Each Frame Tells a Story: An Interview with Cinematographer Steve Lawes

By Mary Jo Watts (mid0nz)

Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch (L) as Sherlock Holmes, and Steve Lawes (R) by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch (L) as Sherlock Holmes, and Steve Lawes (R) by Robert Viglasky.
Used with permission.

I’m hopelessly, obsessively besotted with BBC Sherlock. It’s impossible for me to temper my enthusiasm for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s modern adaptation. At 43 years old, I’m proud to call myself an unabashed fangirl of the show and to count myself among the millions of others who comprise its global fandom.

It was when I watched the credits roll on The Great Game, season one’s gripping cliffhanger, that I realized I’d become utterly immersed in the Sherlock universe because of its stunning visuals. Part of the plot of that episode has to do with a Vermeer painting and it delighted me that a pivotal scene had been lit in homage to the Dutch master.

Those credits revealed to me that it was cinematographer Steve Lawes who transmuted a stark television set in Cardiff into 221B Baker Street, London. No, not into the domicile of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Literary Legend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, but into a real flat where Benedict Cumberbatch’s contemporary Sherlock most often lives. It’s a cozy wreck of a place. There are two giant windows in the living room that let in lots of light, and a bustling street below. Lawes’s 221B is as real to me as any other place I’ve happily spent hours of my time.

I’ve an academic background in media studies and film theory. I’ve blogged about Sherlock now for the better part of two years: the soundtrack, set dressings, props and plots. But it’s the look of the show I keep returning to – its grammar, framing and light. There are nine film-length episodes of Sherlock comprising three seasons. Lawes shot five of them: all of season one, and the first two episodes of season three.

In preparation for this interview I happily set out to see as much of Steve Lawes’s other work as I could in all its diversity. Over the 2013 holidays three of Lawes’s recent projects broadcast: his two episodes of Sherlock, his first big costume drama, Death Comes to Pemberley, and The Tractate Middoth, a little gem of a ghost story by M.R. James which was adapted, directed and co-produced by Mark Gatiss. Fantastic, fantastic stuff.

I’m not a professional writer or interviewer. As I said, I’m a fan with a blog. Steve Lawes is a freelance cinematographer. The opinions he expresses below are his and do not reflect those of the BBC or Hartswood Films. Our conversation took place on 30 January, 2014. -MJW

Mary Jo Watts: How did you become a DP [Director of Photography]?

Steve Lawes: When I went to high school I did photography with art.  I always wanted to get into photography. I did a lot of photography when I was a kid. I started off with an Instamatic and then grew into Polaroids and 35mm. It was always something that fascinated me. I like the combination of the technical-ness of photography and the artistic side of photography. So I was destined to want to be a photographer.

I ended up taking a gap year. I went to a summer camp in the States when I was 18 and it changed my outlook on life a little bit. It was a big experience that I hadn’t had before.

MJW:  Whereabouts?

SL: It was in Pennsylvania, a place called Trail’s End which was an affluent camp for very rich Jewish American kids. I made a friend from New York and a friend from the New Orleans area. I travelled all the way around on a Greyhound bus. I bought one of those tickets that meant you could go around everywhere. It opened my eyes. I was only 18 and it was a very weird experience being away from home for the first time traveling around on a bus seeing the America you’ve seen so much in films and that kind of thing. I think it changed me. It made me want to search for something else, something more.

When I came back I started enquiring about what courses did moving image. I wanted to get a bit more into that. So I ended up going to Manchester where I did film school for three years. It was a generalized film school. It wasn’t like the big film schools in the UK or LA. It was a university course that catered for lots of different things. So if you wanted to be a director or a cameraman, whatever, they catered for all of it. You got to do a bit of everything. I produced. I directed. I edited. I did everything. The one thing I always wanted to do was shoot so we shot on 16mm film, we shot on HD, well it wasn’t HD video it was high band video at the time and I used to shoot a lot on Super 8. I just used to play around and do stuff. I then left college.

When I graduated from college it was that kind of situation where you wonder if you’re going to get a job. It’s a difficult industry to crack. I was unemployed for the best part of four months. Like every graduate does. They look through all the newspapers and all the periodicals for all the jobs. I was so desperate to get some work.

I got offered a job at QVC. The shopping channel was coming to the UK and they were looking for a camera technician to basically run the studio in London. I really hadn’t had a sniff of anything yet so I thought why don’t I go and do this? So I go to the interview. I get the job. I turn up for the first day and I have an orientation. And this fear comes over me. I get to the lunch time. And I make this decision. I say “right I’m going to leave at the end of the day. I’m not going to do this. Because if I do this it’s going to lead on to other things and then I’m not going to get to where I want to get to.” I quit after one day. My parents, everyone around me kind of thought I was an idiot because I was in debt from college and I needed to work. But I just had this belief that something else would come up and that wasn’t what I wanted to do and life wasn’t about doing things you don’t want to do. So I carried on being unemployed for some time.

A very good friend of mine from college, not my university but she went to another university, a friend of mine from school, Annabelle, knew a guy called Olly Tellett who is a focus puller. She said I should speak to him about getting a job as a trainee. We’re both from the same town in the UK called Winchester. We happened to bump into each other in a pub and just got chatting and he said he was doing a film down in Wales and wanted to know if I wanted to come down and be a trainee. It was no money. No accommodation. Nothing at all. It was twelve weeks’ work — literally turn up, possibly sleep on somebody’s floor, did I want to do it? I said “Sure, I’ll give it a go.” So I went and did that job. Basically I was a trainee on that job. Very quickly they offered me the next job. They wanted me to be a clapper loader on the next show which is the 2nd AC [assistant camera]. I worked with Olly for the best part of ten years.

We did about two years scratching around. Fringe stuff, little bits and pieces, low budget films and then we ended up working with a guy called Daf Hobson, a very accredited cinematographer from the UK.  That entailed lots of TV drama. So we got to work with him for about ten years. Olly started getting other jobs, still as a focus puller, so I took over as focus puller from Olly, still working with Daf. Olly is now probably one of the best focus pullers in the country. He was A camera on Gravity. His CV is in terms of feature films…  any major studio picture that comes into the country he gets to do. We’re still very good friends. He went off in that direction and I carried on working with Daf for a number of years.

We got into a situation where I started operating and I started shooting second unit for Daf and we were working on a job one day — it was a thing called The Street by Jimmy McGovern and he was supposed to do the first block and the third block. Quite often what happens like Sherlock is when you get three episodes or you might get six episodes but you shoot in blocks so you shoot episode one and two in six weeks. Another director, another DP would shoot three and four in six weeks and then you’d come back and quite often the lead director and DP combo do first and third. Sometimes you do the whole thing if it’s something like Sherlock. So we shot the first block and I operated on it and I’d shot a couple of days on it and he said to me at the end “I’m not going back. I don’t want to do it anymore. So I’ll have a bit of a sabbatical and I’m going to suggest that you do it.” I was like, ‘They’re never going to employ me! You know, all I’ve got is a background in the camera department and I haven’t got a background as a cinematographer.’ So I say great, if it works, fine. We’ll see what happens.

I went to New York to see my friend that I met in camp with my wife and I got a call about four o’clock in the morning from the producer saying “we want to offer you the job.” This was 2006. I remember basically jumping up and down in my pants thinking this is it. This is my opportunity. This is a prime time BBC main drama, the drama that went on to win the BAFTA and the RTS two years in a row. It’s been one of the most acclaimed series other than Sherlock that’s been on our screens.  I remember jumping up and down with excitement and then all of a sudden this fear gripped me. And I thought what the hell? How am I going to do this? I’m not ready for this. Like in every situation in life where you can get anxiety and you think something has come along and you think you can’t do it.

We get back home. I speak to Daf and I say “Look, I’m a little bit nervous about blah, blah, blah” and he was like “It’s all in there. You’ve been working as an assistant for fifteen years. You’ve been on all these different film sets. You know what happens. You’ve got to put that into place.” He was a great mentor. He was the kind of guy that you’d work with that would always tell you why he did something. He was my teacher. Everything you see that I do now, a lot of that comes from him. It’s not so much the style and the technical side of it but it’s the approach. It’s the way that you approach cinematography.

I did The Street. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown myself at something with so much energy and so much wanting to succeed. It felt like six weeks of just running and then I got to the end of it and it was like we’ve done it. And everybody was very happy with it. So the director, David Blair, offered me another job after that. And then it snowballed into where we are now with different directors, different companies, different work. Choosing different jobs for different reasons.

Most of the jobs that I do now are down to the director than anything else. But there are still things like Sherlock. In the first series I was invited to an interview to meet [director] Paul McGuigan. I didn’t know it was going to be what it was going to be. I literally met him in a restaurant in Cardiff. We talked for two hours about lots of different things, about what we liked and what we didn’t like and then they offered me the job. This is quite interesting. Interviews are always… you’re either asked to the interview because the director likes your work or you’re asked to an interview because the producer likes your work. It’s very rarely because an agent gets you the interview. It’s usually because somebody has seen your work or they’ve seen your show, rather, and they like it or they’ve seen Sherlock and they like it.

