The Visual Techniques of Sherlock


Today we have this guest post for your reading pleasure, written by Aman, one of our good friends over at The Empty Hearse. Go check out their fantastic site now!

Sherlock is a show that has a fantastic plots, amazing actors, killer dialogue, awesome music, but you know one other thing that makes this show so appealing? It’s outstanding use of new visual techniques and it’s excellent cinematography.

The very mode of production is more cinematic than television style, and it shows in the thoughtful creation of sets, costumes, lighting, and camera angles. Mofftiss of course have the advantage of only having a few episodes each series to work with, which allows them to focus and dedicate their art budget to making the show visually striking. And the show has a surprisingly large budget that’s definitely helped with that. The original pilot cost £800,000.  Presumably the following episodes cost a similar amount.

In this post, we explore some visual techniques used in Sherlock.


1. Bullet time effect

The bullet time effect was originally achieved photographically by a set of still cameras surrounding the subject. The cameras are fired sequentially, or all at the same time, depending on the desired effect. Single frames from each camera are then arranged and displayed consecutively to produce an orbiting viewpoint of an action frozen in time or as hyper-slow-motion.

Sherlock used the effect in ‘The Sign of Three’, for example, but probably the most famous instance of it is in The Matrix. In that film, the camera path was pre-designed using computer-generated visualizations as a guide. Cameras were arranged, behind a green or blue screen, on a track and aligned through a laser targeting system, forming a complex curve through space. The cameras were then triggered at extremely close intervals, so the action continued to unfold, in extreme slow-motion, while the viewpoint moved.


2. Text on screen


This one’s our favourite. Another thing that Sherlock solved for directors and cinematographers was the problem of how to display texts or what’s going on the character’s phone or laptop. Traditionally, this was done by zooming in to the phone to make the words a bit clearer but Sherlock’s cinematographers did it cleverly. They simply put the text on the screen. And however bland that may sound, it looks amazing! As stated numerous times by the producers and writers, the brilliantly stylised look of the series can pretty much be attributed to director Paul McGuigan. Paul made use of graphics appearing overlaid onscreen that depicted information pertaining to the plot, as well as Sherlock’s deductive thought processes.


3. Lighting

Much of the impression movies leave on viewers stems from how lighting affects perception. It sets a particular mood e.g. Bright, colorful lighting often brings with it cheerfulness in films as the actors seem happier. Dark colours suggest sinister characteristics in actors and set the mood for dark plots. To understand this with Sherlock, look at the following pictures:



[We will be doing various posts on scene analysis over on The Empty Hearse, so stay tuned for that! Bookmark our site and follow our social media accounts!]


4. Time shift photography


Tilt-shift photography is a creative and unique type of photography in which the camera is manipulated so that a life-sized location or subject looks like a miniature-scale model. Essentially, it’s taking a photograph of a real-world scene and making it look like a miniature scene, such as you’d find in a model railroader’s setup. This, as shown above, was used in the opening credits of Sherlock, along with other shots of London. Tilt shift photography can be done with the help of a lens which is capable of tilting and shifting or, more usually, it can easily be processed in Photoshop almost under a minute by people who are experienced with this process. Tilt shift photography has recently gained a lot of popularity, and if done well can lead to impressive results!


5. Vatican cameos!


On realising the safe in Irene’s flat is booby trapped, Sherlock yells out a ‘safe word’ that he and John have decided on as an alert to take immediate evasive action: the canon-referencing “Vatican Cameos!”. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, as enthusiasts for the Arthur Conan Doyle canon, like to throw in obscure little references here and there as fanservice. “Vatican cameos” is a reference to a line in the ACD canon, in which Holmes remarks that he had been preoccupied with a case pertaining to the Vatican cameos.

The scene then descends into a slow motion while Sherlock and John disarm the CIA agents. But how was this stunning shot captured? The answer; The Phantom Camera, manufactured by Vision Research. The Phantom Flex is a 2.5K digital cinema camera providing exceptional flexibility in all areas of high-speed image capture. Depending on the shooting mode and resolution, the Flex is capable of shooting from 5 frames-per-second (fps) to over 10,750 fps. These can then later be played back at 24fps. Amazing, isn’t it?

These are just some of the things we found interesting and thought that they were worth a mention, though there might be so many little things which the crew used to make the show what it is!

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2 thoughts on “The Visual Techniques of Sherlock

  1. Great post about a beautifully shot tv series! From the pilot onwards, one of the things that got me hooked and kept me watching was the stylistic choices made. They add up to create what can almost be described as a comic-book style of cinematography, but without being cheesy or on the nose. Marvel and DC should take note


  2. As I understand it, “vatican cameos” is actually a phrase used by the British military. It first appeared during WW2, and was used when there was an armed intruder on the base.

    As a soldier, John would have recognized it. It essentially means “duck and cover”.


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