John Stevenson Discusses ‘Sherlock Gnomes’ Revamp & Rare Case Of Gender Parity In Animation

Courtesy of John Stevenson

A lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, director John Stevenson had a set of specific conditions for taking on the Paramount animated sequel, Sherlock Gnomes. Coming off Kelly Asbury’s 2011 feature Gnomeo & Juliet, the follow-up would retain key elements—namely, a band of charming garden sculptures, who get into a series of comedic misadventures. At the same time, Stevenson’s take wouldn’t be overly goofy or broad. Set in contemporary London, it would show reverence for an iconic literary character, who would be “repositioned to work for a family film.” An interesting and unusual challenge for the director was to take a franchise that began in one genre—the musical romantic comedy—and recontextualize it for another. “That’s not a normal thing to do with any kind of movie, let alone an animated one,” Stevenson says. “But that was the condition for me to work on it, and the challenge that I thought was interesting to tackle.”

Striving to integrate two worlds—the beloved cinematic space of the original, with the “more autumnal colors of a Sherlock Holmes mystery”—Stevenson is proud of the film, on a number of levels. Returning to his roots with an elegant, black-and-white 2D sequence, Stevenson was also pleased to work with a crew unlike any he’s seen in animation, in a 40-year career. “A complete 50% of our animators on Sherlock Gnomes were women, and that’s not normal. Normally, in an animation department on a feature film, it’s maybe 70/30, male to female. But on Sherlock Gnomes, for some reason, we ended up being absolutely 50/50,” the director shares. “Traditionally, women animators get the emotional, sensitive scenes to do, which are very important and very challenging, but not a lot of fun. But in fact, our women animators did the biggest stuff with our villain, Moriarty—the biggest, funniest animation in the movie.”

Paramount Pictures/Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

You originated a highly successful animated franchise in Kung Fu Panda, but you don’t tend to take on sequels. Is that because these films don’t tend to meet a creative bar that would justify their being made?

Yes, so far I’ve chosen to only do one of each thing. I don’t have another Panda film in me and I don’t have another Gnome film in me, so whatever else I do, it will be something different. It was an interesting thing because this was a sequel, but it wasn’t a sequel to a film that I’d done. It was a sequel, but it was new to me; plus, we were completely changing the genre. So, in a sense, it was somewhere between the two things; it was an original project in one sense, while there were carryovers from a pre-existing property. But in general, once I’ve done one kind of thing, by the time I’m through with three or four years of working on something like that, I never want to do it again.

Through his company Rocket Pictures, Elton John is an executive producer on these films, and has even contributed original music in each case. What was it like working with him on the sequel?

Clearly, on the first film, apart from Elton’s desire to get Gnomeo & Juliet made, having Elton music was a key component. In Gnomeo & Juliet,music set much more easily into that framework than it does into a detective genre adventure. So, it was a lot more challenging to try and figure out how to maintain the through line of Elton music into a different genre, to try and work that in. Elton and Bernie [Taupin] wrote some songs, and we weren’t able to use all of them. The pace of the film is such that we just couldn’t find room for at least one of the songs, which we felt very bad about. But I think there are three original songs, which we made a key part of the film. Then there was stuff that we took from [his] catalogues. We had Pnau, an electronic dance duo from Australia, take the Elton stems and remix them, because we didn’t want to just use needle drops.

The film is set in London, 2017, and we put in clues for people who care to know that it was absolutely very time-specific. Only very few people will pick up on it, but the opening scene in the Natural History [Museum] has an encounter between Sherlock and Moriarty on a diplodocus skeleton. That skeleton was taken down and replaced with a blue whale skeleton this year, and we put the blue whale in a subsequent scene. The film definitely takes place in London, in 2017, because that’s when the changeover happened.

Mary J. Blige and Elton John at work on Sherlock Gnomes. Paramount Pictures/Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

So, it was important to us that Elton’s music didn’t jump around from being ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, all different kinds of production sounds, and that’s why we went to Pnau, who Elton’s worked with in the past, and are very cool. They kept the classic Elton vocals, but then they added a more contemporary remix of the music. Then Chris Bacon, our composer, did the same thing that had been done in the previous movie, which would be to take Elton themes and motifs and weave them through the orchestral score. Elton’s music is all over the film but, as I said, it was somewhat more challenging to fit it comfortably into this story than it probably was in Gnomeo & Juliet, which was much more designed around that.

