A Filmmaker's Guide: Guy Ritchie's 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009)
Cinematography as Understanding
Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster Sherlock Holmes is probably most famous for being one of the most well-known and well received adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s amazing novels. But another thing it is most famous for is its effective action sequences. The way in which the cinematography draws the audience into the scene, makes the audience a part of the scene, and makes sure the audience understands the reality of the characters and the story proves to be effective for this movie to say the least. When we ask questions about this, the first question we have to ask is: how effective is it and what makes it so?
The answer to the latter is simple, the reason it is so effective is because it helps us to understand the far removed reality of the characters by bringing the audience into the scene through camera technique. Watching these sequences entirely as an on-looker would be highly ineffective and probably bore us and so, Ritchie adds these close-ups, these slow motion sequences and keeps us interested and invested by making us watch these difficulties the characters endure. So let’s have a look at Guy Ritchie’s action sequences and what makes them so entirely effective.
Section 1: Close Ups
Close-ups seem to be very important in the film especially when characters are in danger. Not only does this draw the audience into the scene to watch the expressions of the characters, but it also blocks out whatever is around the character and so, it really is a "blink and you'll miss it" moment. In this scene, we don't actually see Blackwood appear because we are so focused on Sherlock Holmes, but when he does appear, it offsets the scene slightly and prepares us for an intense scene packed with action. It is this close-up on Sherlock Holmes that, when Blackwood appears, creates the offset of the scene. If this were medium shot, it probably wouldn't have the same impact.
There are other close-up shots that use the same principles for a different purpose. We get this intense moment in which a close-up is used and we get to see the character's expression. This is very important not only for the story and its understanding, but the fact that we are also drawn into the understanding of the character and what they are doing at that moment. The fact we get to see all this in that short moment means that the scene must be of some real importance.
The entire point of the close-ups in this movie is for the audience to get more and more involved with the story and its characters. As this film is set in Victorian England and is removed from our own known reality, we need to see the characters feeling and behaving in ways familiar to the character archetypes (hero, villain, mentor etc. read: Christian Vogler's The Hero's Journey for more on character archetypes) we know and when we do, it helps our understanding a lot more than just a simple on-looking scene.
Section 2: Using Sections of Darkness
Darkness is well used in scenes that are either wide shot or medium>wide shot. We have the main reason for their use as to highlight certain aspects of the scene such as the shapes of buildings, architecture and the ways in which settings are shaped and formed. The other reason for using them is to hide and highlight characters, to enhance colour scheme and to create shadowing which has an impact on what we see in certain scenes of the film. For example: take a look at this scene. We see Sherlock and Dr. Watson within the dark space of the setting. This isn't there to show us the characters, but it is there instead to show and highlight the curve of the pillars next to the two men, giving the audience some insight into how the scenery is shaped and whether Sherlock and Dr. Watson can hide easily from enemies. In a curved setting I can imagine that would be possible but not effective.
Check out some frames that do similar or the same thing:
Section 3: Creating Meaning and Understanding
Through cinematography, we can do many different things and the main thing that this movie does is create understanding through the way cinematography is used. Check this out:
The fight scene creates a ton of meaning. This is done purely through the way in which the scene has been set up and then, filmed. The first part, how it has been set up, is obvious because there are various dark spaces created to show us how many people there are watching this fight, it almost makes it look as if there are more people there than there actually is. Then, for the cinematography, we have a slower section in which we are made to understand the character of Sherlock Holmes more through internal narration and the sped up sequence directly afterward. It creates meaning around the fact that Sherlock Holmes is mentally stronger than the other characters.
Check out where this similar logic is applied and how the cinematography helps us to understand the character of Sherlock Holmes more than what we did before. Ask yourself this question: have I learnt something about this character that I didn't know in the previous scene? And then: how is the cinematography directly responsible for this?
Use this scene as practice:
Section 4: Conclusions
If you want to explore more things to do with the understanding of character in Sherlock Holmes, then you probably want to have a good look at colour scheme and how colour scheme is sometimes offset against the background. The cinematography of the scenes make it easier to understand through the way they convey the scene to us, but the colour scheme makes it easier (or, more difficult in some cases) to watch. What we have here is a mixture of atmosphere and understanding or both character and storyline. Something that is of Guy Ritchie's signature filming technique.