How Paul McGuigan Crafted the Visual Language of Sherlock

Ten years after directing the Sherlock pilot, Paul McGuigan reflects on how he brought us into Sherlock's brain and world.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Paul McGuigan on the Set of Sherlock
Photo: Hartswood Films

When Sherlock debuted a decade ago on the BBC, it was unlike anything else on television. For one, the format was a bit odd: one season of three 90-minute episodes. For another, it didn’t look like anything else on TV: Text messages that appear as part of the mise-en-scène. Edits and scene transitions that move us elegantly and efficiently through space and time. All part of a visual language that brings us into the mind of one of the cleverest characters in all of pop culture as he does what he does best: solves mysteries. 

While TV is famously more of a writer’s than a director’s medium, the filmmaker behind the camera for a series pilot has an immense impact on the tone of the show. They are the creator who crafts the visual language for the series, the one whose style all subsequent series directors will aim to recreate and build on. For Sherlock, that filmmaker was McGuigan.

“If you go back and look at the first episode of Sherlock, the first 10 minutes, we threw everything at it,” Sherlock director Paul McGuigan tells Den of Geek via Zoom. “If there’s a visual kitchen sink, that went in there as well. All the stuff, the text coming up: ‘Wrong!’ ‘Wrong!’ ‘Wrong!’ We had all [Sherlock’s] point-of-view stuff. Everything just went flying about. I remember watching it and turning to my editor, Charlie [Phillips], and I was like, ‘Have we gone a bit too far?’ And he went, ‘Yeah, but that’s what we have to do.’”

McGuigan directed four of Sherlock’s first six episodes, including the series premiere, the Peabody Award-winning “A Study in Pink.” It was McGuigan who, in an effort to avoid having to film static shots of text messages on a phone screen, came up with the idea of using on-screen text that it interacts with the characters, setting, and props in unexpected yet logical ways. 

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“I came up with this idea of: what if we put the text on the screen but we do it in such a way that it’s very deliberate? So that the audience understands that we’re not just in post, going, ‘Oh, let’s just put it up and do that,’” says McGuigan. He framed the shot so that Sherlock (or another character) was in one-third and the text was in two-thirds, and found interesting ways to integrate the text into the mise-en-scène, placing it over the wallpaper or on the mantel. The series’ representation of text messages is one of the easiest directorial decisions to point out and discuss, but it is only one aspect of a larger visual strategy that defines Sherlock as much as its iconic characters do. 

“The whole thing was really about how to get inside of Sherlock’s head,” says McGuigan of the show’s visual logic. “For me, it was really important for the audience to be in on it rather than be away from it … I think, as an audience member, when you’re watching it, you kind of lean into it a little bit more because what we’re really offering up is a way into Sherlock.”

The Game is On: From One Pilot to Another

As many Sherlock fans know, the BBC shot a different version of the Sherlock pilot before bringing McGuigan on board. The unaired episode was directed by How to Build a Girl’s Coky Giedroyc. It features the same main cast, but is only 60 minutes long. Visually, it employs a much more traditional TV style. While McGuigan says that executive producers Sue Vertue and Steven Moffat and the BBC “all loved the potential” of the unaired pilot, there was a general agreement that the story needed more time.

“It was a decent pilot,” says McGuigan, who was in Los Angeles when he got the call from Vertue and Moffat about potentially taking on the job. (Vertue, having seen McGuigan’s underrated crime thriller Lucky Number Slevin, suggested McGuigan.) “When I heard they wanted to spend more time with the characters, and being able for us to invest in the characters but also do the story-of-the-week kind of vibe, I was quite excited. Also, when you’re into 90 minutes of television, you’re pretty much in that world of making a movie.”

While Giedroyc had mostly done television prior to directing the unaired pilot, McGuigan had primarily made films (including science fiction thriller Push, which starred Chris Evans as a superhero two years before he would become Captain America). 

“If I had thought about it, I probably would have been really nervous about it but I was a bit more arrogant about it,” says McGuigan. “I was like, ‘Yeah, fuck it. This should look like a film.’ Somebody had said to me early on, ‘Don’t worry about it Paul, nobody is going to blame you. It’s television, nobody blames the director.’ I’m like, ‘Right, don’t ever say that to me ever again because to me that’s not the way I work.’ Everything has to be the highest quality. Everything has to be done in a way that you feel you’re making this and this is going to be your last opportunity to make something. So therefore I felt all the responsibility.”

