Elementary, my dear ALEXA

Produced by Hartswood Films for the BBC and co-produced with WGBH Boston for its MASTERPIECE broadcasts on PBS, SHERLOCK is a British drama series that puts a modern twist on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories featuring the prototypical sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat place Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) in present-day London, aided in his adventures by Iraq veteran army doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman). Cinematographer Steve Lawes shot the first series and Fabian Wagner, who recently spoke with ARRI about his work on the show, shot the second series with ALEXA cameras supplied by ICE Films.

Working handheld is very comfortable with ALEXA because it's so well balanced; the menu is easy; the workflow is easy; and the fact that it goes to 800 ASA is obviously a bonus.

ARRI News: How did you come to get involved in the production?


Fabian Wagner: I think the producer Sue Vertue and the director Paul McGuigan had seen a couple of things I had done, one of which was ACCUSED, a Jimmy McGovern project. They called me up, I met Paul for a chat, and that was it. I loved the first series so I was keen to get involved and I am very happy to have had the chance to shoot it.


AN: Was Paul the only director on the series, or were there others?


FW: Paul directed the first two episodes, A SCANDAL IN BELGRAVIA and THE HOUNDS OF BASKERVILLE, and Toby Haynes directed the last one, THE REICHENBACH FALL.


AN: What discussions were there about a look for the second series? Was it a continuation of the first, or were you going for something a bit different?


FW: Obviously Steve had done a great job the previous year and it went down very well, so they were definitely keen to keep certain bits, but everybody approaches things in a slightly different way and I wanted to give it my own look. It certainly wasn't a case of being told that I had to do this or had to do that. Some ideas continued from the first series and other ideas were new.

AN: These are classic characters, but with a very modern twist that does seem to be reflected in the look -- was that what you were going for?

FW: Well yes, it's a very fast-paced and stylized drama, so visually you can get away with things that you might not be able to do on a normal drama. Sherlock's character is so out there, so modern and stylized, that you can do things on a totally different scale. His brain works so quickly that you have to move fast to keep up with him. One thing we've done this year to illustrate the speed at which Sherlock thinks is to slow everything around him down to super slow-mo and show that he can come up with an entire solution to a problem in the time it takes another character to put down a cup of tea.

Often we had to light for 360-degree shooting, and the ALEXA helps with that a lot.

AN: A lot of words and numbers that reflect communication technologies or Sherlock's thoughts appear over the image -- did you have to think about that while you were shooting, or did they work around your compositions in post?


FW: They started that effect last year with text messages that come up on the screen; it was a great effect that really works and we wanted to push it even further this year. There were quite a few scenes where certain words appear in the frame; some of them were put in later but others we actually did in-camera. I had special filters made up with the words carved into them to achieve that effect - it was great to have the opportunity to do something unusual like that.

AN: How did ALEXA come to be chosen? Had you worked with it already?

FW: I had used the camera before, but this was the first long project I'd done with it. I'm a big ARRI fan and had heard a lot about ALEXA; I did some tests and for me, it was really the only camera to use because it's great to work with and is the closest you can get to a film camera. Working handheld is very comfortable with ALEXA because it's so well balanced; the menu is easy; the workflow is easy; and the fact that it goes to 800 ASA is obviously a bonus because I like minimalistic, natural lighting. Often we had to light for 360-degree shooting, and the ALEXA helps with that a lot as well.

AN: And were you recording to the on-board SxS PRO cards?

FW: Yes we were; we were shooting ProRes 422HQ. I was operating the A-camera and we were also using a B-camera most of the time. I had a great crew, with my usuals - Jamie Phillips pulling focus and Leighton Spence loading - and Mark Milsome operating the B-camera, with Leo Holba and Svetlana Miko.

AN: Did you work with a DIT?

FW: We didn't actually. When were at Dartmoor we had one for just a few days because we were so far away from the office and getting the rushes back was difficult, but we were without a DIT for about 95% of the shoot.

AN: The look can be quite bold, for example with a lot of flaring; you obviously didn't want to be bound by convention in terms of the camerawork.

FW: I love for the camera to be free and to do whatever comes naturally. I'm also a big fan of flares and Paul and I talked about keeping the visuals as interesting as possible, so we used a lot of different lenses to get different effects. Most of the time we were shooting with Cookes, but we used uncoated Zeiss Superspeeds to get some of the flares and on quite a few occasions I also put a fishing wire behind the back element of the lens, which is something I have done a lot in stills photography, and that gave us interesting horizontal flares; I think it worked a treat.