What I find about interviews is that you end up interviewing them as much as they interview you because you’re going to spend the next three months of your life working with this person at an incredibly intense level. It’s very difficult to walk away from that relationship if it’s dysfunctional. It’s about like two dogs meeting to begin with. You’re kind of looking at each other, sniffing each other, trying to work each other out and you end up making a decision on that very short piece of time that you have. Quite often with me it’s about trust and also… You know sometimes you get it wrong. You sit in an interview with somebody and this guy sounds amazing and you’ll turn up on day one and they’re like… But everybody’s different.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that good and bad is a bad distinction. People are different. Things are different. Creatively there isn’t good and bad, in my opinion. I think there’s just difference of opinion. What works for somebody doesn’t necessarily work for somebody else. And that’s not a bad thing. I think the fact that people like and dislike things strongly is a good thing.

Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.

MJW: What does a DP do? For example on Sherlock’s first episode of season three, The Empty Hearse, what did you have to do for that?

SL: Starting off in terms of pre-production. Once you’re on board you’re working with the director, the producers, the writers and the production designer, predominantly. Costume designer, makeup designers. What you’re doing in pre-production is you’re looking at the script and you’re going “Right. How do we realize this? How do we make this work?” So quite often you’ll do a read-through of the script and you’ll say “How are we going to do this? What part of this can be done pseudo? What part of this can be done real?”

You then with the location manager start looking at locations that will possibly work. You say why they will work, why they won’t work. Are they expensive in terms of camera and lights and electrical— and all that sort of thing. It’s a real process that’s driven by many things. It’s driven by creative choice, it’s driven by finances— always driven by finances because you can walk into some room and say “oh this is great” but it’s going to cost £50,000 to light and the producer will just turn around and go “No way.” So what you do is you walk in there and say “This is great but it’s going to kill us if we light it. Maybe if we just use that bit of it we can make it work that way.”

So in pre-production you’re talking about the scripts and it’s all about how you realize that and get it on to screen. You’re having a conversation with the director in terms of what he wants to do, how he sees that scene, what’s his idea, how does he see it, does he want it to be Steadicam, does he want it to be on a crane, does he have this idea.

For example on the first series with Paul [McGuigan]. The studio sets are built all on the same level. So the main room is on one level. The stairs that come down from that room are on the same level, but next to it, then come down. Paul turned up and was really disappointed because the set was not built one on top of the other. They never are unless you’re David Fincher and you get them built like that. They never are because it’s more practical to have them at ground level. But he wanted to do a shot which went all the way down the stairs and out into the road. And he said “well how do we do this?” and I said “well we can do it with wipes.” You know what we do is we do it with Steadicam and wipes so when we get to the top of the stairs Benedict [Cumberbatch] walks into the camera and it goes black and then we carry on down [the next set of stairs and out 221B]. And in that shot there are four cuts to get onto the crane, the final one being when we come out on Baker Street [North Gower Street] and then we use John to cross the frame to create the wipe to get us onto the crane. When you see that you see one shot, well people would see the cut if they were aware of it but effectively it feels like one shot. That’s the kind of thing we do in prep. It’s realizing how to solve a problem of what you want to do creatively.

Then when we get closer to the shoot we go on what’s called tech recces where everybody involved in the production in terms of the heads of departments are on a bus and we get … around. We all walk out with our clipboards. Like with Barts’s roof, we’ll go on Barts’s roof and we’ll say “Right. Are we going to have a camera positioned, where’s that camera position going to be, and the logistics of putting that there. And we have all these discussions and then at the end of those recces I’ll do lists in terms of extra lighting, extra camera kit we need and I put those lists together and I put them into production.

Then we have a production meeting which generally lasts forever. They last up to eight hours. And in that production meeting we go through a schedule. And the first…. is based on what we’re going to shoot on what day. And everybody chimes in at that point to say what their problems are, what their issues are, how they solve those problems, if this is going to happen how do we deal with that, etc.

With Barts for instance even though we shoot there, you can’t lock it off. It’s still a public area. So when we film in London you can’t shut areas off completely because a) London won’t allow you to do that and b) just the practicality of shutting off that large area isn’t possible. So you talk about what happens if you get a big crowd, etc. It’s strange because we never did that on series one. In series one we walked Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin [Freeman] through Trafalgar Square on Steadicam on The Blind Banker and there were three girls that were slightly interested in the back because there was a camera but apart from that nobody batted an eyelid. You could never do that now. So it’s a lot of planning and a lot of thinking.

As a Director of Photography I’m in charge of three departments. The grip department, the electrical department and the camera department. In the grip department there’s usually two or three people— usually two people. We run a very different system to the American system here where we have a dolly grip and an assistant. In the electrical department I usually work with five sparks. We have a gaffer, a best boy, and then three sparks. In the camera department on Sherlock— pretty much every show I do these days we shoot two cameras so there will be myself operating one camera, and there will be another operator operating B camera or A camera.  That depends on the show. There’ll be two focus pullers, or first ACs. There’ll be two second ACs, or clapper loaders as we call them.  And there’ll usually be one trainee and possibly one person doing video assists, the person that’s in charge of all the monitors.

During that pre-production process I filter all that information back to my departments. The gaffer, best boy, the operator and the grip will be on the recce so when we go and see a location they’ll say “do we need this here?” And I’ll say yes and why or whatever.

Then when you hit day one on The Empty Hearse you turn up— you know a normal day for us is eight ’till seven. So I usually get in around about seven, about an hour before.  I either have breakfast at home or on the set. On The Empty Hearse we started with the scene where Mrs. Hudson was washing up her pan and Sherlock comes back. That was our first scene.

What I try and do when we’re in the studio is I try and pre-light as much as I can because our days are pretty busy. We shoot an episode of Sherlock in twenty-one days. The studio gets built, it gets furnished, it gets dressed. I try to have a day in the studio before we start filming where I can put a basic set of light set-ups, both a day and night, evening. When I work in the studio I have everything back to dimmers.  I only work with tungsten light in the studio which is traditionally what we have done but it’s the way to go. All the lights are numbered. They’re all on a dimmer channel. They all go back to a big desk that looks like a big mixing desk like you get in a studio.

On the first day you get there and we’re like “Right, what’s the first shot going to be?” So that first shot is the slow push through the doorway into Mrs. Hudson. So the first thing when we get there is that the doorway hasn’t got any finish on the outside of it because it’s built as a set. So Arwel Wyn Jones [Production Designer] who I have a very good relationship with (we’re friends as well as colleagues)… you have a standby art director on who’s basically in charge of looking after Arwel’s vision on set. So the first thing I say to the standby art director, I say “the director wants to do a shot which goes through the doorway but there’s no reveal on the outside of the door. Can you give Arwel a ring (‘cause he’s just upstairs where we are as a studio) Can we get a bit of partition and put it there just to make this work? So it’s problem solving. What you don’t want to do is turn around to the director and say “well we can’t do that because there’s no finish on the outside of the set.” What you do is say “Fine, we can do that. It’s going to take us ten minutes. We need to find a bit of flattage” So we end up getting a bit of flattage, stealing it from another part of the set, putting it on, put a little table there with a lamp on it to create a good shape, and then we create our track. And that’s shot one, done. Then on to a close up of the pan being scrubbed and that’s literally it for the day. You’ve got to have a call sheet which has the scenes on it that you have to do and where you’ve got to go and you literally work through them and you don’t dwell that much time on stuff because if you do whatever time you spend in the morning you don’t have in the afternoon.

Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.

MJW: So everything is really planned out well in advance by the time you’re ready to shoot?

SL: Well the idea is that it should be planned, you know? The reality is that it never is. (laughs) I mean a great example— the trouble is that production works at such a speed that you’re always catching your tail. On The Empty Hearse the tube interior, which is a built set, an amazing built set by Arwel. I turned up the morning we were supposed to shoot. We had a whole day to shoot that scene on Steadicam with the two of them and I turned up in the morning and Arwel and Daf [Shurmer], his art director, were on there gluing bits of wire and they’d been up all night. It’s like when somebody’s had a party with their parents away and they’re trying to tidy up (laughs) and the paint’s still wet. Because things change all the time.

And another thing that changed was the script changed. You don’t always have a locked script. You’re supposed to have a locked script when you start but what happens is say after day three you’ll get a rewrite— maybe one of the executives in London turns around and says “I don’t like that part of the script” or “I want to change that.” And then all of the sudden you get this change so whatever you’ve prepped goes out the window. We spend a lot of time prepping and in an ideal world that prep translates into what we do.  I would say that 40% of the time that prep goes out the window. The way I work is that I like to be prepped in the way that I know I’ve got a plan based on plan A. My old boss used to say when people used to ask him what he did as a job he said he was a circus rigger. And it’s true because what you actually do is you’re effectively juggling stuff. You have to be incredibly flexible. So you have this kind of idea about what you want to do but then you’ve got to be able to change your mind and do something else very quickly.

