Rousselot shoots Victorian England with modern-day grit

Some 20 feature-length movies and seemingly countless radio and television series centering on Sherlock Holmes have been filmed since the first eight-minute, black-and-white reel about the fictional detective was produced in 1908. And yet Philippe Rousselot, the cinematographer behind the latest — Guy Ritchie’s amped-up take on the Arthur Conan Doyle creation, “Sherlock Holmes” — made it a point to avoid seeing any of them.

I read books about Sherlock Holmes when I was in my teens, but I don’t recall seeing any movies or television series,” says the Oscar-winning director of photography (“A River Runs Through It”). “I usually don’t look at DVDs of franchise-type movies because I don’t want to be influenced by what has been done before, but I watched every film that Guy Ritchie has directed.”

Ritchie, the U.K. director known for his fast-paced, contemporary, urban dramas featuring a rogue’s gallery of colorful lowlifes, told the French-born Rousselot during their first meeting that he envisioned shooting in period settings with an emphasis on his trademark grunge.

Grunge is atypical for a Victorian-era movie,” Rousselot observes. “They tend to have elegant settings and polished looks, but I agreed that it’s the right look.”

They also agreed to compose Sherlock Holmes in Super 1.85:1 format.

It was how we both saw the story in our minds,” he explains. “There were locations where heights of buildings, the Tower Bridge and other backgrounds, are like silent characters. You can never rationalize those decisions. It was a gut feeling.”

There was also an upfront decision to put final touches on the look during digital intermediate timing. Rousselot explains they anticipated integrating visual effects, including explosions, while conjuring a period when gas lamps lit the night.

Along with location manager Marc Somner, Rousselot scouted Manchester, Liverpool and principal setting London, including the Thames River, the Tower Bridge, which was being constructed when the story was set, and a 19th-century jail.

Production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jenny Beaven also helped establish a sense of time and place.

Guy was explaining his vision for a night scene on the docks in Liverpool while we were scouting that location,” he recalls. “I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea to shoot at that location at night if he wanted the audience to see the river and miles of backgrounds. Even if we had all the Musco lights in the world, it wouldn’t have looked real. I also told him that we could shoot day for night and make it look real.”

Rousselot shot a day-for-night test on the Thames River. He timed it with Adam Inglis at Technicolor, the DI colorist he was going to work with on the film.

I knew that I could push the film a bit to get more details in the shadows and highlights the way the human eye would see them at night,” Rousselot comments. “I knew that I could play with the sky and make it dark enough to look like night. I also darkened the sun to make it look like the moon, and played with colors and tones of clouds and put a reflection of the sun on the water.”

After Ritchie saw the results, he agreed to shoot a number of day-for-night scenes.

I always start with trying to motivate lighting, but that can be challenging on this type of period film,” Rousselot says. “The oil lamps people used didn’t light the night the way electric bulbs do. Some parts of London were lit with arc lights on giant towers. It was a rather harsh blue light, but that’s not common knowledge, so I decided to bite the bullet and depart from reality. It’s an action movie with things happening that we want the audience to see. I found a place between reality and drama.”

Rousselot covered interior and darker exterior scenes with Kodak Vision3 5219 (500T) film and most daytime sequences with Kodak Vision2 5205 (200D) negative.

He was generally using both cameras, which were almost constantly moving, either on the Technocrane, on a Steadicam or dolly, and occasionally handheld.

The two main characters — Robert Downey Jr.’s title character and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson — were interacting in most scenes. Rousselot notes that the use of two moving cameras gave the actors more freedom to ad lib and improvise. He adds that it also enabled him and his crew to move faster with fewer takes required.

Guy and I were usually together at a monitor near the cameras and actors,” Rousselot says. “Four to six takes was average, and sometimes as few as two. There were times he amazed me. We would start shooting a scene, and Guy would say this isn’t working. Within 20 to 60 minutes he changed the scene, and it was perfect.”

(A longer version of this story was published in British Cinematographer magazine in November.)

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