Finding Uniqueness in the Otherwise Mundane on the Sets of ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Wizard vs. Aliens’

“Do you read the papers? Watch telly?” Sherlock’s John Watson asks his therapist at the beginning of “The Reichenbach Fall”. Throughout this episode, viewers can do both—thanks to graphics designed by Dale Jordan Johnson.

At the episode’s beginning, news articles tout Sherlock Holmes as the “Hero of the Reichenbach” when he recovers a valuable painting. A page five story, “Top Banker Kidnapped”, is followed closely by front-page headline “Reichenbach Hero Finds Kidnap Victim”. The tabloids promote London’s Great Detective. The Daily Star publishes a photo of “Boffin Sherlock” wearing a deerstalker. All too soon, however, the news and tabloid coverage turns ominous as Sherlock’s nemesis, Moriarty, is incarcerated, then freed. The Daily Express reports that “Moriarty Walks Free”, and The Guardian announces the “Shock Verdict at Trial”. Beside a caricature of Sherlock gazing into a crystal ball, another headline asks “What’s Next for the Reichenbach Hero?”

Near the episode’s conclusion, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, sitting in the silence of the Diogenes Club, reads The Sun’s lurid description of the “Suicide of Fake Genius”. Throughout this most emotional of the BBC’s series’ episodes, images of the papers being read by London’s public—and used to destroy Sherlock Holmes—are key to understanding the story’s twists. Each publication must look realistic, too, because Sherlock fans scour the images for clues.

Accuracy does not preclude the designer’s fun with the text. Frequently cited crime correspondent Janette Owen, for example, is really the subeditor for The Guardian, one of the publications Johnson consulted. Providing the level of detail and the visual ingenuity Sherlock fans have come to expect requires a great deal of effort among a team of designers working with the director, who, in this episode, is Toby Haynes.

Johnson explained that “I came on board during the final week of ‘Reichenbach’, after most of the episode’s in-vision elements [those created on set instead of during post-production] had been created by the outgoing designer. The additional graphics for that episode were created in post-production. I met with Toby, the episode’s director, who wanted to add a small newspaper montage throughout the episode to show the progress of the trial and the rise of Sherlock, so I was involved in creating and liaising with the real newspaper publishers to develop the pages. The most noticeable thing I created in that episode [is] the caricature of Sherlock looking into a crystal ball, hovering over London for a couple of seconds—probably the longest screen-time any of my graphics has ever had!”

He also had a hand in the Sherlock episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia”, which “involved the creation of everything from airline graphics to cleaning products, all fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. Designing a dominatrix website was a first, though.”

Johnson’s early designs, beginning from the time he was around six years old, were far tamer. “I was always fascinated with film and, after watching something new, I would recreate the sets and props out of Lego.” From that precocious start, he began to study art more seriously. “Anyone who wants to work in an art department has to have a strong knowledge of art and design history—knowing your colonnades from your balustrades is as important as being able to tell apart a Monet from a Manet. Not everyone in the department needs to be a great illustrator, but being able to communicate your ideas quickly and accurately by one means or another is vital.”

Other language skills also come in handy. On Wizards vs. Aliens, the latest collaboration by Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Torchwood) and Phil Ford (The Sarah Jane Adventures), Johnson received a special challenge: create new languages. The children’s program follows the adventures of 16-year-old wizard Tom Clarke and his best friend, scientist Benny Sherwood. Together they battle alien invaders, the Nekross.

During the first season, Johnson developed “two entirely new written languages, one for magic users (which the writers later named stonescript) and one for the aliens. I spent a week each on those, devising new grammar systems and writing a small guide for each language, explaining things like how writing the letters facing one direction is a curse, whereas [writing] the same letters in the opposite direction is obviously a spell, and explaining why. I even created an early ‘primitive’ version of the alien language to help me plot out where the development stages in their language would have occurred [and] tried to make the language a living thing with its own unique history. I spent a longer time on those than almost any other graphics I’ve created and did a lot of research, tracing developments in the written word in various cultures as I went.” Johnson assures those who would question his enjoyment of grammar homework that this project “was a lot of fun.”

Surprisingly, developing art for a children’s show is not all that different from working on a series designed primarily for adults. “We approached the design for [Wizards vs. Aliens] just as we would for adults, but there is the opportunity to have some more fun with the designs. [We could] introduce asymmetry [and] make colors a little more saturated and brighter than you’d expect to see on a show like Sherlock or Upstairs, Downstairs. It may sound a little blasé, but it’s the sort of thing we design nerds get a kick out of.”

True to his claim to nerddom, Johnson admits “my first love is sci-fi,” and in the future “I’d love to work more in that area. Working on something with the scale of the shows I love, Farscape, Stargate, Fringe, would be the dream job. Something where you get to start from scratch, building a universe from the ground up. If they ever turn [sci-fi role-playing game] Mass Effect into a TV show, I’m there.”

