The Sherlock series takes viewers on a clever trek through the mind of one of London’s most exquisite and mysterious intellects — Sherlock Holmes. This 21st Century take on Conan Doyle detective characters is a Hartswood Films project and comes out of the Masterpiece Theater, BBC banner. The now Emmy nominated cinematographer, Fabian Wagner, sat down with S&P to talk about his work on the show and the episode up for consideration, A Scandal in Belgravia.
S&P: You’ve been working in film since the early 2000’s, what drew your interest in lens work to begin with?
Wagner: I’ve always loved photography and visuals. I had a best friend who took me to film sets at a fairly young age, 13/14, and I thought to myself, this is something I could do. So I always wanted to become a cinematographer. I’ve loved films and what images can do to influence and add to this very exciting art.
S&P: Now that the “statue community” has recognized you for your work on Sherlock, do you feel a little added pressure to keep your work at a higher level?
Wagner: Not really. Of course one always wants to do a good job, or actually a better one than what people would expect. But the pressure comes from myself really more than anything. I love this job. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and I always want to do better at it and learn more. It’s something I ask of myself.
S&P: How did you get approached to work on Sherlock?
Wagner: Producer Sue Virtue and director Paul Mcguigan had seen something I did, Accused, I think, that won an Emmy for best series. They gave me a call and we had a coffee and a chat. It was a good conversation and it all went from there.
S&P: Does Sherlock shoot with the Arri Alexa?
Wagner: Yes, it was shot with the Alexa. It was always going to be digital and the Alexa is the only choice for me right now. I used my favorite Primes, the Cook S4’s. But we also used uncoated lenses quite a lot (Zeiss super speeds), and we carried a couple of Angenieux zooms, which we used for the crane work. We also used the Lensbaby quite a lot.
A lot of the time I used fishing wire behind the lens to create flares and we also had filters made up that gave us various bouquets. Most of the trickery was done on set. I prefer trying to get an interesting effect in camera. You can do a lot in post these days, but it will never be as organic. And it’s a lot of fun.
S&P: Director Paul McGuigan has worked on all but two episodes. Does it help create shorthand on set when someone has a greater familiarity?
Wagner: Yes, I guess that’s true. Paul has pretty much invented the look for the show. All the “Sherlock visions”, for example, is something he has come up with. He is a very visual director and very good at what he does, so you constantly have to be on your toes and come up with something visually interesting. Saying that, Toby Haynes, who came in to direct the last one, has totally embraced the Sherlock look and made a great episode as well.
S&P: With such a smart show, how interesting do you try and make your shot compositions? Are they story driven? Character driven? Both?
Wagner: I think it’s a combination really. It’s a very fast, intense show and we try and keep it as interesting as possible, and that counts for every department, like sound and music, production design, etc.
It was very important to Paul and me to keep it as visually interesting as possible so we always thought of ways to enhance the story, without getting carried away. There is a fine line in drama because you don’t want the audience to get lost and forget about the characters or the story. So it’s all about enhancing the story visually.
S&P: How long are you given for an episode?
We shoot everything in blocks usually. For the ninety minute episodes, we get about 22 days for each.
S&P: How do you approach a scene in terms of its look and coverage?
Wagner: Paul normally does rehearsals with the cast and I sit quietly in the back somewhere. Then we talk about how we should approach it. It’s a very creative and intuitive process that I really enjoy.
On bigger sequences, we would plan a lot more beforehand, because you normally don’t have much time to shoot and need to know how to approach it.
S&P: The show has a few iconic sets. Otherwise, it seems all location driven. Is that true? Wagner: Yes, pretty much all of it was shot on location, apart from Sherlock’s flat. Even Molly’s lab is a location. It’s a real lab in a hospital block in Cardiff.
S&P: Any multi-camera work on set?
Wagner: I’ve gotten used to shooting with two cameras. I’m getting really comfortable with it. The new series of Accused I shot everything with two cameras. When you’re under little time, with all the setups you have to get, it’s good to try and bring in another camera. With Sherlock, it was probably half and half. Some days single, some multi.
S&P How do you like camera operating?
Wagner: It’s interesting, you know, I love operating. To frame a shot. Looking in the lens. Being right there in the action. I like that part about it so much. 90% of the stuff I’ve done I’ve operated, but now with bigger scale projects and bigger production, my camera operating role takes a step back for me to allow myself to concentrate on other things.
S&P: We get to see inside Buckingham Palace during this episode. Was there cooperation there from the powers that be?
Wagner: No, unfortunately we didn’t shoot inside Buckingham palace. That would have been great thought. Again, another location, in London this time.
S&P: We see Sherlock’s character reveal more emotion than any other episode so far, how did you try and enhance this to the audience?
Wagner: He is in love for the first time ever, so yes, it is very emotional, in a ‘Sherlock kind of way’. We just shot some of the scenes very much with him, being close to him, handheld, trying to convey what he feels during the moment.
S&P: What’s the process behind shooting Sherlock’s intellectual instincts during crime scenes or when he’s analyzing someone?
Wagner: This is something Paul has developed in the first season and we have just taken it slightly further this season.
In Sherlock’s world, everything is slower than him. He is faster and smarter than anyone so it’s all about creating an interesting approach. We use stills, high speed, and some color correction. The still photography we do is great fun.
S&P: When Sherlock sees dominatrix, Irene Adler, for the first time, she walks into the room, naked. The walls – white, the couch — white. Everything seems to glow. You guys even push into Sherlock’s surprised face with a white lens flare. It was a very defining moment. What was the thought process behind this scene?
Wagner: Yes, I love the flare shot. I love flares in general really. In this particular setup, it was all about the shock he feels. There he is, Sherlock, and for the first time he doesn’t know what to say. It’s a great moment.
S&P: Some of the match cuts/cut-to scenes that bring plot points together are really fun. For instance, when Sherlock and Irene are at the “boomerang crime scene,” but still in the same makeup as the previous location — how often do you try and look for these unique opportunities to tell the story?
Wagner: Always really. The scripts are so well written. Like I said before, we want to try and push it as much as possible so we always play around with these cuts. Sometimes, it suits the story better to just shoot it normally, but then, you get scenes like that where it’s just perfect. It was a fun day. We had a massive piece of wall and bed in the middle of the field.
S&P: How involved are you with the episode’s final color grading?
Wagner: I’m usually very involved. I always try and go to every grade. It’s an important process in finishing the film. We try to do as much as we can in camera with filters, etc. In Scandals case, I couldn’t actually be there as I was filming another project, but I was in contact with the colorist and we talked about what we should do. I have worked with him before so we know each other quite well and it all worked out. We normally send each other stills that I grade at home or wherever I am and we stay in touch like that.
S&P: What’s something you learned you could pass on to the people reading this?
Wagner: That’s a tricky question because you learn so much every day. Every day I spend on set there is something else, which is one of the great things about this job.The one thing that has always helped me a lot is that you should always listen to your instincts. Don’t try and copy or be someone else. Stick to your gut feeling. It’s always right.
S&P would like to thank Fabian for taking us behind the scenes of Sherlock. You can watch his next project, Da Vinci’s Demons, in 2013, along with the new season of Sherlock. The Creative Arts Emmys will be held September 15th, 2012, at the Nokia Theatre LA LIVE in Los Angeles.
Photos: Colin Hutton/Hartswood Films/BBC