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That being said, working on a TV show has different challenges than working on a film: namely, time and money, which can often boil down to the same thing. While the typical Sherlock episode takes 22 days to shoot, the average Hollywood studio film takes 106 days to shoot—both are roughly the same length.

“I think BBC were quite nervous about having me direct it because I was known as a film director and they were a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to do the days,” says McGuigan. “I was worried as well.”

Texts & Transitions: Crafting a Visual Language

McGuigan filmed the third and final episode of Sherlock’s first season (or series, in British terminology) before he filmed the first. By beginning with “The Great Game,” which sees Sherlock led on a wild goose chase around London by arch nemesis Moriarty, the creative team was able to better integrate McGuigan’s visual language into “A Study in Pink.” If you go back and watch both, you’ll realize that there are more examples of McGuigan’s texts-as-mise-en-scene in “A Study in Pink” than in “The Great Game.” This is because Moffat had a chance to write them into his script for the former after seeing what McGuigan was doing with Mark Gatiss’ script for the latter.

“[Steven Moffat] was really interested in that kind of visual sense of the world,” says McGuigan. “This was a new kind of concept to him. He really got a good grasp of it. Therefore, the scripts are very precise … [Moffat] really kind of got excited about what we were doing in the visual world as well. It’s always good to work with writers who are into that.”

While a few other TV shows and films had started to experiment with the representation of a text message as text on the screen image itself, Sherlock was arguably the first to do it so well, using the innovation as yet another way to get the viewer inside the characters’ heads. If someone is receiving a text, the whole text message appears all at once, whereas if someone is writing a text, the characters appear sequentially on the screen. This suggests that it’s not the mobile phone the viewer is gaining access to, but rather the character’s mind.

This filmmaking mechanic of bringing us into a character’s mind or perspective is especially powerful when it is used to give us insight into Sherlock’s genius, as it does during the show’s iconic “deduction scenes.” In these, McGuigan often uses the same floating texts (notably, in a different font than the text messages) to illustrate Sherlock’s observations of a crime scene or other situation. Regardless of whether text is used or not, close-up shots or images, sound cues, dynamic camera angles and movements work together to give the sense of a heightened reality, a filmic representation of Sherlock’s deductive process.

“I would wander about with my camera and I would take stills of everything because I knew I would use that as [Sherlock’s] point of view,” says McGuigan of one of the early steps of crafting these deduction scenes. “I would take hundreds and hundreds of stills everywhere. I was very involved. I’d be exhausted every day because I’d be so involved in doing everything. I think that that’s just because of the nature of who Sherlock is.”

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It was worth the long days. Traditionally, viewers are offered insight into characters’ perspective through: 1) a shot of what the character is looking at, followed by 2) a shot of the character’s reaction. With the traditional visual language, viewers are still observers. In McGuigan’s hands, the audience is given a “turn” as Sherlock. McGuigan’s deduction scenes pair us with Sherlock’s perspective in a viewing experience largely unique to Sherlock

“Deductions become the set piece of the whole show,” McGuigan explains, “the way that we could feel his brain basically and we channel everything through him. Even though we’ve seen the same scene just by watching it ourselves but actually now we get the opportunity to work out with him his way of seeing the world and putting the pieces together.”

It’s a rare episode of Sherlock that doesn’t include at least one scene of Sherlock and John in a taxi, moving across contemporary London. Because of McGuigan’s initial directorial choices, these scenes are almost always filmed with the camera placed outside of the vehicle’s window, the cityscape’s reflections, day or night, looking as if they are superimposed atop the actors’ faces as they move across the glass.

“I wanted to bring London into it,” says McGuigan. “I loved the idea of reflections and I loved the idea of creating this atmosphere … We wanted you to feel it was a modern world out there and it was neon lights and it was reflections of shops and retail and business and London. That was important for us as well so you’re always aware that the world that he’s in is a modern world but without pushing the modernity too much. I think that would have alienated the audience a lot.” 

Getting these shots involved heading out of the studio and into the busy streets of Central London.

“We just drove around there at nighttime for hours and hours,” says McGuigan of the initial taxi scenes, which were filmed near Harrods. “Mental as hell and everyone looking at me like, ‘This is all your fault.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it’s going to be great, it’s going to look great.’ It was really important to me because I wanted it to feel lush and I wanted it to feel enigmatic as well. It wasn’t just a shot of them in the taxi. It felt like there was still life going on around them. They still had to get to wherever they were going. They still had to work out whatever it was they were working on. They still had things going on.”