Paul [McGuigan] is an example on series one. What Paul does as a director is he will always refuse your first idea. I worked out very quickly that by saying he doesn’t like what you suggest first, he’s trying to get something better. And it’s true, you might get something better! But when you learn that, you know that you can throw a patsy out there sometimes (laughs) and then give him your real idea. That, again is a relationship.

Somebody asked me the other day about how did we come up with the look and style of Sherlock. I said Paul and I sat down… have you seen the pilot?

MJW:  Oh yes, it’s extraordinarily different.

SL: It’s really odd because we had a pilot to look at. I’d already got the job by that point. Paul [McGuigan] gave me the DVD and said “what was that? Tell me what you think.” And I know the director and I know the DP that worked on it and I know they were under budgetary constraints, etc. But the conversation that Paul and I had once we saw the pilot was we’re not going to make it look like that. It almost like it was a benchmark not to achieve.  I think because we had that reference… we weren’t just trying to make it better than that. One of the great things about Paul is that Paul comes from a feature film background where he sees things as being big.  There’s a big tendency within television or with people generally to say “that’ll be alright.” And lots of things will be alright I could spend my day saying that will be alright and would come up with a pretty average result. I accept that it will be alright. It’s my job to make it better. My approach to my work is— it’s not about doing the obvious. It’s also not about doing something which is…I mean you see some shows which are just style over substance. It’s like commercials. You look at a lot of commercials where they’re beautiful but there’s nothing there.

One of the things we always realized from the start about Sherlock is that if you’ve got Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin [Freeman] and you’ve got good dialogue, you can’t really fuck it up. You’ve really got to try hard to fuck it up. What you need to do is you need to create this world around them and work with them. One of the things that Paul and I set out to do with… one of the things I always do is try and create a world around the people, around the story that you’re doing. And that’s what we did. I mean we had a hard time on that first series. A lot of the time Sue [Vertue], the producer, thought things were too dark, thought we were being too brave. They thought we were on the edge of what was kind of… There’s always this argument about TV and film and what you can get away with in film. I think that’s nonsense. The audience is incredibly educated. We grow up watching Spielberg films, watching great pieces of cinema. We go and see opera. Most people are so artistically educated by the time they’re eighteen. And then when you get people turning around and saying the audience don’t notice or they won’t realize or … it’s nonsense. Everybody has an eye and an understanding. They might not be able to describe what the differences are but they know by seeing what those differences are. I think that’s really important. I think that one of the things that Paul [McGuigan] brought to the first series was that bigger vision of thinking let’s make this show the way we want to make it. Who cares if it’s TV? Who cares if it’s a film? Let’s just make what’s right for it. That’s what went on.

It was quite interesting because when we did the first series where I worked with Euros [Lyn] on the second block [The Blind Banker] — it’s always strange working on the show when you get different directors. You just get used to one director and you usually get tired by the end of the block you’ve worked with one director and then the next director comes along and I call them the Duracell Bunny. They turn up with all these ideas, all energized and like the whole crew is knackered. Very rarely are they able to say “I really like what you’ve done before and we’re going to continue it.” Very often what they want to do is they want to change things because they want to do things their way. It’s quite difficult for me because you set up a style or something and you get into this gear with somebody and all of the sudden you get a week to spend and it’s like— you’ve been in a relationship. you’ve worked so intensely with somebody and you’re almost like in a relationship with them and all of the sudden you’re supposed to go — oh you’re working with this person. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. It can be hard.

MJW: You shot The Great Game first, right? And then was it The Blind Banker and then A Study in Pink? Was it backwards?

SL: Correct. It was backwards. Correct.

MJW: So you’re going between two directors and sandwiched in the middle you’ve got [Euros] Lyn, right?

SL: Yeah I mean we had four weeks’ prep in the beginning— Paul [McGuigan] and I did a lot of prep and I had one week’s prep with Euros. We work in different systems. In America you’ve got a show like Breaking Bad and you’ll have a lead director who will also be an executive producer. What they’ll do is they’ll direct the first couple of shows but they’ll also have editorial control over the other shows so the show has this uniform vision. We tend not to do that in the UK. We tend to have a lead director that does the first couple of shows, or the first show and then we have another director that comes in after. If that second director wants to change that format completely— I mean they’re often asked not to by production but if they want to come in and go “well actually I don’t agree with what he was doing I’m going to do it this way” then they’ll do that. You know because there’s nobody saying “hang on a minute, we’re trying to set up a show here that’s got a style.” I think it’s more down to script and I think there are better episodes of Sherlock than others. And quite often they’re down to which scripts are which. It’s an interesting place to be as the cinematographer, where you’re trying to keep this thing going but it’s not necessarily what the new director wants.

MJW: That’s one of the questions I had because there seemed to be strangely a lot more continuity in a way with season one of Sherlock. Season three seems to be… I mean it’s spectacular but it doesn’t have that overall.. I don’t know what the word I’m looking for but…

SL: It’s probably what I would call… I think that one of the issues that I think Sherlock suffers from is that— and it’s quite interesting because I read this in a review the other day is that if — on a series like Breaking Bad or a big American series you get like thirteen, fourteen episodes in a season. So out of those thirteen, fourteen episodes you can have one that doesn’t quite work. You can have one that’s completely wacky. You can go through all this. What you get with Sherlock is you get three episodes. And you have to wait two years for those episodes to turn up so… I think all three episodes of the new series work in their own way but also I do think it’s changed from series one.  I think with series one the scripts were more… They were series one. It’s difficult because if this series were series one then we could be talking about it in the same way.  The problem is when a series becomes successful and you carry on you’ll always compare it to what’s gone before.

One of the things Benedict [Cumberbatch] said to me when we started series three — it was about series two which I didn’t do — was about A Scandal in Belgravia which is, I think again, a great script. The dynamic between Lara Pulver and Benedict is just amazing. That zing that you get— everything else pales in significance, you know. I think we got that on series one with Moriarty. You get that power going on. Obviously with series three episode one is…a lot of it is about the reunion of the two. Episode two is a lot about a wedding which is quite interesting because if you think about the original even though they get married there wasn’t ever a book about the wedding and I think that’s for a good reason because weddings generally are long, tedious things, you know? But that doesn’t mean.. I think the episode works. It’s just that in terms of a classic Sherlock that we created in the first series I think that what Steven [Moffat] and Mark [Gatiss]  will say is that it’s a show about a detective, it’s not a detective show, which is very true. Again it’s the argument about what is right or wrong or what is different. Sherlock’s gone slightly different. But whereas the last episode then stirs it all up again and gets a little more back to where it is.

I really enjoyed doing the first series. The first series is probably one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever done, probably one of the most demanding things I’ve ever done. If I look back at it, there’s some amazing stuff in it.

MJW: The Great Game in particular is just phenomenal, it’s just phenomenal. One of my favorite parts in it is the Golem scene. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about? It’s just so spectacular.

SL: With the projection?

MJW: Yes.

SL: There was this scene with The Golem where they had to have this face off and it was like “Where are we going to set it?” I remember having this conversation with [Paul McGuigan] about this planetarium in London which is no longer there. It used to be part of the Madame Tussauds thing but I went there as a kid and it was a domed interior, auditorium where they had this thing that looked like an ant in the middle which was a projector [Zeiss planetarium projector] and it projected all these stars and you got taken around the universe. And it was a really interesting experience as a child. One of the ideas was that they were going to be in this auditorium. I think Arwel was saying it could be a planetarium. I actually did a show before where I used a projector, Place of Execution where we used a projector with a half silvered mirror which basically allows some light to travel through and some light to travel back to reflect back on an actor’s face. It was a wonderful aesthetic. I suggested that we have this projection on the screen but when we get into this fight we’d use the projector as a light source but also to create this cacophony of color and contrast.

One of the things we use on Sherlock a lot is uncoated lenses, the old dry super speed lenses. Somebody sits there and scrubs all the coating off the front, all the stuff that’s supposed to reduce the flares gets removed. What you see in that scene particularly is when you get a projection or any sort of light source in the frame you get these wonderful halos and spherical flares. I got the art department to get another projector with other images on which I could use hand held and project against faces. So when John’s got the gun and things like that. We talked about things like timing, like getting the explosion at the end when he shoots. I’d love to sit here in an interview and say those were all planned but they weren’t. Most of it’s kismet. It’s just meant to be, you know. What’s interesting about that scene is that we actually shot it in about an hour. We were so behind by the time we got to shoot that scene that Paul pretty much said “what do we do” and I went “let’s go handheld and get this thing in.” That guy, that guy that plays the Golem is enormous. It’s quite unnerving having him around. He’s not a stunt player, really. He’s not an actor either, he’s just kind of a big guy. It was quite funny because we had this stunt man there and there was this one time when he was almost strangling Martin [Freeman] (laughs and pretends to choke).

