A Survey of Light: Chromatic Chiaroscuro in The Great Game
So the spectacular color in the planetarium scene The Great Game where Sherlock and John battle BBC!Golem is an homage to a German Expressionist silent horror film, The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920). (See the gifs on the right above.)
The Golem was was tinted by writer/director/actor Paul Wegener so yep it was always meant to have this vibrant color. The vivid greens, blues, reds and yellows mixed with the low key lighting make for a visually stunning film.
chiaroscuro: Literally, the combination of the two Italian words for “clear/bright” and “dark”; refers to a notable, contrasting use of light and shade in scenes; often achieved by using a spotlight; also referred to as low-key lighting or high-contrast lighting. This lighting technique had its roots in German Expressionism. (x)
Sherlock’s creators adapted Wegener’s tinting effect for the digital era in the planetarium scene and I’d say it works pretty darn well on television, too. The garish colors in Sherlock must have a diegetic source— in this clever case, it’s an in-story technicolor documentary that provides the visual rationale (and the astronomic clue Sherlock absorbs to solve the art case.) It’s educational and pretty!
Romantic Chiaroscuro in TGG
Low key lighting lighting happens to be a particular specialty of TGG’s cinematographer, Steve Lawes. My favorite example of his chiaroscuro is the opening scene which intentionally establishes Sherlock as a Byronic hero:
Lord Byron’s famous poem “She Walks in Beauty” expresses chiaroscuro in pretty words:
SherlockShe walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and
The Astronomer 1920-1688
Dig this still from The Golem of the astronomer. Does it remind you of anybody in The Great Game?
This scene from Sherlock was modeled on a Vermeer painting, in particular it’s a visual nod to “The Astronomer” (c. 1688).
- Textbook: Chromatic Cinema: A History of Screen Color
- Textbook: “German Expressionism" in Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts by Susan Hayward
- Film Studies: Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging by David Bordwell
- Interview: Behind the Lens (Steve Lawes Interview)
- Mid0nz Meta: The Real Lost Vermeer is the Museum Guard’s Bedroom
- Chiaroscuro as a Cinematic Trope