Although Johnson enjoys science fiction, his reading tastes tend to cover a much broader range. “I don’t know anyone in an art department who doesn’t love to read,” he said, noting that he and his colleagues will “read just about anything. A scientific journal is as inspirational as an epic fantasy or thriller, often more so. That basically means you have to be a lifelong learner; be the person who loves learning new things and the strange, brilliant ideas those new concepts instill in you.”

Johnson could play many roles within an art department on any television production. Thus far, his credits list him as a production designer, art coordinator, and graphic designer, and specific duties accompany each title. “The production designer is the head of the department” and steers “every aspect of the design of the show… to a greater or lesser degree. The production designer is the key visionary and the creative constant on a show, creating a unique identity for each production.

“The art department coordinator provides the day-to-day administration of the department, liaising and supporting each aspect of the department. I could reel off a long list of things the coordinator does, but as its core… the main responsibilities are in creating and maintaining a streamlined, happy and productive department. Where I’ve worked on a show without an art coordinator, the responsibilities tend to be divided between the other roles, which put a lot of extra stress on an oftentimes stressful job. Having done shows with and without (and as) an art coordinator, I can say with certainty that it’s always a smoother and happier department with.

“The graphic designer is responsible for creating all of the in-vision graphics. It’s quite an intensive role—the Sherlock episode ‘Scandal in Belgravia,’ for example, involved the creation of over four hundred individual graphics. On some shows the graphic designer will also double as a concept artist, working with the production designer to realize any especially significant sets or props.”

On a daily basis, Johnson’s activities may include a number of projects leading toward a finished episode, and seldom is there a “typical” day. “One of the most exciting things about working in this industry is the variation it demands,” but he also has developed something of a routine to approach a new job. “The first thing I do on a project is read through the available scripts and create a breakdown, pulling out any specifically mentioned props or graphics which need to be prioritized on my schedule. I’ll also be looking for the background detail; for example, ‘EXT. Cinema’ [exterior shot of a cinema] may be all you have to go on as a description, and it may not even be particularly relevant in terms of story, but it’s incredibly important for helping build new layers of detail to the world the characters live in.”

In terms of Johnson’s job, that simple cinema shot “means designing a dozen movie posters, popcorn boxes, tickets, show times—an entire corporate identity for the cinema which will probably be visible in shot for a few seconds at most, if at all. But that all has to be done in a day or two, because it’s just one scene, and you’ve got about 199 others [in] this block, many which will demand more time and attention.”

To keep his work on track and an episode on schedule, Johnson always begins the day “by reading the list I wrote for myself the night before… but in an hour’s time the script may have been amended, or a location may have changed at the last minute, or the shooting schedule may change. Pretty much anything can change; you just have to have a confidence (and to some degree arrogance) in your ability to quickly assess and deal with those changes, reordering your schedule for that hour, day, week, month. That ability is largely based on your familiarity with the source material and a good level of communication among everyone concerned.”

Each television episode within a series requires different designs, but “there are certain tasks which are constant for each episode. Each script goes through a breaking down process, picking out the details of each set or location, identifying what props or graphics are going to be needed in each scene. If time permits, we schedule an art department meeting, [with] everyone sitting down and talking through the scripts, throwing around ideas as they come to us. From then on, though, it’s all down to the script and the shooting schedule, [which evolve] as new drafts come in or as the schedule changes. Flexibility,” Johnson emphasized, “is vital.”

Although Johnson works for and with high-profile series creators like Russell T Davies, graphic designers seldom stay on set or talk face to face with the famous. They do, however, have impressive email correspondence. “My interaction tends to be through email, sending concept art or drawings via the production designer for feedback,” Johnson explained. “One of my first tasks on the first season of Wizards vs. Aliens was designing an iconic logo for the Nekross to sit on the breastplate of the alien costumes. Russell [Davies] and Phil [Ford] were a huge factor in nailing down the design. We went through seven variations of the logo before we reached the design that’s now emblazoned over almost every piece of alien tech in the show and [which has] hugely influenced the development for the rest of the Nekross language and architecture.”

When asked in which direction he envisions his career moving in the next few years, Johnson joked “Upwards, I hope.” He wants “to move more into art direction in the next couple years. Relocating to the US or Canada is something I’d like to do in about five years’ time, so between now and then I’ll be trying to build up my contacts on that side of the Atlantic.”

His work on others’ projects has given him plenty of ideas for directing his own short film, Nova Initia, simply described as “the kind of sci-fi I love.” In the coming year, “planning for [the film] is high on my priorities.” To keep up with Johnson’s film or television projects, he encourages “anyone [who] wants to stay in touch… to add me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.”

For now, Johnson is busy with his day job, whether he is credited as graphic artist, arts department coordinator, graphic designer, or production designer. He knows exactly what it takes to succeed in this profession. “What it comes down to in the end, I suppose, is being able to spot uniqueness in the otherwise mundane. If you find yourself stopping on the street against the flow of a sea of pedestrians just because you spotted an interesting looking cluster of bricks three floors up on that building across the street, you’re probably one of us.”