It’s a great example of when you have very little time it tends to make you focus. What happens when you’re short of time, you run on instinct.  If you’ve got all the time in the world you’ll sit there and you’ll deliberate. It’s the analogy about going into a restaurant and looking at a menu and the first thing you look at and decide is the right thing. When you’ve got quite a lot of time you then whip through the rest of the menu and you change your mind and you order something else when you really should have gone for the first thing you looked at. And it’s exactly the same for when we do what we do. If you’ve got a lot of time you’ll walk in there and you’ll think I could do it that way, that way, and that way. When you’ve got no time you go in and go “Right. What we’re going to do we’re going to do,” and it focuses the mind and you do things instinctively and that scene is a great example of doing things instinctively. Probably at the end of the day we walked away thinking my God did we actually get the scene? Did we do it? With a very good bit of editing from Charlie [Phillips] you see the result as being an amazing scene.

MJW: Absolutely. Was that scene intentionally inspired by the silent film [The Golem]? The coloring and whatnot? Do you know?

SL: I mean parts of it were. It wasn’t something we talked about majorly. We do tend to talk about color a lot. One of the things I believe in is contrast through color — probably why when you see a lot of my work you’ll see— probably not so much in Death Comes to Pemberley because it’s period but all of my contemporary work you’ll see a lot of lavender, a lot of indigo, a lot of other colors that you don’t normally see. Like in A Study in Pink I used a lot of lavender in the back of the shot all the time. I wish I still had it but when Benedict saw the first series he left me an answer phone message basically saying that it had all fallen into place, everything that I’d done. It was wonderful because very few people see the little things that you do. I mean there are people that see it but when people do see it it’s very flattering that people get it. It’s why you do your job. The drive for me with A Study in Pink— it wasn’t just the storyline— because we were shooting in London in contemporary London I wanted to make it feel Victorian. I wanted to create this Victoriana for the film. What I wanted to do was move away from the big— what most people tend to do is when you’re shooting an exterior night scene you put a daylight lamp on a cherry picker and you backlight a road and what you tend to get is a big kick on the road, a big backlit scene. It works for lots of things but it’s very kind of Home Alone — that star thing. It’s quite big and brash. I moved away from that a long time ago, basically wanting to create an exterior night which is like the exterior night that you see.  As the conversation we had on twitter about Gregory Crewdson — what I love about Crewdson’s work is that he captures what I feel we really see with our eyes although it’s heightened and it’s exaggerated. It’s that idea of sodium light, that sort of radiation you get off sodium light, fluorescent light, all those different tones and colors you know how they kick off a pavement, how they kick off the road, things like wet-downs you know. I’m forever winding production up because I want roads wet down.

With Sherlock we were limited with things we could use in terms of big lights but I didn’t want to use a big back light which was the traditional thing to do. I wanted to create pools of light. I wanted to create depth through pools of light. I wanted to create bokeh and I wanted those contrasts and that color to be in the frame. It was something I’d done before in another show where you take a color gel like lavender and you put it on one lamp and you kick it against the wall or you kick it up against a tree. The sense is you normally look at it and go “where the hell is that light coming from?” because it’s bright, it’s lavender but if you get it right and it’s peripheral, it’s just a little tone in the background, especially if it’s out of focus. Within a frame where you’ve got an actor here (makes a frame with his hand and points to the actor at the side of the frame) and all this out-of-focus bit here (gestures to the rest of the frame) it becomes a shade and a color. I spend half my time worrying about Benedict and I spend half my time worrying about this bit out of focus here. The whole frame is what’s interesting. If you only worry about this bit and don’t worry about that bit then it gets quite boring so you need to worry about the actor but you need to worry about the whole of the rest of the frame as well.

Which is where I talk about Crewdson. If you look at a Crewdson frame it’s like a painting. It’s like a Dutch master: you can look at parts of the frame, you can sit there. That’s what I try and do with my cinematography. I try and create frames that if they were put on a still people would look at them and go “there’s depth in the frame” which brings me to the importance of framing and relationships in the frame. There are lots of people who’ve talked about Paul [McGuigan] using the rule of thirds, and no disrespect to Paul but he’s never ever thought anything about the rule of thirds. I work on the golden section which is basically the rule of thirds, which is where you place things in a frame. You’ve only got to look at fine art and look at framing within fine art and in any particular well-known picture you’ll see that everything is in a particular part of the frame for a reason. It tells the story. The story is told by where things are in relationship in the frame whether they’re central in the frame, whether they’re peripheral. Sometimes I’ll shoot somebody and I’ll frame only half their face. It’s an unconventional frame but you’re actually saying something very important with that frame. I very rarely put some people in the middle of my frame— it’s something that people do all the time. I only put somebody in the middle of the frame when I really want to make it a point of it really being about them. I spend half my time thinking about framing as I do lighting as a cinematographer because I think the story is told via the frame.

I’m a huge fan of Asian, Korean films.  The close up is never on the person speaking, it’s on the person listening. It’s not about the dialogue, it’s about how you present the story. Also things like Krzysztof Kieślowski— one of my great inspirations in terms of film to do what I’ve done. The Three Colors trilogy, The Decalogue. If you look at what Kieślowski does, he tells a story visually. Quite often in a Kieślowski film you’ll get no dialogue for quite some time but you know exactly what’s going on, or it’s in Polish, but you still know what’s going on because a story’s being told. As a cinematographer one of the most important things to me is about telling a story. My lighting and my photography has to complement the story. If it ever detracts from that then I’m not doing my job.

When I go to the cinema to watch a film — I went to go see Gravity in 3D and I hate 3D films.

Photo of Steve Lawes (L) and Matthew Rhys (R) as Fitzwilliam Darcy (in Death Comes to Pemberley) by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Steve Lawes (L) and Matthew Rhys (R) as Fitzwilliam Darcy (in Death Comes to Pemberley) by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.

MJW: Really?

SL: Yeah, I can’t stand them. I went to see it because my friend Olly worked on it and I was told it was groundbreaking in terms of what it does and you know I have to say I loved it. I thought it was amazing. One of the things I do when I go to the cinema is — it’s quite difficult for me not to see all the seams, not to see all the bits and pieces that make up the whole. I go and see Gravity and I’m aware of this long shot at the beginning and after about 10 minutes I’m just engrossed in this world of Sandra Bullock and it’s like a roller coaster ride. My heart rate is going up and I’m watching this film and like that (snaps) the ninety minutes are over. And I’m like “this is brilliant.” I’ve escaped, you know, I’ve been immersed in this. It doesn’t matter how they did the lighting, it doesn’t matter how they did the CGI, it doesn’t matter how tricksy it is. For me Gravity worked because ultimately there’s a story being told there. Everything else— all those wonderful technical achievements are there to support that story. For me that’s brilliant film-making.

MJW: So how do you know what story you’re telling? Because you’ve got the script, and the actors, the gestures they’re going to make, do the writers and the director decide what the meaning is and then you execute that? What do you mean by creating a story? What story? Subtext? Atmosphere?

SL: I think it’s the way that I view the story. What I tend to do when I block a scene, I mean I’ll take Sherlock for an example since we’re talking about it. So if we’re in 221B and we’ve got a scene between Benedict and Martin — and this would be the same in any show that I do— actors will walk on set. They’ve got one page of dialogue to do. They do a rehearsal which is quite often called a word run which is just them doing the dialogue without even thinking about where they’re going to stand or anything. If you get good actors like Benedict and Martin what they’ll do is they’ll already be in character when they do that word run. Because they haven’t been told by a director that they need to stand by the window or they haven’t been told by me that they need to sit down or anything like this quite often they’ll do things in that word run which are very natural. Through their body language, it might be that one of them turns away from the other person or it might be that one of them walks up to the other person. Quite often they’ll do things which are very organic and true to life. And that for me is the story. The story is you’ve got these two people and they’re talking about something. The story is about the human condition. It’s about the way we are as humans, the way that we’re affected by each other. I think that’s something we all instinctively do and know even if we’re not aware of it. That to me is the story. And what I think I try and do is try and preserve that. So when we come to do a rehearsal and the director starts saying “why don’t you go and try it sat down on the chair” Benedict might say “well I don’t think I’d be sat in the chair” then I might chime in and say “there is this really interesting thing you did in the rehearsal was that you walked away and looked out the window” and he’ll say “yeah yeah” and I’ll say “I think that’s really interesting because you did that on that beat and I think that’s quite poignant because…” This is something that happens with the directors I work with is I get quite involved with that process about body language and shape and what people are doing because to me what I’m doing is looking at it in terms of the human condition and in terms of the way we react to the situation and what I want to do is capture that, preserve that, so that to me is the story.

