The Illusion of Depth: The Z-axis in The Great Game
(I’ve had a few requests to get technical so here’s some film_theory!lock.)
Sherlock is so inventive visually for several reasons. I’m going to focus here on TGG which was directed by Paul McGuigan who also directed Mofftiss’ episodes in S1 & S2. The Director of Photography on TGG was Steve Lawes.
McGuigan’s proclivity is to film Master shots or what Jennifer Van Sjilll identifies in her wonderful book, Cinematic Storytelling, as the mise-en-scène. Rather than relying primarily on editing together various shots filmed from differing perspectives, McGuigan tends to use inventive framing (focus, depth of field, color, light etc.) to tell much of the Consulting Detective’s story.
Mise-en-scène is a French term meaning “putting in the scene,” originally used to describe the physical production of the film. Today, however, mise-en-scène refers to a scene in which the action plays out in front of a continually running camera. New compositions are created through blocking, lens zoom and camera movement instead of cutting. The scene is shot in real time as one uninterrupted take that will stand on its own without the aid of editing.
-Jennifer Van Sjilll from Cinematic Storytelling
Director Paul McGuigan’s Mise-en-scène
…you only get twenty-two filming days where in the movies you’d get twice as much as that if not more. So obviously you’re tempered by that schedule… But in a way it’s kind of fun, it doesn’t seem like fun at the time but in [retrospect] it kind of makes you a lot faster and a lot more able to come up with ideas and you can be very creative within those twenty-two days.
I tried not to change my style when I directed, I just kept my style while knowing that I had to do a certain amount each day and I didn’t want anyone to tell me, you’ve got to do a wide shot, a medium shot, a close up, an extreme close up, and then we can get out of here, thats not how I work. I tend to work by doing a big master shot which you could use as one shot if you wanted to and I never changed that process at all.
- Paul McGuigan on Sherlock’s shooting schedule (x)
Z-axis Rack Focus
The z-axis is the line that runs from the foreground to the background of an image. It carries the illusion of depth and focuses the viewer’s attention into the scene. Depth-of-field is the distance along the z-axis that is in focus. In the Sherlock gif above the depth-of-field changes from Ms. Wenceslas to Sherlock. McGuigan could have chosen to film the two separately and cut back and forth between them but isn’t what they do with focus here much cooler than that?
A Rack Focus shot, also called a Pull Focus, requires a shallow depth-of-field. This means that only a narrow plane along the Z-axis can be in focus at one time. When the camera operator “pulls focus” he/she shifts the focus from one focal plane to another. In so doing, the audience’s attention shifts from objects situated on one plane to objects on another. By creating a shallow depth-of-field, the in-camera effect can selectively redirect the audience’s attention anytime during the scene.
Rack focus…is often used to effect surprise through a sudden reveal, usually an important plot point. Since it heavily underscore the reveal, it should be used sparingly. -Jennifer Van Sjilll
(The camera assistant responsible for rack focusing is called a focus puller. Martin Scanlan was the focus puller on The Great Game.)
Z-axis Vanishing Point, Over-the-Shoulder Shot, Motivated Lighting
An over-the-shoulder shot (OTS) occurs when the camera is placed behind the shoulder of the character. The head and shoulders are seen in the foreground and are used as a framing device for the shot. Most often a second character is the subject of interest. In this way the two characters are “married” in the frame. Instead of separating the two characters in two separate close-ups or medium shots, the writer (and/or director) chooses to have both characters physically present in the shot… -Jennifer Van Sjilll
Notice what happens before and after John opens the door. The contents of the fridge are foreshadowed by the movement of the skull on the table. When the fridge door is shut, so is the “life” of the head. This is not a continuity error— I think it’s 100% intentional. The skull on the table disappears soon after the revelation of its double in the fridge, and so does John eventually. The situation is delightfully absurd. The lighting, camera angle, and prop display are put to use in unexpected ways and it’s clever, quirky and delighting.
Motivated lighting is light that appears on screen from an explainable source which indicates that this isn’t fantasy— Sherlock is indeed storing a severed head in the fridge.
We’re looking at an OTS without the S— a classic over-the shoulder without the shoulder. It’s quite funny. If the head were filmed… well… head on, close-up with interspersed cuts then TGG would be a horror film. We experience the “horror” of the severed head through John’s reaction of disgust, yes, but he seems more put-upon than terrified. Kind of comically sickened. Freeman’s reaction is priceless. The head and John’s face are lit from the refrigerator light and the z-axis, and therefore John, is emphasized by the square frame of the doors and the ridges on the side of the fridge. John appears his actual size when usually in film putting the subject in the center (more or less) of the z-axis is meant to diminish size or make the subject seem to vanish altogether. Just like Westy’s body on top of the train.
In the case of the swimming pool Sherlock sees nothing in the distance but we know who’s theeeereeeee. Sherlock looks to the farthest horizon of the pool for his adversary and sees nothing. Yet.
(Diagram from Jennifer Van Sjilll’s Cinematic Storytelling. All my screencaps come from http://sc.aithine.org/sherlock.)
Mrs Hudson: Sherlock.
