How to Film Thought: A Close Look at the Masterful Editing of Sherlock, Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

What has drawn Sher­lock, the BBC tele­vi­sion series star­ring a mod­ern-day ver­sion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved con­sult­ing detec­tive, such great acclaim? Some of it, of course, has to do with the for­mi­da­ble act­ing skills of Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch in the title role. But if you believe Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the video essay­ist the Nerd­writer, much of the genius of this “intox­i­cat­ing­ly inven­tive TV show” lies in the edit­ing.

The plot of each episode runs on how Sher­lock “gets from point A to point B, from prob­lem to solu­tion, mys­tery to clar­i­ty,” and just as Cum­ber­batch must con­vinc­ing­ly por­tray the fig­ur­ing-out process with his per­for­mance, so must the edi­tors with their cuts. Puschak illus­trates Sher­lock’s cre­ative, idea-dense way of doing this with just one sequence of three min­utes and 42 sec­onds. It comes trig­gered by a bout of with­draw­al from cocaine, a choice that stays true to the nature of the char­ac­ter Conan Doyle cre­at­ed, bril­liant but also a drug addict.

Dur­ing this sequence, Sher­lock arrives at just what every good detec­tive sto­ry needs: a rev­e­la­tion, a moment when both he and we see the pieces of infor­ma­tion the sto­ry has pre­vi­ous­ly pre­sent­ed from a new angle, in a way that reveals the cru­cial rela­tion­ship between them. And as essen­tial­ly a cin­e­mat­ic work, Sher­lock lit­er­al­ly shows it from not just one but many new angles, even from per­spec­tives impos­si­ble in real life. As with any well-craft­ed piece of edit­ing, you can only feel this sequence’s pow­er when you watch it, not when you read it described. Puschak takes full advan­tage of his own form, the video essay, to not just show it to us but break it down to its con­stituent ele­ments.

Conan Doyle’s orig­i­nal Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries won their wide and avid read­er­ship by offer­ing a glimpse into the work­ings of an unusu­al mind, mak­ing them leg­i­ble in text. Sher­lock goes a dimen­sion fur­ther by mak­ing them leg­i­ble in image and sound. The rela­tion­ship between the two par­al­lels the rela­tion­ship between the tra­di­tion­al essay and the video essay: the lat­ter, in this case, allows us to fol­low the process of Puschak’s thoughts about Sher­lock not just tex­tu­al­ly but audio­vi­su­al­ly as well. And with his chan­nel’s just hav­ing passed one mil­lion sub­scribers, he seems well on the way to achiev­ing a Sher­lock­ian lev­el of pop­u­lar­i­ty him­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load the Com­plete Sher­lock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mas­ter­piece

Hear the Vin­tage Sher­lock Holmes Radio Dra­ma, Star­ring John Giel­gud, Orson Welles & Ralph Richard­son

The Alche­my of Film Edit­ing, Explored in a New Video Essay That Breaks Down Han­nah and Her Sis­ters, The Empire Strikes Back & Oth­er Films

How Film­mak­ers Tell Their Sto­ries: Three Insight­ful Video Essays Demys­ti­fy the Craft of Edit­ing, Com­po­si­tion & Col­or

How Sein­feld, the Sit­com Famous­ly “About Noth­ing,” Is Like Gus­tave Flaubert’s Nov­els About Noth­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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