What I learned from my afternoon chasing the crew of Elementary

Twitter is a magical thing, and never have I relied on it more than I have during my past two months at the Radio Times. Every morning I come in and comb Twitter feeds about entertainment news from both sides of the pond, including new trailers, movie poster reveals, season premieres, season recaps, season finales, what’s coming up in the entertainment world and what’s going out.

Wednesday afternoon, Twitter led Tim to a tip that the American CBS drama Elementary was filming here in our very own London. Since it was a pretty slow news day and a gorgeous 75 degrees and sunny outside, he decided to send Emma and me to go scouting the whereabouts of the filming crew. It was a great chance not only to get out of the office for some sun, but also to finally get to know some of my colleagues better outside of the office environment. I learned a few things about Elementary, how to find out the scoop about a TV filming location and even how to become a show extra. Here are a few tips if you ever find yourself in need of chasing down a film crew for an assignment, or just for kicks.

1. Pretend to be a tourist

In saying this, I don’t mean that misrepresenting yourself is the way to go, but that simply asking lots of questions will get you far. When we first got to Trafalgar Square, where Tim said filming was to take place, Emma and I noticed that cameras and equipment was starting to be set up. In order to make sure we were in the right place and to get as much information about filming, we had to ask a lot of questions. The best way to do this? Act completely clueless, interested and eager. We asked around to several people standing around the designated filming areas and kept pushing for more details about what was being filmed and why.

We finally deduced that the filming was for the second season premiere of the drama, and that the episode included Sherlock Holmes coming back to London for a quick visit. Other locations included Buckingham Palace and a car chase scene through the city center streets. Both Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu would be appearing for a scene at Trafalgar, and filming would begin within the hour. All these things we learned by following a Twitter tip to a selection of sources who, with combined knowledge about what was going on, helped us put the puzzle pieces together.

2. Scope things out

When we first got to Trafalgar around 2 p.m., there wasn’t much to see except a few sections of the area blocked off and large trailer trucks pulled up to the side. To any other bystander, this would have probably been like any other day at the tourist attraction, but since we were journalists on the job, we had to dig around to make sure that it was in fact a scene for the filming that day. After finding several people with more information about what was going on (anyone with a neon security jacket or headpiece  soon became our prey), we were told that filming had just wrapped up around the corner at the Pall Mall.

Since we were on the scoop and it would be another hour or two until filming would begin at the square, Emma and I took a stroll to where the crew was taking a lunch break. At first, it seemed the only thing we would find there would be a row of trailers and a bunch of hungry camera people, but then Emma stumbled across another young woman finishing off a cigarette with a boom mic in her hand. After asking a few more questions, we found that not only was Elementary filming at that location, but the woman and her cameraman were also working on some kind of behind-the-scenes documentary of the filming process. It was on her tip that we found out when it was time to head back to Trafalgar for the action to take place. In this case, not standing around gave us more insight into the project. Instead of waiting for everything to come to us, we actively sought out information to move our progress forward.

3. Whatever you do, don’t look at the camera

But then again, just standing around can be exactly what you need. once crews started setting up back at Trafalgar, there wasn’t much left to do except wait for our shining stars to come out of hiding. Before that could happen, there was a lot of waiting around. Once we had sight of Jonny and Lucy, the camera phones came out and Emma and I tried to snap as many portraits as possible to send back to Tim. There were a lot of just the back of their heads, and plenty where they are being blocked by either crew members or other eager fans, but we managed to get a few decent ones.

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After a series of run-throughs to get the dialogue down and then a few more with the actors’ stand-ins to get the lighting and angles right, we saw crew members start to pull from the crowd several select groups that would be posed in the scene. A few of these included a family taking a photo outside of the National Gallery, a couple looking at a map looking lost and a group of too-cool-for-school hipster teens who would contribute to the young feeling the city provides.

After these groups were in place, the director called out to the watching crowd, “Does anyone here want to be an extra?” At this point, I was up on an overlooking balcony getting shots of the crowd and actors, but I located Emma back on the grounds getting quotes from passersby and saw her hand shoot up into the air. A quick moment later, my phone was buzzing and she told me to come down and join her for our close-up. I’d like to say that becoming an extra meant being whisked away to hair and makeup and chatting with the rest of the cast, but all we were really told to do is stand quietly and inconspicuously as the camera began rolling. The only rule, which many people simply did not seem to understand, was to not look at the camera or try to take photos while the camera was panning across them. Since Emma and I had been there for the whole afternoon, we got pretty comfortable with the perfectly timed hair flip or chuckle and altogether looking normal during takes.

4. When the crew gets fussy, they tell the public they’re shooting a Mars Bars commercial

At the beginning of filming when people would ask what project was going on, the crew members would simply say that they were filming for an American TV drama. I couldn’t tell whether this was to keep some confidentiality surrounding the project, or just because it was easier than explaining what Elementary was (I haven’t seen it but know it has a decent following in the US; no doubt the Brits tend to stick to their beloved Sherlock, though).

As the crowds began to grow, word got out quicker and more directly that the filming was for Elementary specifically without all the secrecy. By the end of filming for the afternoon, frustrated crew members began telling incoming tourists that they were filming for a Mars Bar commercial so they would lose interest and just carry on about their sightseeing. I’m not sure if that tactic worked, however, because one family got pretty excited about a commercial filming for the sweet treat and parked themselves in the line of the camera anyway.

5. Remember to pack sunscreen

In total, Emma and I staked out Trafalgar Square for about four hours that afternoon. It was a refreshing break from the office routine and we finally got to know each other and chat a bit. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, and we even got some camera time. And the day couldn’t have gone on if Emma hadn’t remembered to pack her sunscreen to apply before our long, hard day of reporting. Kidding, but the recent summer weather has reaffirmed that many of the Brits here are quite pale.

Read about Emma’s perspective of the day here, and check out the second season premiere of Elementary to see if yours truly made the cut on the editing floor. Does this mean I can add “movie extra” to my résumé, or start up my own IMDB page?

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