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How Sherlock helps viewers get in the mind of its famous detective

Credit: BBC's Sherlock

One of the biggest obstacles for creators of television and film is figuring out how to express the thoughts going on in a character’s head in an engaging way. Ideally, you’d like to avoid lengthy, exposition-filled scenes where characters are simply verbalizing their thought process for the benefit of the audience. But the trouble lies in finding a way to express thought—something inherently abstract and not necessarily linear—in a visually compelling and convincing way. This obstacle becomes more difficult to overcome when your character happens to be the world’s smartest detective.

In a new video essay titled “Sherlock: How To Film Thought,” Nerdwriter1 analyzes a particular sequence from the second episode of Sherlock’s fourth season. The sequence in question is three minutes and 42 seconds of intense visual storytelling in which we see the titular, drug-addled detective think his way from the small seed of a clue to the big, case-solving conclusion.


[Beware spoilers for the episode “The Lying Detective” in the video.]

As pointed out in the video, much of the visualization of thought is expressed by shooting the same scenes through multiple camera angles and cutting between those shots quickly. By shifting the viewer’s perspective, their experience mirrors that of the character as he analyzes every detail. And while Sherlock may often be guilty of those exposition dumps referenced above—not to mention the “mind palace,” which remains one of the more bizarre attempts to visualize thought on film—the show deserves credit for its ability to let the audience see what it’s like inside the head of one of fiction’s greatest minds.

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