Cinematography and Sherlock

Television is often regarded as film’s lesser sibling; the crayon drawing to the fine pastel of film, if you will. Artistically, less energy is invested in television, and the assumption is that viewers expect much less of their television shows than they do of films. Few shows have done much to buck this trend, and there is in fact a very specific simplistic style that makes television readily identifiable. Shows that do attempt to get creative with lighting and angles tend to obnoxiously use the same tricks over and over again over the course of a series. In a film, it becomes a subtle reiteration of a theme, but on a multi-season television series, it starts to feel dull, repetitive, and boring.

Which is why Sherlock intrigues me, because it stands out so much artistically from other offerings. 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. Moffat of course has the advantage of only having a few episodes each season to work with, which allows him to focus and dedicate his art budget to making the show visually striking. And the show has a notoriously large budget that’s definitely helped with that.

From the opening sequence, that fascinating tilt-shift for the credits, Sherlock marks itself as visually and artistically different. It dares to do what a lot of television does not, which is look pretty, stand out, and do so in interesting and creative ways. Viewers are sucked into the storylines through the cinematography, rather than having the visuals of the show be a secondary, smaller, quiet thing. Despite the fact that television is a visual medium, it often feels like cinematography is supposed to be seen but not felt; you should view it solely as a culture medium, not key to the performance, as it were.

It’s one of the things that keeps me connected to the show despite its significant narrative flaws. Sherlock tells stories visually and I don’t always like the stories it tells and the way it tells them, the things it suggests about women in particular. But I do appreciate on an aesthetic level the way in which these stories are presented, and the way in which the creators manipulate and use the camera for the narrative. Yes, sometimes it’s a bit cheesy, as in ‘The Hounds of Baskerville,’ but sometimes it is dark and creepy and complex; that pool scene with Moriarty is lit in interesting and dynamic ways, for instance.

For television, it’s a daring move. Moffat’s in a strong position as a creator because he has such a devoted following, so studios are willing to be more lenient with finances than they might be in other cases. He’s firmly determined that the only way he can possibly tell his stories is with this kind of grand, cinematic storytelling; and unlike Doctor Who, which has a very different visual aesthetic that he can’t really deviate from without upsetting fans, Sherlock presents a fresh canvas which he definitely took advantage of when he started preparing ideas for the show.

He wants to turn each episode into its own tiny film, in a sense, but also to show the ways in which television can be cinematic in scale. It doesn’t have to be stripped down and ugly, it doesn’t have to use formulaic camera work to convey stories; viewers don’t need to see the same four camera angles over and over, the same ‘ominous’ lighting to convey tension in scenes. Television viewers are visually savvy and quick to pick up on incoming information, and they appreciate a fresh take on visuals just as film viewers do.

The look and feel of the show is so distinctive that it’s easy to pick up and identify, for viewers, and it drops them deep into the mood and setting of the piece. With other television, cinematography is so firmly secondary that it doesn’t feel like you’re immersed inside a world when you turn the television on. It feels like you’re being shown something and the third wall is very much in place. Some of the cable networks in the US get close to the same kind of deeply visual storytelling; Six Feet Under, for example, used a very specific and appropriately stark visual style for its episodes that stood out from other television.

Seeing the popularity of Sherlock gives me hope that more creators might consider getting adventurous with cinematography, rather than playing it by rote. Viewers obviously love it; it’s one of the things people talk about and express appreciation for when they discuss the show and talk about what is working and what is not. And viewers seem to want more of it, because in their appreciation is embedded an unasked question: why aren’t more shows doing this? Why can’t this kind of attention to detail and meticulous love of visual art be carried to other television shows?

The US networks, of course, would argue that cinematography on this level is simply too expensive to be sustainable for 23 episode seasons, and that it wouldn’t be possible to create this kind of visual art. I’d ask why that’s the case, because television is a visual art, and presentation should be more of a priority than it is. Sometimes it’s like seeing a brilliant painting in a cheap, shoddy frame, where the presentation doesn’t do justice to the work at all and in fact sometimes distracts from it. I shouldn’t have to overlook poor cinematography to enjoy a television show, and yet I so often do.