On Sherlock Gnomes, what factors were of the utmost importance, when it came to executing your vision?

The first thing I did when I was made director of the film was to hire Eric Leighton as our animation director, because I think Eric’s the best director of animation in the world. At the time that I went out to Eric, we didn’t know where the film was going to get made, and Eric was my insurance policy. If I had Eric Leighton, no matter where we ended up in the world making the movie, I knew the animation would be as good as it could possibly be, and that proved to be the case. I’m incredibly proud of the character animation in Sherlock Gnomes. I think our character animation, because of Eric and his leadership, can stand up with much bigger movies than we were.

What inspired your Escher-like 2D animation sequences, which take us inside Sherlock’s mind?

That’s one of the things I’m most happy in the film. My training was in hand-drawn animation. That’s what I did after I left The Muppets, and that’s what got me into working in the business anyway, because that’s the skill I have, being able to draw, or did when I was a kid. I have a great love for hand-drawn animation and it’s always been my intent to put a hand-drawn sequence into anything I do. One of the very first things on my wish list when I got made director of Kung Fu Panda was to put in an anime-type sequence, which we did with Jenny Yuh Nelson directing and James Baxter animating it. And it was fantastic, everything I could hope for.

When it came to do Sherlock, I knew that I was going to try and find a place to do something in 2D, but I didn’t quite know where or why. As you work in a Sherlock story, you’re often presented with the challenge of trying to visualize how Sherlock’s deducing something. The live-action films and TV shows have done versions of this, with warping time and speeding things up, and [2D animation] just became the obvious idea that took a little while to realize how obvious it was. The best way to differentiate between what was happening outside of Sherlock’s head and what was happening inside his head was to use hand-drawn animation, to show how his mind works. Apart from being a style, it just made it clear that what we were seeing is not our base reality. And apart from just tickling that itch, I like to mix up styles and not work exclusively in one medium.

I believe Neil Boyle, who did all the animation for us, suggested that we do it in black and white, and as soon as he said that, I realized what a smart choice it was. Not only because it looks cool, and not only because it makes the differentiation between inside Sherlock’s head and outside greater, but Sherlock is very binary. His brain, his mind palace is only full of useful data. He is very black and white; things are either useful, or they’re not. Choosing to do the hand-drawn stuff in black and white actually supported the way Sherlock operates, so it was a good choice.

What was your approach to working with the specifics of gnomes as characters, who operate in their own specific way?

There’s a very good expression for movies that I believe in and hold to, which is, “You get to lie once.” You can have any lie you like, but once you’ve lied, you have to work that lie very logically. For me, the lie was that we expanded our definition of what could come to life; inanimate, sculpted things with a face can come to life in our world. To me, that meant that everything else had to be as grounded as possible. If our style was too cartoony or stylized, then living gnomes wouldn’t really stand out, in a world where everything was unrealistic. So, we made the choice to try and ground our environment as realistically as possible. All the background human characters are motion capture. We keep key-frame animation for our gnome characters and our non-human characters, so there’s a distinct difference in the way the characters we’re following appear, and we just keep humans in the background, like weather.

We did a lot of research. We took the art department down to the Victorian sewers in Brighton to get the details on the sewers right. We climbed all over Tower Bridge, went into the Bascule Chamber, up onto the parapets. We made sure that the details of what we were putting into the film were as based on 2017 reality as possible; it wasn’t just Google research. And the other thing we wanted to do was to put in all the things you actually see in the real world that often get art-directed out, like rubbish, and strange bits of wire that just stick out of a wall for no reason. It’s very easy to design those away, but real life isn’t like that, so we wanted our version of London to be as untidy and dirty and real as possible.

We brought in this great live-action DP, Julio Macat, who shot Home Alone, to be our visual consultant. He took some of our 3D maquettes—our little physical sculpts of characters that are one-to-one scale—out into the city and shot them in various lighting tests and various lenses, and depths of field, because I wanted to shoot the movie as if you were a gnome. You’re not a human being; you’re a 12-inch gnome and you don’t care about the human world. We used depth of field to allow the backgrounds and the people to fall away, because they’re not important to us as a gnome. We even built scaled invisible camera rigs for our layout because the idea was that it’s a film shot by a gnome camera crew. We were trying to ground our photography, make it as live-action as possible, because I felt that again, if the camera got too CG-crazy, we would break the lie of living pottery.

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