Visually conflating the first and third-person storytelling aligns viewers with Sherlock. It gives us more information in a shorter amount of time, which mimics how he experiences the world. Just as Sherlock the character processes information faster and more efficiently than the people around him, Sherlock the TV show offers viewers the opportunity to process visual information faster and more efficiently than most other TV shows, especially of that era.

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It’s hard to imagine something like Sherlock coming out quite as well in the American TV system, which traditionally gives less creative control to its directors than in the U.K. system where  the director gets to “see the whole project all the way through,” says McGuigan. (“Steven is very generous about that,” adds McGuigan. “He kind of steps away from the edit a little bit and lets you kind of figure it out.”) This includes finalizing elements like music, which for Sherlock, involved working with composer David Arnold, something that was important for McGuigan.

“I do prefer working in [the U.K.] system because that’s the way you make a film,” says McGuigan. (A sentiment echoed by Doctor Who and Sherlock director Rachel Talalay when we talked to her in 2019.) “You’re very much the king. I mean that in a kind of not totalitarian way. I mean that in a more like everything comes through you, then you’re also an equal partner with the writer.”

McGuigan gives an example of how being able to see the edit through to its completion made a difference: the scene in “A Study in Pink” when Lestrade first comes to 221B Baker Street to ask for Sherlock’s help in solving the serial suicides that are plaguing London. After Sherlock agrees and Lestrade leaves the flat, Sherlock jumps in glee, excited to have another case to solve. Originally, this moment was scored with intense music, but during the editing process, McGuigan and Phillips realized that, tonally, it works better with a more upbeat accompaniment.

“I phoned David Arnold up and I said, ‘David, would you have a big happy kind of like, let’s get going thing?’” recalls McGuigan. “That was a big breakthrough for me because that allows you to be so controlled by the character. It all goes through the character first rather than me centering what the audience gets to see.”

Paul McGuigan and Benedict Cumberbatch on the Set of Sherlock

Behind the Performance: Watson, Holmes, and Moriarty

In addition to behind-the-scenes collaborators including Moffat, Gatiss, Vertue, Phillips, production designer Arwel Jones, and DPs Steve Lawes and Fabian Jones, McGuigan credits Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman for much of the success of Sherlock. “When you get to work with someone like Martin and Benedict, you realize you’re playing at a very high level,” says McGuigan. 

“[Benedict] totally understood the character,” continues McGuigan. “He totally understood what he needed to do. I would get him to memorize 10-page dialogue scenes and I would say to him, ‘I’m probably not going to cut this so you’ve got to know every single word verbatim.’ Of course I did cut it, but I was kind of like, that would be my ideal. He did, god bless him, he learnt it.”

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While Cumberbatch’s performance as Sherlock is wonderfully loud and kinetic in scope and quality, Freeman’s portrayal of John Watson is much quieter—no less important to a show that is technically called Sherlock, but very much has two leads.

“Interestingly enough, Martin was the first person who won an award for Sherlock,” says McGuigan. “I totally understand it because his job, his character’s job, was always the voice of reason for the audience.” This allowed the character of Sherlock to be “a real asshole,” says McGuigan.

“Everyone was really worried,” says McGuigan. “BBC were really worried about: is he too much of an asshole? My reply to that was: no, because you’ve got Watson saying, ‘You’re an asshole.’ The audience goes, ‘OK, at least somebody said it. Then I’m happy for him to be an asshole.’ So Watson was always the kind of moral compass for the audience.” 

McGuigan remembers Freeman, who was previously best known for his comedic turn as Tim in The Office, being worried about being too funny in his initial portrayal of John Watson.

“Martin and I would often talk about now you’re the soldier, you’re not being funny anymore,” says McGuigan, using the example of John’s first meeting with Mycroft in “A Study in Pink.” “Martin started kind of messing about and trying to be funny. I said, ‘No, no. This is the moment that you’re the soldier. This is the moment you go toe to toe with him. This is the moment the audience understands this is much more interesting than you just being the funny guy. You actually are very protective towards him and as this season goes on you’ll be much more.’”

Reflecting on Freeman’s contributions to the project, McGuigan says: “Of course Benedict got all the plaudits for it, and quite rightly so, he was just extraordinary. But I also had a very soft spot for what Martin was doing because, to me, Martin was carrying him on his shoulders. I thought that was interesting.”

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While McGuigan wasn’t involved with the process of casting Sherlock and John, he did have a hand in casting the equally brilliant Andrew Scott, working with Scott in two of the four episodes he directed, “The Great Game” and “A Scandal in Belgravia.”