When I talk about the story it’s that sense.. if you are looking in on a scene and that what you want to feel when you’re looking in is — you know how you watch some shows and you go “nobody’d do that. People don’t do that.” It’s kind of like when people drive like that (puts hands on an imaginary steering wheel and moves it in the exaggerated way people drive on TV.) When people do stuff like that it cuts through the illusion of what we’re doing. One of the things for me is to try and capture a scene by being as flexible as possible but also seeing those little nuances that people do and getting them. That then translates to what you see. If you can capture those special little moments then you can tell the story. That’s what’s important to me.

MJW: I was just thinking about the framing in the scene in The Great Game where Sherlock’s got the tennis shoes [trainers] and he’s pulling the laces up and he’s through two or three different windows. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came to be?

SL: That’s not actually the lab, the lab where we shoot. It’s around the corner in the same building but because when we’ve always shot in the lab we always had the windows closed to create this environment of this lab. Paul [McGuigan] wanted to have this viewpoint of him [Sherlock] in through the window so the only way we could do it is we found this room which looked across into another room through an atrium so it’s two frames and then Benedict so it’s a completely manufactured shot. Where he is is nothing to do with the lab at all. We liked the idea of the frame within the frame. Paul and I both like the idea of shooting through frames and finding people through things. It’s another example of what you do in real life. You very rarely have this wonderful straight view of people.

I love the partial shot in Chinatown of Faye Dunaway or whoever it is. When they shot the rushes the producers came back and you’ve got to actually show her. The director turned around and said “Well you come to the rushes screening and you see what happens. Literally when the shot comes on everybody does that (leans over looking off the screen for the rest of her) (laughs) You’re trying to look round the corner. It’s all things to play with.

The same thing about that frame in Sherlock. It’s a big frame with this other box and a little box and then there’s Benedict there. Next thing you know you’re into this big little closeup. It’s establishing the world that he’s in but getting into this… The thing that Kieślowski did a lot where in Three Colors: Blue he used macro shots all the time of little details and it’s to show that Juliette Binoche’s character is very blinkered by her view on life. Whenever it came to her point of view everything was shot in big little close-ups. I think that’s a really interesting idea, You’re trying to get in that perception in the way that somebody sees or in some ways you’re forcing the viewer to see things a certain way, to view things a certain way, to get that point of view. It’s all a part of the tool kit we have to tell the story.

MJW: One of the things that’s so interesting about Season 3 is seeing things from Sherlock’s perspective and it’s so different in a way I can’t really quantify. What’s different? At some point I think you mentioned that you used different cameras for Sherlock’s point of view? Is that the case?

SL: We didn’t use different cameras for his point of view. What we did use on The Empty Hearse was two cameras together in a kind of stereo converged configuration. So a lot of the stuff where he’s in his mind palace or on the tube and you see him come in and go out go back and come in, that’s a new thing we discovered on series three. The original idea of Sherlock’s point of view was always based on taking stills. I came up with the idea and Paul [McGuigan] wanted— on series one we agonized about how we would show the world differently from Sherlock’s perspective. One of the things we talked about was basically shooting the scene twice in two different styles which is a great idea but it’s kind of unfeasible in terms of production because you need twice as much time and also it’s really weird to think about how you’d do it compared to how you just shot it. We were brainstorming about ideas and I had this idea of — I’d done it in a series once before where we’d taken a series of stills from a big wide shot into somebody’s eye and then morphed them together. Basically the guy was injecting drugs and it was the idea of right at that point when he was getting high that it’s going into his pupil dilating. I was talking about this to Paul and even though he’s a very visual director he can’t understand anything unless he sees it. I remember going home with my iPhone and taking a series of stills in my front room up to my wife’s face and then compiling the little video and putting it on my phone and then taking it to work the next day which is the Sherlock vision that you know and love now and see. I’m showing him this shot and him going “yes, I really like that.” It was that idea that you start here and you go into something that you do it as a series of stills. We did that on series one which they kind of continued on series two for series three… I think it comes out of the fact that with another director they don’t necessarily understand what you’ve done before, I mean you talk to them about the idea of stills a) I’m not completely sure if they understand it but b) they want to do something different you know because it’s season three and Jeremy [Lovering] is first director and he wants to do something different. So we came up with the idea of the two 5Ds [Canon cameras] together. It was the idea that if you set a point of convergence and you have something moving at some point you’ll get these two images and they’ll come together and they’ll go apart again. It was mainly a continuation of his mind palace— just trying to visually create something different to express what goes on in Sherlock’s head.

MJW: It was fantastically done. I think the tube [mind palace] scenes, among the fans, were among the favorite moments of the season.

What was it like to shoot the Reichenbach Fall resolution in three different ways. First of all you got back and you had this tremendous crowd— that must have been quite something to manage. Having to do the same thing in three different ways, how did you approach that?

SL: The thing is with the fall what you’ve got is the material that’s already been shot from the end of series two. It’s quite interesting because this has happened in both series.  The climax of series one was shot in the swimming pool. The crew for series two then had to go back to the swimming pool to continue that [pool scene] for series two [episode one].  The same for series three. We had to back to Barts again. In terms of the three different [resolutions to the fall] it’s difficult in a way because we had two days in Barts’s exterior with an enormous amount of work to do. Just in terms of the bungee jump, the air bag and trying to cover it in a way where you can create all these different scenarios. The way it worked in pre-production is everybody knew about everything but the true story. Most people got a script which had a — you know when they’re on the tube?

MJW: Yes.

SL: When the bomb’s just about to go off and when he explains what actually happened— that section was missing from the script specifically so it wouldn’t get leaked to anybody. So very few people in production actually had scripts with that bit of information with that in it. In terms of filming it we spent two days shooting those scenes.

Logistically, we were shooting multiple scenes at once. We had to shoot Sherlock from the ground up to Barts’s roof.  We did [the slow motion shot of] him on a bungee 1000 fps on a Phantom camera. We’d shoot that and when we were in that position we’d wheel in a scissor lift for him [Benedict Cumberbatch] to jump onto the bag off.  He actually did one jump onto the bag but from a lower level and we got the stunt guy to do it from a higher level. Really we were mixing it up and it was exhausting. I think we had four or five cameras. I had talkback which I hate using. The only reason I use it is on big days like that so when I’m talking to the director I’m talking about what we’re going to do next so everybody else on my crew know what we’re going to do. Probably not the most pleasurable of days that you do because the bottom line is that there are so many variables. There’s so much cost going on and involved because of the crane. The crowd are just one part of the things you have to deal with. Those kind of days feel like a logistical achievement more than anything else. You get little moments when you get great little shots but you’re trying to do so much in two days I hate to say it but you really are ticking off shots on a list. We used a bit of second unit. All the stuff in the lift with the mask going on was shot second unit by my operator. It’s the sort of thing where you’d normally approach it and say “this would be great if we had seven days to shoot this because we could really take our time. We could be…” it doesn’t happen in television. We very rarely get that sort of time so you really are just trying to tell that story and get the shots.

MJW: This question might go back to the fact that that particular ending was not in the script. I don’t know but  a lot of people were a little confused about why there was this cut away from the bomb into the story, into the true story. Do you have any ideas about that particular… Why did the real story come in at that moment in the bomb scene? I think people thought “oh this will be some great confession between John and Sherlock” or some moment and then this cut comes in. I was just wondering if you had any ideas about that.

SL: I don’t really you know. I know exactly what you’re coming from and where other people are coming from because I remember when I thought about it myself it always feels slightly disjointed that you go into Sherlock’s confession but I just put it down to structure, the way they structured the script. I guess it didn’t really stand out to me because from the beginning I’m so often looking at a script that had that missing. That when I actually got it it felt very different. Anyway. Maybe it’s a bit of trait of that but I don’t think I’ve got any opinion really on why it’s like that.

MJW: So what are your favorite moments? I mean if you have them I know some people don’t like to rank things but do you have particular moments in Sherlock that you’re really proud of, particular scenes that stand out to you?

SL: I think in terms of series one I think I liked them walking down the staircase, going out and getting into the cab, the game is on— that bit. I really like the scene with Benedict where he’s talking to the prisoner. Is that The Great Game?

MJW: Yes— the Belarus scene.

SL: Yes. I like that one for a lot of reasons. For me it’s a great piece of writing by Mark [Gatiss]. I like the correction of the grammar. It works very well. I think the other guy [Matthew Needham playing Mr. Berwick] is brilliant in it as well as Benedict. It was night when we shot that. I had to light it for day. It was a very tricky location. It was freezing but it’s something that I really like.

