so anything to soften it up a bit or give it a bit of different texture.”

Most days there are two ALEXA bodies on the set, but McGuigan prefers to work with a single camera when possible. Wagner, on the other hand, doesn’t mind lighting and blocking for two cameras. That’s a switch—usually the director prefers using two cameras because it provides more flexibility in editing, while cinematographers like the specific and uncompromised lighting they can create for a single angle.

“I’ve done so much television that I’ve become pretty efficient with two cameras,” Wagner says. “You’ve got no time and you have to shoot so much every day. I find two cameras quite useful.”

Since the second season of Sherlock wrapped, Wagner has lent his talents to two more television productions: Sinbad, a Lost-like adventure series that also updates a legendary character, and the forthcoming Mrs. Biggs, a five-part drama about the woman who married one of the perpetrators of “The Great Train Robbery,” a sensational 1963 crime.

The second season of Sherlock will be broadcast in North America on PBS on Sunday evenings in May 2012.