How Strike filmed Tom Burke’s missing leg scenes
The BBC series and actor Tom Burke used some ingenious techniques to portray the amputated limb of private detective Cormoran Strike.
BBC mystery series Strike has many twists and turns, but by the end it may not be the identity of any murderers, the mysterious backstory to Strike’s ex-fiancé Charlotte, or even why an adaptation of a book by JK Rowling is credited to Robert Galbraith that has viewers scratching their heads.
Instead, they might be baffled as to how the series managed to portray Strike’s amputated leg quite so seamlessly, with the character’s book-accurate missing limb displayed in several scenes despite star Tom Burke not being disabled in that way himself.
"It’s partly imitation, partly technical," Burke told RadioTimes.com in 2019 - and while the other mysteries of Strike may remain unsolved until later episodes, we do have some information on this one, with series director Michael Keillor (who worked on the first instalment, The Cuckoo's Calling) explaining the filming techniques in more depth to RadioTimes.com at a preview screening.
“There were a few different tricks that we employed,” Keillor said.
“I was very keen that we see the [prosthetic] leg off, [with] Tom and no leg all in one shot, not just done with a cutaway. And I’d seen this film, Rust & Bone, where Marion Cotillard gets both her legs taken off in an accident. So I kind of studied how they did that using greenscreen technology, then we used trick photography to remove the leg.”
Cutting himself short, Keillor said: “I don’t want to give away all the tricks, in case the other directors do it differently as the books go on! But yeah, we basically digitally removed it then replaced the stump.
“We also had a double who was a very close double for Tom’s legs, who only had one leg, but exactly the same injury. So we doubled up that whenever we’re going very very close and seeing the leg.”
“It’s a balance – we didn’t wanna see too much of the leg so it becomes leg porn, it is a BBC One drama,” Keillor reasoned.
“At the same time we didn’t wanna shy away from it, it’s a guy who’s lost his leg in an IED in Afghanistan. It’s so common now, we see these soldiers who have all sorts of different things. It’s in the public mind.”
And even when the missing leg wasn’t in view (Strike uses a prosthetic most of the time), Tom Burke took care to make sure he was moving as a man with that particular disability would, working with amputees to get the movement just right.
“I asked as many questions as I could think of,” Bruke recalled, “and spent about a day with a movement director called Toby Sedgwick.
“And a guy called Barney [Gillespie] who is incredibly generous with his time, who had basically the same condition. And a day going upstairs, downstairs, sitting down, standing up. Sort of everything you could think of, trying to break it down to what one notices and what one doesn’t notice.”
Strike's third mystery Career of Evil, meanwhile, sees the detective actually running on his prosthetic leg for an extended period of time - so how did Burke manage to portray Strike's discomfort?
"I said to Barney [Gillespie] really near the beginning, 'How would it be running on one?' Because it’s a very particular type of prosthetic leg and you get different kinds," Burke recalled.
"And he said, well you wouldn’t. So we talked about that more and [how] it would be really painful to run on one of those because it’s just not what it’s built for. You’d only do it if you really had to so then it was weighing up well he really has to because of the situation they’re in and yeah, he probably has got some kind of probably quite pain threshold from everything he’s been through and then there’s the point where he can’t go on any more. So there was a fair amount of imagination about it, as well as asking lots of questions."
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For the fourth instalment Strike: Lethal White, directed by Sue Tully, production found that the process of filming Strike's leg had become easier with time.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press at a Q&A, Tully said, "Yeah it gets easier [as the series goes on] with the technology, [that] helps out more and more, you know, but we've got a range of ways of doing that: we use CGI, we've got... Mark, our body double, who's got the same injury as Strike does. So there's a lot of stuff we can capture in camera without having to augment it later in post. So yeah, it's becoming easier to do that kind of stuff."
Speaking at the same event ahead of Lethal White's first episode, Holliday Grainger (who plays Robin in the show) said of her co-star Burke: "I find him inhabiting the part [of Strike] so well that I forget that Tom has two legs, honestly. The amount of times in-between scenes I'd like put my hand out to help him up or something, it's - I just get completely brainwashed!"
In the end, we’d say the finished effect is pretty convincing – but have a watch yourself and see what you think.
The fourth instalment Strike: Lethal White starts on Sunday 30th August 2020 at 9pm on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.
This article was updated on 28th August 2020.