Lighting wise, I like the studio. I like 221B. Especially over series one. When you watch that pilot and you look at the set, it looks like a set. I have this real problem with sets. I can’t stand looking at shows going “they’re on a set.” You know for me the way I light is I like to use a big source off of the set. I like to bring in onto the set and I like it to then radiate like what real light does. I spend my life looking at the sun entering a room and bouncing off of something in the room and that’s what I wanted to do with 221B. I didn’t want to create an environment like the Robert Downey, Jr. films where it’s really stylized. I just wanted to create an environment that people believed.  That people believed there is a road outside and there was life going on outside that window.

MJW: laughing. When I saw the set I was actually a little bit crushed. It took me a little bit to wrap my head around it because it is so real to me — to see when Arwel [Wyn Jones] was putting the set going up [on twitter] it was — “Oh!  (clasps heart)  It is! It is fake.”

SL: I’m proud of that.

There are lots of moments. It’s funny because I hadn’t actually seen series one for awhile and then we watched it for the new series three and I watched series two as well. It’s quite interesting watching series two not having worked on it. I really liked A Scandal in Belgravia. The Hounds of Baskerville didn’t work for me. The Reichenbach Fall I actually thought… I really liked. I thought it was a really interesting energetic … I actually thought it was a quite good homage to what we did in series one. It’s weird because Toby [Haynes] who directed it never came back. It’s like with series three and I see the third one. You look at what somebody else would do and you go “I wouldn’t have done that” or “I would have done that.” Neville [Kidd, DP on His Last Vow] did some interesting things. He did things different to what I would do. One of the things I think about series three is that I think Nick Hurran, the director [of His Last Vow], was trying to get back to some of that and also Steven [Moffat] with the writing was trying to get back to the “this is what Sherlock does” kind of thing. With the whole thing about… when [Mary] shot [Sherlock] it’s this is how he sees the world, how Sherlock sees the world which I think on ep one and ep two you didn’t get as much. If there were ten episodes and you spent an episode on them getting back together and an episode on them getting married then it’s not a problem. But when you’ve only got three episodes and two episodes are spent basically doing a bit of housekeeping it’s interesting.

I’m very good friends with Mark Gatiss…

MJW (interrupts with fannish enthusiasm): The Tractate Middoth was so cool!

SL: Thank you. I mean Mark’s the one person out of everybody I’ve forged a very good friendship with from Sherlock. He’s one of the most charming men that I’ve ever met. He’s so generous and enormously talented. He’s one of those people that you’re really pleased to see every day. He’s just an all around great guy. I think we’re hoping that after The Tractate Middoth— that was his directorial debut and he asked me when we were shooting Sherlock whether I would do it and I said I’d love to. But he’s got other things planned so I think hopefully bigger and better things. He wants to actually do a horror movie at some point.

MJW: Oh that would be perfect. I would really love to see that.

SL: We’re both big fans of the Hammer House of Horror, that sort of thing, so we share a passion for that — well a lot of The Tractate Middoth— that real old fashioned Tales from the Crypt— perfect. It’s just great.

Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.

MJW: One of the scenes most beloved by fans from the third season is the pub crawl— drunk Sherlock. Can you tell me a little bit about those scenes? Do you hear the soundtrack before hand? Did you know that it would be a dubstep audio track? Did you have any idea?

SL: I had a bit of an idea. I mean we sort of talked about it but the concept of the pub crawl came out of … Colm [McCarthy] the director and myself talked about it a lot and we talked about this idea of them getting more and more drunk and that narrative becoming part of the way that we shoot it so… It’s all shot on the shift and tilt lenses. A shift and tilt lens is like an old-fashioned bellows lens and what it allows you to do is rather than the focus being front to back it tends to be on the side of the frame. They’re really annoying to shoot with because when you’re shooting actors it’s very difficult to keep things sharp but it was absolutely perfect for what we wanted to do. We had two days. One day in the location, which were all the pubs, I have to say there is miles more footage of that that they cut.

MJW: Please tell the powers that be that we want it! We Sherlock fans want it desperately!

SL: When I saw the show I was actually quite disappointed because we spent a whole day. We went to like twelve pubs and bars and we shot all these little scenes of them getting more and more and more drunk. And I think only four of them ended up in the film. Some of them were absolutely amazing.

MJW:  Can you tell us about any of them? Maybe one?

SL: I don’t know… it was a great day because it was a night shoot and we ended up starting at four in the afternoon so it was literally like being on their stag do without the pleasure of being able to drink. We’d go from bar to bar and we’d literally do one or two shots then we’d move to the next bar. I think what’s good about it is in terms of the process you can make it up as you go along. It was a very open experience to do. It’s like when we go up to the flat where he’s sick; by the time we’d got to that point we’d completely dismissed any idea of what was normal. It was this idea of being braver and braver where it was almost out of focus. I can remember Sue [Vertue] the producer turning about and going “I’m really concerned about this. I think we need to do one with a normal lens” and we were all like “no.” The problem is that you do one on the normal lens and what they’ll do is they’ll force you to use it in the end. You have to almost edit in-camera sometimes by limiting what you do and that way that gets on screen. The two of them were both just… I have a great working relationship with Benedict and Martin but I think that night I was in pain through laughing so much. Martin he’s just like… I mean the pair of them… One of my favorite moments is when they’re back at 221B with Alice and he falls asleep but he says “I’m being rude” like this (imitates Benedict playing Sherlock) It was finally a bit difficult to work at the time because it was so funny.

MJW: Was so much of it improv?

SL: A lot of it was, yeah. A lot of it was improvised. I mean you know we had a base idea of what we were doing but a lot of it was improvised. It was very fluid. Them at the bottom of the stairs and them falling down was completely improvised. That happened on the first take.

MJW: Was the Rizla game with the names…?

SL: That was scripted but in terms of what they were saying it wasn’t all scripted you know.

MJW: Martin in particular was fantastic in that scene.

SL: When you get people of Benedict and Martin’s calibre of actor if you put them in that situation they end up producing something better than you could ever have imagined. It’s one of the reasons we shoot two cameras on them all the time because you want to capture it straight away.  If you think about those scenes you want to be able to shoot those scenes and cross-shoot them so you get that dynamic. You don’t want to have to do that “actually that was a great moment when you did that Martin, can you do it again?” Because nine times out of ten Martin will say “what did I do?” because he won’t be aware really of what he did because he’s just in character and doing stuff. What you want to try and do in those situations is capture that moment and never feel like you didn’t get it.

MJW: About the drunk part, the scenes with the overlays that say “deaded” and “sitty thing”, do you have anything to do with that?

SL: No, that’s all post [production]. That will be Charlie [Philips], the editor [on The Empty Hearse or Mark Davis, the editor on The Sign of Three] — that would be Colm [McCarthy, the director of The Sign of Three] and the editor carrying up with that in the edit suite. The idea of the text on screen from the first series— it  originally came around from the fact that we had so much exposition to get on screen and so many shots of texts, of phones, but it that it was going to be so mind-numbingly boring shooting all of these cutaways. The problem is that you’ve got to hold the shot as long as— if you’ve got a text that’s three sentences long you’ve got to hold the shot long enough for somebody to read it which is very painful. At least by putting text on the screen you then allow a scene to continue and then have some text on the screen. I don’t think we pioneered it. I think it had been done before it’s just we used it to great effect. I’m a great believer that nothing is original. We’re all plagiarists at the end of the day. It’s all been done before at some point you just combine it in a different way.

Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.

MJW: This comes back to the issue of framing and your background in stills photography and every frame of the show is just…  What do you think about the fans having access to every single frame [of Sherlock] and remixing it, creating new animations out of it? I mean this is basically what the whole fandom is based on— is remixing your work. What do you think of that?

SL: Honestly I think they can do whatever they like with it. It’s not a piece of art that can’t be played around with. I think if somebody gets enjoyment out of taking something and then manipulating it and then doing something else with it and if it gives people…if people are interested in doing that then I have no problem with that at all. I’m flattered. That’s all I can say. I’m flattered that people find it interesting enough to do that.

MJW: I would go so far as to say that the foundation of what made the fandom build and build and build is having that kind of quality of stuff to work with.  I saw an interview with Moffat and Gatiss talking about how they weren’t so sure they had a heartthrob in Benedict Cumberbatch. It was maybe a bit of a surprise to them? But your work had a lot to do with that. Have you thought about that before? The lighting, the framing?

SL: I’ve never thought of it in a direct way but yes, obviously I mean I… it’s quite interesting because Benedict is very easy to light. Benedict’s got such an angular face that you can pretty much throw a light at it and he looks good (not that I do but) he’s got a very interesting face in terms of photography. Martin [Freeman], on the other hand, he’s got a great face but Martin takes a lot of care to make Martin look good and I spend a lot of time making Martin…you know I treat all my actors the same and I spend a lot of time trying to make them look as good as I can. Out of the two of them I spend more time on Martin than I do Benedict. But that’s just me doing my job at the end of the day. In terms of the series and in terms of the actors I’m going to make them look as good as I can.