Sherlock is back and seems to be either sad or lost in thought…
I’m a bit afraid that “the empty hearse” will be sorrowful and that I’ll feel melancholic…
(bbc promo pictures)
Obsessive ObservationsFun Facts!
- Producer Beryl Vertue and production designer Arwel Wyn Jones are extras.
- John Pinkerton’s artwork is strewn about. He’s the artist who created the famous blue skull.
A Study in Pink
- Jennifer Wilson died face down in front of a rocking horse which is probably why she thought to carve her daughter’s name into the floor.
- The cabbie’s ex-wife is the head of the jury in TRF— the same children appear in their photos.
- The musical notation on the sheet music for “Pursuit” (Sherlock’s chase theme) reads “with gypsy flair.” This places the theme in the musical tradition of Brahms’s Rondo alla Zingarese, etc.
- Here are most of the props/set dressings in 221b.
The Blind Banker
- The London Eye is lit for Gay Pride.
- The floor lamp in Sebastian Wilkes’s office originally appeared in 221b in the pilot.
- Most of the book titles on Sherlock’s shelves are in focus at some point. Here’s a complete list. Here’s the cutest of them all. Many of the books on the set have references in them to Sherlock Holmes.
- One of the books is a prop from The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s called The Teleological Response of the Virus by Lavinia Smith. Lavinia is Sarah Jane’s auntie in Whoverse (spotted by Trillsabells).
The Great Game
- In Belarus Sherlock’s wearing the fur collar attached to his Belstaff.
- The cinematographer, Steve Lawes, lit the museum guard’s bedroom as if it were a Vermeer painting.
- The Golem, Ms. Wenceslaus’s surname, and the stationary addressed to Sherlock all have a connection to Bohemia. A Scandal in Belgravia is based on ACD’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”.
- Scenes from TGG pay homage to the classic film, The Third Man.
- There’s a cute visual joke about the Golem.
- In the pool scene the curtain next to John’s face in TGG and ASiB changes color with his mood.
A Scandal in Belgravia
- John’s musical theme and Irene’s musical theme have very similar motifs and contours. (More about that.)
- Arthur Conan Doyle may have lifted “Vatican Cameos” from another writer of detective fiction.
- There’s a sprig of mistletoe in the kitchen.
- Sherlock plucks the musical motif of “The Coventry Carol" on his violin.
- There’s a bee on the wall in Sherlock’s bedroom.
- The end of ASiB is an intertextual nod to David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia.
The Hounds of Baskerville
- Mark Gatiss
liftedtook the inspiration for Sherlock’s mind palace from Hannibal Lecter’s memory palace.
- John’s West London Power mug is a Whoverse prop (from The Sarah Jane Adventures.)
- Sherlock’s experimenting on socks in the kitchen.
- There are 4 printers in the living room
- Sherlock has an injection gun on the desk.
- Mycroft has “priority ultra” clearance on the badge that Sherlock steals and uses at Baskerville. This is a nod to Ultra, the designation for ultra top secret British signals intelligence during WWII. Ultra is referenced previously in Belgravia.
- Moriarty is compared to Hannibal Lecter many times in Sherlock. The interrogation scene is an homage to The Silence of the Lambs. The camera even name checks Hannibal in the CO’s office.
The Reichenbach Fall
- TRF is heavily influenced by the film The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (1939)
- And Nosferatu. (1922)
- Richard Brook’s CV makes two nods to ACD canon.
- Brook played a character called “Teflon Terry” (nothing sticks to teflon). He also acted on stage at the Bush theater as did Andrew Scott! RB’s head shots are credited to Arwel Jones, Sherlock's production designer.
- The newspaper between Moriarty and Sherlock in 221b says “United We Stand.”
- Moriarty and Sherlock’s Bach story is fictional.
- There are a lot of similarities between the kidnapping of Max and Claudette and that of Charles Lindbergh’s son.
- There’s a reference to Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy on Sherlock’s desk. BC’s character in TTSS was influenced by ACD’s Dr. John Watson.
- Somebody at the bus stop signals to Sherlock from the ground. It appears to be the number 29.
- It’s definitely not Sherlock on the stretcher.
360° Panoramic Tour Around Sherlock’s 221B Baker Street Set x
I love an out take and especially this one of #BenedictCumberbatch going up the staircase followed by his looming shadow #Sherlock #photography
#here we have a wild cumberbatch AS SHERLOCk in his natural habitat#the cumberbatch is mostly unmoved#in fact he doesn’t even blink#some say this is common in a cumberbatch AS SHERLOCk as his mind is elsewhere#thumping away and running as fast as it can to get in the SHERLOCk state of mind#it’s quite extraordinary#or he could of course be thinking about common people stuff like boobies#what to have for dinner later#boobies AND sex#or simply one of the questions that he had in the metro crossword this morning in the make-up trailer#the beauty of this is that we do not know#and this has stunned scientists and fellow humans for many many years#but just watching the Cumberbatch AS SHERLOCk in this hustle and bustle of his natural habitat is really quite#astonishing#this rare and beautiful creature will always be an absolute joy to watch#/end attenborough voice
What she said.
You are a DRAMA QUEEN