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Thursday, 31 December 2009 00:00

A Contemporary Take on Sherlock Holmes

Written by  Bob Fisher
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Everything and nothing in his life prepared Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC for the challenges he would face on the production of Sherlock Holmes.

Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes by Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures

Everything and nothing in his life prepared Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC for the challenges he would face on the production of Sherlock Holmes. The film is the next chapter in the ongoing saga about the fictional English Detective Sherlock Holmes, hissidekick Dr. Watson, Police Inspector Lestrade and other familiar characters.  The classic story traces its roots to 1887 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle authored his first novel about Sherlock Holmes and the people in his world. There have since been some 20 Sherlock Holmes movies produced (the first was a black-and-white short film produced in Denmark in 1908) along with several successful television series and miniseries.

Rousselot has memories of reading Sir Conan Doyle’s books while he was a teenager, but he doesn’t recall seeing any movies or TV series about Sherlock Holmes. This film project is his first co-venture with Director Guy Ritchie. “It’s a very intricate plot typical of a Sherlock Holmes story,” Rousselot says. Born and raised in France, the DP brought a unique perspective and a broad base of experience to the project. When he was 11 years old, his parents sent him to a two-week summer camp where every night they showed films and spoke about them afterwards. That was the spark that ignited Rousselot’s interest in filmmaking. He later studied at the Vaugirard national film school in France and then rode the crest of the French New Wave during the dawn of his career as an assistant cameraman on crews led by legendary Cinematographer Nestor Almendros, ASC.

Rousselot earned his first cinematography credit at the age of 25, and in 1982 he won the first of his three Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for Diva. He has also earned Academy Award nominations for Hope and Glory and Henry & June, and won a Best Cinematography Oscar for A River Runs Through It in 1992. His numerous other film credits include The Bear, The Emerald Forest, Interview with the Vampire, Planet of the Apes, Antwone Fisher and Constantine.

Village Roadshow produced Sherlock Holmes for distribution by Warner Brothers. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law were cast in the respective roles of Holmes and Watson. The film also stars Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade, James Fox as Sir Thomas and Rachel

McAdams as Irene Adler. “I usually don’t look at earlier versions of franchise-type movies, because I don’t want to be influenced by what has been done before,” Rousselot admits. “I did look at films that Guy Ritchie has directed, including gangster stories in urban settings. I was impressed by how interesting and innovative they were.” The DP recalls his initial meetings with Ritchie: “Guy envisioned a very realistic setting. I remember asking myself, ‘How are we going to reconcile a period story set in the late 19th century that has traditionally had proper and elegant settings with Guy’s vision of urban storytelling?’ We made an early decision to put a little grunge in the look of a Victorian-era film.”
Rousselot, ASC on the set of Sherlock Holmes. Photo by Alex Bailey Rousselot and Ritchie made another early decision to produce Sherlock Holmes in Super 1.85:1 format, because that was how Ritchie had the story in mind. He wanted to integrate the heights of settings and structures in the backgrounds into the scenes. “You can’t rationalize these decisions,” Rousselot says. “It was a gut feeling.” Location Manager Mark Somner found a treasure trove of settings on the city streets, wharfs and docks of London, Manchester and Liverpool. Interior locations included a late 19th-century jail. Rousselot observes that they had to re-create what London was like during the late 19th century, because it had been heavily bombed during World War II. “It doesn’t look like Victorian times any more,” he says. “None of us felt that adelicate, polished look was right for this story. I was pleased when I saw the production and wardrobe designs by Sarah Greenwoodand Jenny Beavan. They both took a less formal approach than usual, and put a little grunge into Sherlock Holmes’s world.”

One significant challenge for Rousselot was deciding on how to approach lighting the night scenes to emulate late 19th-century London.  “I always start with trying to motivate lighting from visible sources, but a problem with period films like this is that if you are too realistic, you end up with too much darkness at night,” he notes. “The oil lamps that people used in London during the late 19th century didn’t light the night the way that electric bulbs do. Some parts of the city were lit with arc lights on giant towers. It was a rather harsh blue light coming from very far away.”

While scouting locations in Liverpool, Ritchie told Rousselot that he wanted the audience to see the river and buildings miles away in the background. “Even if we had all of the Musco lights in the world, it wouldn’t have looked realistic if we used them to light the night,” Rousselot says. “I told Guy the bad news was that we couldn’t light that location at night, because it was too big. The good news was that we could shoot day for night and make it look and feel right for the story. This is an action movie with things we want the audience to see at night, so we had found a way to serve the drama without compromising their sense of reality.”

Since the film was scheduled to shoot in Liverpool during the winter, when the weather is consistently rainy and cold, Rousselot returned to London to shoot day-for-night tests at locations around the Thames River. After the negative was processed at a Technicolor lab, it was scanned and converted into a digital file. Rousselot experimented with timing day-for-night shots with Adam Inglis, a timer at the Technicolor DI facility in London. “We played with the images,” Rousselot explains. “For instance, I framed some shots with the river in the foreground and the sky and buildings in the background. I knew that I could play with the sky and make it dark enough to look like night. I also darkened the sun and made it look like the moon, and played with colors and tones of clouds and a reflection of the sun on the water. We showed the results to Guy and the producer.” Based on those tests, they decided to shoot a number of day-for-night scenes.

Rousselot had a synergistic relationship with the camera crew he assembled. They were mainly people who had worked with him in London on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005. Gaffer Chuck Finch worked with Rousselot on Hope & Glory in 1994. Panavision in London provided the camera package, including an ARRI S and two Panaflex Millennium bodies, a set of Prime lenses ranging from 14–150mm, and 3:1 and 11:1 zooms. Panalux and Studio Equipment, respectively, provided lighting gear and dollies. Rousselot had Kodak VISION3 5219 (500T) for night and interiors scenes and Kodak VISION2 5205 (200D) for daylight sequences on his palette.

Ritchie had storyboards, but he gave Rousselot, the actors and his crew freedom to follow their instincts and improvise. They usually covered the action with both Millennium cameras, which were almost constantly moving. Rousselot doesn’t refer to them as A and B cameras, because he considers their coverage equally important. He used a Technocrane, Steadicam, dolly and handheld cameras for movement, depending on the settings and dramatic intentions for each shot. The visual energy that engendered is subtle, but it feels tactile to audiences on a subconscious level.

The film has many scenes in which Holmes and Watson interact with each other. Rousselot generally had one camera tracking with Watson, and the other one with Holmes, with the goal of giving the actors maximum freedom to ad lib and improvise. That tactic also allowed the DP and his crew to move faster with fewer takes. “Guy didn’t need a lot of takes,” Rousselot says. “Four, five or six takes was average, and sometimes as few as two. There were times when Guy amazed me. We would start shooting a scene early in the morning, and he would say, ‘This isn’t working.’ Within 20 or 30 minutes, or at the most an hour, he changed the scene and it was perfect.”

The film’s aerial perspective sequences were shot by Adam Dale, and the Visual Effects Company in London contributed a diverse range of  believable illusions, including CGI explosions that were composited into action scenes and green-screen sequences designed to put charactersinto various settings. In an unusual twist, green screen and other scenes filmed on sets, including the Baker Street apartment that Holmes and Watson called home, were produced across the Atlantic Ocean on stages in a former armory in Brooklyn, New York. Rousselot added painterly touches to the look while timing the DI with Inglis.

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