When Martin got his BAFTA for best supporting actor he thanked me in his speech. I got like 20 text messages from people that were there going “Martin just name checked you in his acceptance speech” which is kind of unheard of. I was kind of taken aback at the time and I thought… It’s the kind of guy that Martin is that he did that. I was very grateful for Martin to actually recognize what I’d done.

When I came back to do series three I had an embrace with both Martin and Benedict on separate occasions when they came back where they both said they were incredibly pleased to see me again. What was really, really nice for me is that I worked on series three with the same two gentlemen that I worked with on series one. I mean they’ve gone like that (makes a gesture upwards indicating their rising stars) in that time but they’re still the same guys which shows a) how professional they are but also b) what great people they are.

MJW: I was wondering what you could tell me about working on The Tractate Middoth with Gatiss and the difference between working with him on Sherlock in that role and then working with him as a director.

SL: I’ve always worked with Mark as a writer and an executive producer and an actor so Mark is always around on set a lot on his episodes of Sherlock. He tends to be on the set every day in a writer-producer role and then when Mark acts he acts. I think the difference working with Mark on Tractate was that he wrote the adaptation and it’s also his production company and he’s also directing it. He wasn’t nervous. It was obviously a new experience for him, It was something he hadn’t done before and it was interesting to work with Mark in that way where when you work with directors that have done quite a few shows before they’ve grown up with a style of the way they work. Mark knows what he likes. He knows what he wants. I think the experience of being a director was a new experience for him. I think it will be different the next time we work together. It’s almost like he’s passed the test and he can go “right, I can relax now and get on with it.” Not that he wasn’t relaxed but somebody on their first job in a particular role, especially as a director… It was a wonderful shoot. Susie Liggat who produced it, who also produced the second episode of Sherlock, series three— wonderful lady. One of the things Mark is a great believer in is that it doesn’t need to be painful when you do a production. You don’t have to shout at people, you don’t have to have arguments, that it should be a pleasurable experience. Not all jobs are pleasurable experiences. A lot of the time they’re stressful, they’re kind of difficult. There’s a lot of politics. I think one of the things that Mark is a great advocate of is a job where you’re allowed to be creative and you don’t have to worry about anything else. That’s what I like about working with Mark. It’s about the creativity. The housekeeping is kept away from the set and dealt with elsewhere and you’re dealing with telling the story. Which is what you should be doing.

MJW: One of the things which struck me-— which is strange-— but the dust scenes. The dust scenes at 221B when Mrs. Hudson opens the windows for the first time and then the dust in the library [in The Tractate Middoth]. Is that a trope that’s part of your bag of tricks? How did you approach the scenes differently? Because they’re very, very different kinds of moods.

SL: Some DPs use a lot of atmos, a lot of smoke in the air so you see the shafts of light. I use it now and again. I tend to think of it as a bit theatrical a lot of the time. Obviously the point in Sherlock is that the room has been trapped for two years so you’re opening it up and it’s dusty. I am kind of fascinated by dust and the way it reacts with the light. I’ve spent some time shooting dust at high speed just on macros like dust particles floating around. You can watch them for hours. It’s like watching water moving around and it’s got such an organic motion to it. And again it’s that kind of detail that if you walked into that room for real, if it was a real room and the sun was really coming through and you moved the curtains and the dust then moved up into the air, the motes…you probably would look at them and you’d be noticing the fact that this dust is moving around.  On Tractate it was an idea that it was this… how do you tell that there is this thing there? How do you create this idea that there is this ethereal being there. You know, let’s chuck a load of dust in the air. (laughs)

MJW: (laughing) It worked!

SL: Yeah! You’re experimenting but it’s like his [William Garrett, the lead character’s] friend says (in Tractate) “trick of the light.” This idea that something is different and there’s a smell. There’s a texture and it’s adding that something else that you can’t… I mean quite often a director will say to me “I want to make it feel different. How do I make it feel different?” And you go well we could shoot it from a different way, we could change the lighting, we do do this but quite often they’re drastic changes. Ideally what I try and look for is subtle changes that make the audience go-— there’s something different here. Obviously on something like Tractate you play up with it and you make a big deal of it. Again it’s just trying to tell the story, trying to tell the story visually, or helping tell the story visually.

Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.

MJW: You’ve shot London in so many different ways and for so many different projects. I’m wondering if you could talk about that. For example in The Blind Banker looks one particular way— the lenses — I don’t know anything about the technical side of it but it’s very dreamy, in Hunted it’s stark. Could you talk a little bit about filming in London and how you approach it differently for different projects?

SL: London is-— well I’ve never had the privilege of shooting in New York but it’s probably the same -— it’s that London’s got so many different sides to it. It’s like crystal that you turn and you get little chinks and little bits and different parts of it every time you look at it. Depending on what the show is that I’m doing you know I’m the kind of person that’s seen so many different sides of London whether that’s on a personal level or whether that’s on a work level. I have a love-hate relationship with London. I don’t live in London. I wouldn’t want to live in London. I work quite a lot in London but I don’t want to live there because it’s kind of an impersonal place. Like New York in the sense that everybody’s doing this (head down looking forward) all the time and nobody has time for anybody else. I find that quite difficult to deal with emotionally as a person. I’ve been going to London since I was a young boy. My first experience of London was the big commercial parts like the Tower Bridge and then obviously as I’ve gotten older I’ve seen London more in terms-— on a personal level, living there for a short time and also in terms of working there and seeing different parts of it. London looks like lots of different things. It’s like that scene in Hunted where we were in that brand new office with all the floors and the glass. It was not dissimilar to the scene we had when the businessman got poisoned in Sherlock. [A Study in Pink] In fact it reminded me very much of that. It was that stark neutrality that you get. And you can go to other places in London like where we shot Sherlock — whether it’s underground. You get to see all these different things but you get to see them… I only ever try to look at them in terms of the story.

When I read a script, the first time I try to read it just in terms of the story like I was reading a book. I try not to over think about it technically in terms of how I would do that, how I would do that and I think that’s really important because the first time I read it I want to engage with it as you would as a viewer or as a person, as a human being. Then I go back and read it again and I start thinking about how I would do things creatively and technically. And I think that’s the same with London. If we have an environment that we look at I think how does it relate to the story? How do I tie it into the story? And it’s not always as straight forward as that because it’s down to logistics for instance that building we shot in in Hunted.  We had it for four hours. You have to turn up there— you can’t really light it because it’s twenty six floors up. You kinda go “right. what can we do with this space?” As I said earlier that’s often your best choice is having a situation where you have to do something, that you haven’t got the luxuries of having all the toys and the toolkit to do it with. It focuses your point of view about something. It’s strange because although I think about these things — it’s like framing. I talk about it like driving a car. When I operate a camera I don’t think about where I’m going to put the frame I just do it. It’s the same as when I get in the car. I don’t think how I work the accelerator and the clutch and the brake. Your feet do that. That’s a good thing. It becomes an instinctive thing that actually what you’re doing is you’re not going “I should be doing this because of this” you’re doing it as an automated response that you’ve developed which goes back to what I was saying about the human condition in story telling is that you’re reacting emotionally to an environment. Your emotional reaction to that environment is something, even though you’re not thinking about it, is something that you’re then relating in the way you shoot it, the way that you frame it. For me all the best painters, photographers, cinematographers, we look at all those examples of that work— there’s an emotional attachment there.

There’s a war photographer, Don McCullin, who did Biafra and Cambodia— a very celebrated war photographer whose exhibition I saw when I was about seventeen when I was at college. It was shots of starving Cambodian children, six by four foot prints. Amazing experiences but you look at these pictures and you see there’s something in every single one of them and I bought his book. It’s a great book to read. It’s called Unreasonable Behaviour. In the book he was interviewed by an American journalist. He had a Leica, which is quite famous, he was shot and the Leica took the bullet— saved his life. But the journalist said to him “oh you use Leica cameras— the best cameras you can get. Do you think that  makes you a better photographer?” He said “I can take a picture with a pinhole camera. The result would be exactly the same as what I would take with a Leica. It’s just the quality would be different. It’s what you see with your eye and feel with your heart.” I think that’s absolutely true.

The way that I work is that I relate to a situation with the way that I feel about it with my eye and my heart and that drives me to do what I do. I think that emotion is what’s important because that emotion -— you can’t quantify it but it’s what you might see and what you might like about my work is driven by that. It’s because I care about what I see and it affects me in a certain way.

MJW: It gives a depth to it… To be able to go back again and again and again. Obviously I’ve seen Sherlock hundreds of times by now probably but it makes it so compelling, that element. I was going to ask you about other influences. Do you ever consciously try to mimic a particular photograph or do you find yourself kind of absorbing that, or morphing that for yourself?