“I knew straight away,” says McGuigan of Scott’s casting as the notorious villain. “I had to convince other people just because it was such a different way of going. It worked out really well. I just thought he was so fresh and so brilliant and so did everyone in the room.”

Moriarty properly introduces himself in the final scene of “The Great Game,” by the pool where Moriarty murdered Carl Powers 20 years prior, the crime that first convinced a young Sherlock to pursue a career as a consulting detective. Moffat actually re-wrote the end of the episode to include more of Moriarty after casting Scott in the role. Gleeful, bratty, and “so changeable,” Scott’s Moriarty is a decidedly non-traditional take on a role that was previously written and performed as a distinguished older professor type.

“[Scott] was like, ‘Am I going over the top?’” McGuigan says of Scott’s days on “The Great Game” set. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’ll edit. We can always edit.’ We had so much fun. I remember wandering back to the monitor after he did his first take and I remember everyone [in the crew] saying to me, ‘He’s amazing, he’s fucking amazing.’ That’s great when that happens, when the crew gets so involved in something. Because they’ve seen everything.”

McGuigan would go on to direct Season 2’s “A Scandal in Belgravia,” which he calls his favorite of his episodes, and “Hounds of the Baskerville,” which he describes as “probably the least successful of my episodes,” but declined to return for Season 3 when asked.

“As much as I really loved working with Mark and Steve and Sue—I mean they’re family to me, I went back and did Dracula for them—it was time for me just to go, ‘Right. OK. I’ve had my fun. I’ve enjoyed it and let’s see what other people do with it, you know?”

Sherlock’s Television Legacy

Today, we take the visually innovative TV show for granted. “I think that television has kind of burst out of itself,” says McGuigan. “It used to restrain itself so much because I think executives at BBC and other places, other networks, were so scared of doing something that broke a mold or was taking a chance on something, especially if you’re spending a lot of money.”

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These days, it’s not uncommon to see a feature film director work in television, or for a TV show to have the creative freedom to experiment with its format and visual style, but not so long ago television was where a future film director might cut his teeth, but once they “made it” as a feature filmmaker, they would leave the world of television, and its visual limits, behind. 

“I think it’s because of the changing face of television,” says McGuigan. “That was the year or years where people like myself or writers who would normally restrict themselves to film were coming out and they were making television and it was okay to make telly…. Now it’s fun and it’s what everybody wants to do now. They want to have a successful TV show.”

When Sherlock launched in 2010, Breaking Bad had just wrapped up its second season on AMC and Game of Thrones was still nine months away from launching on HBO. Shows like True Detective, The Night Manager, and The Crown were still twinkles in their respective network and/or platform’s eye. McGuigan’s work on Sherlock helped to herald in a new era of more cinematically minded TV.

“There was an appetite to do something that raised its head above the water from everybody else,” says McGuigan. “We’re always trying to find new projects that we could allow ourselves to do something as interesting as Sherlock. A lot of things don’t necessarily meet that sense of the visual language and that visual world.”

Just as McGuigan is an indelible part of Sherlock’s legacy so too is Sherlock an indelible part of McGuigan’s. In reflecting on how Sherlock has changed his career, McGuigan says “because of Sherlock, I’ve had conversations with people like Steven Spielberg.” McGuigan credits his work on Sherlock with leading to his work with Shonda Rhimes, directing the Scandal pilot.

“Even to this day, when I walk into the room and somebody goes ‘Oh this is Paul,’ he goes, ‘Oh I’m a big fan of yours.’ ‘Because of what?’ ‘Because Sherlock,’” says McGuigan. “If I’m in a taxi or I meet anybody who’s not in the business and they ask, ‘So what do you do?’ And I go, ‘Well I work in television and film.’ I tell them I’m a director. ‘Anything I would have seen?’ I start with my movies, they’re like ‘No.’ Then I say Sherlock, ‘Oh fuckin hell.’ Immediately, they get it.”

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Looking back, did McGuigan have any idea that Sherlock would be enough of a success that he would be talking about it 10 years later? Of course not.

“I would be lying if I thought everyone knew it was going to be a success,” says McGuigan. “I think [the BBC] were very nervous because we had done the pilot and didn’t feel it had worked. So we did take a lot of chances and we did have fun with it, but I guess, again, that comes through the character. The character is just so wild and beautifully crafted that we felt we had to keep up.”

“I don’t want to make it feel like everything was beautiful and rosy but everything in retrospect does feel that way,” continues McGuigan. “It does feel like we were involved in something that was quite special. Those don’t come around very often.”