SL: I don’t actually find myself trying to copy anything. In terms of influences I’d say that Crewdson has probably had the most dramatic influence on me in terms of you could probably look at Crewdson’s work and then look at my work and see that there’s a similarity.

MJW: I’ve pulled side-by-side pictures to look at them.

SL: So Crewdson’s had a great influence but it’s never been a kind of… what I love about Crewdson’s work is that again there is this scale and this color and there’s everything. They’re paintings. I tend to be drawn to darker things you know dark in terms of contrast but also dark as in terms of subject. I find it more interesting. The kind of underbelly. There’s something I love about Crewdson’s work which is that there’s something not quite… it always feels slightly on edge. There’s something not quite right about it. I think it’s really interesting the idea that you… it’s about being as subtle as possible. And I think what Crewdson does so well is that he does lots of really dramatic things but he does them very subtly.  So what you’re actually getting and the fact that he creates this frame and does the shot and you look at it. A lot of time when you start off in terms of cinematography or photography… when I first started I wouldn’t put a light somewhere unless I thought it was justified because if you want your lighting to look real then really it should only come in the direction the sun comes in. Well you soon learn that if you do that you’re on a hiding to nothing because it’s very difficult to do that. What you tend to do is you tend to stick to that rule but then you bend it slightly which is what Crewdson does which is if you want to have a different color in the frame you can create different color in the frame. You don’t necessarily need to justify it. It can be there for an aesthetic reason. It can be there for all sorts of reasons. What you’re actually doing is you’re creating different things in the frame because you have the ability to do that. Visually Crewdson’s been a very big influence on me.

In terms of other people’s work — somebody asked me the other day to name cinematographers that I admire and Roger Deakins is a cinematographer that I have a great admiration for. Janusz Kaminski— I think some of Janusz’s work is absolutely amazing, the level of his work with [Steven] Spielberg… One of my favorite Kaminski films is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Have you seen it?

MJW: No, I haven’t.

SL: It’s my recommendation to you after this interview. It’s a story about a guy that has a stroke. He was the editor of Vogue. It’s a true story and it was a low budget fringe Polish film which Janusz Kaminski shot in between shooting one of his big blockbusters with Spielberg for like no money. It’s a great example of how somebody could have all the world to play with and then ends up on this small film. It’s a great piece of visual storytelling. Watch it and then we can talk further about it but it’s just breath-taking in its style, its ingenuity, everything. So. Great admiration for him. Sławomir Idziak who shot Three Colors: Blue, Black Hawk Down. Mainly because of his work with Kieślowski. I would say Kieślowski as a director is a huge influence on me. When I was at college I watched pretty much solely French and Polish films. I fell in love with the idea that they had something that no other films had. At that time they were certainly very different from the Western style of film. Kieślowski’s films are generally very bleak but they’re usually very honest. Again, they’re about the human condition. They’re about this feeling about something. What you get from them is this… He tells this story about the club that we’re all in. The irony and the tragedy of life, the fact that you only realize you love somebody when you’ve lost them and all this kind of thing.

You know when you go to the cinema with a friend and you see a really great film and you walk out and you don’t say a word to each other and then you think about it for the next five days. You think about it when you wake up in the morning — that’s a great film for me. It’s something that’s made you think, it’s moved you whereas you can go out and see another film and you could be talking about it for five minutes and you might have enjoyed it but it wasn’t a great piece of cinema.  I can remember watching 21 Grams with my wife after we’d had our first daughter and I never told her what it was about. I cry very easily when I watch films. I get very emotional. We watched the film and that at the end of the night Rachel went to bed. She didn’t speak to me. She wouldn’t talk to me. Got up the next day, she still wouldn’t talk to me. She was really angry. Two days after we watched it, we had a row and she said she was very angry about the fact that I’d made her watch this film, that if she’d have known what it was about, she wouldn’t have watched it. She’s a mother— lots of reasons why she found it difficult to watch but what was interesting is that it really had an effect on her. Over the next couple of days she then realized what that effect was and she dealt with it. And then we had a conversation where she was like “I really think that’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s moved me so much.” Those kinds of moments are the things that inspire me. Those moments that I go — (whoa) whether they’re uncomfortable or not, they’re real. They’re interesting. I think that’s one of the things that drives my passion to so what I do is that I love it when you can shoot something, you can capture that moment and then people get to see that. People get to enjoy that.

MJW: I’m thinking about a moment that’s haunted so many people. It’s the matchbox moment. Is it Repo Man or Pulp Fiction that have the moment when the light kind of shines in and it’s not ever explained. Are we ever going to hear what that’s about or is it there to make us go “ooh”-— clever!

SL: I don’t actually know the answer and even if I did I wouldn’t be allowed to say it or anything. From a technical perspective it was a challenge, this matchbox opening. It was kind of inspired from that Pulp Fiction idea of you open the briefcase and you get this shiny— you don’t know what’s in there. Is it God, is it gold, what is it? I remember somebody telling me about Blade Runner. There’s a scene in Blade Runner when Deckard has been beaten up and he takes a drink from the glass and you see this little macro shot of blood dripping in the water and people had written about it for years, film school students have written about the meaning of the blood and the water— it’s about the fact that he was a Replicant— it’s like the idea of a baby and that. Ridley Scott was asked about 20 years after. Somebody plucked up the courage and said to him that shot, the shot with the blood in the glass what does it actually mean? And he said “it doesn’t mean anything. It was just a good shot.” I think that’s the same thing with the matchbox. Sometimes the best things are when you don’t given an answer. If you tell the audience what it is then they know. The payoff is already there. If you leave people-— your imagination… It’s one of the reasons why I think the first Alien film is still the best sci-fi film ever made. Because very rarely do you see the monster. Same as with Jaws. The idea of not seeing something is much more powerful than… the idea of not knowing “well what does that mean? what was in the matchbox?”

MJW: That’s going to fuel people for two more years.

SL: Yeah.

MJW: That and why did the plant move in the third episode. You did Sherlock and Middoth and Pemberley right after?

SL: I did Sherlock, episodes one and two, and I went straight into Pemberley which I did for twelve weeks and I had gone on holiday for two weeks and then I went on to Tractate.

MJW: How long did you have to shoot Tractate?

SL: Nine days.

Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.
Photo of Steve Lawes by Robert Viglasky. Used with permission.

MJW: Ha! Wow. And Pemberley — phenomenal. To go from Sherlock to Pemberley— that’s a totally different mind space, right?

SL: Very different mind space. This was a director that I’ve worked with a lot before, Daniel Percival who’s a very good friend of mine who’s probably my favorite director to work with. He’s an amazing guy. The big BBC period drama of the year. Both of us had never done a period drama before. We’d done things that were kind of period but not like big frocks and all that kind of thing. We talked a lot about what we liked and what we didn’t like about other things. There’s a show over here called Downton Abbey which is very popular— and in the States. From a technical perspective my problem with something like Downton is that it’s too bright. It’s always too airy and bright. When we discussed Pemberley we talked about trying to make it feel real but not real at the expense of it feeling dull. You can make a show like that and say we’re only going to do what would be real and you’d end up with something that would look quite drab like a kitchen sink drama. It’s a combination of wanting to make something look really rich and interesting but also for people to go “actually I believe that.”

[For example] 98% of the candlelight scenes in Pemberley are just candle light [with no extra artificial lighting]. I was working with very fast lenses and shooting at high ISO with the Alexa so that we could actually capture that feeling of candle light. All the day stuff is… it’s kind of what I do anyway. I tend not to light on the set. I tend to on day interiors, like with Sherlock, I always tend to have big light sources off the set and bring them onto the set because that’s what the sun does. What happens in a normal room is you have light from a cloud moving being reflected which is soft and then direct light from the sun. So what I tend to do like on Sherlock I have two big lights up above the windows which create the soft light from the clouds and then I have the two very punchy lights which create the sun coming in. The truth is that where that building is on North Gower Street the sun would never hit that window. But that’s artistic license. That’s when you kind of go right, I’m going to be theatrical about it a little bit to make it work because it looked better. It looked more interesting like that, creates more shape and more depth.

MJW: So I get the sense that 221B looks a bit different from season one to season three. Was that conscious or am I just seeing things? It seems lighter…

SL: Yes, it’s different for lots of reasons. It’s different for me for one thing because the camera’s different.

MJW: I was going to ask about that because you used an Arri Alexa but you used a different camera for season one, right?

SL: It was a Sony F35 on season one and then the Alexa on season two and three. The Alexa makes a difference but also to be honest a lot of it comes down to the director as well.  A great example [of how a director’s shot choice impacts the look of a scene] is when [Sherlock and Mycroft are] playing Operation in The Empty Hearse. Jeremy [Lovering] wanted to do shots which would track right away across the windows all the time so when you do that you can’t have the lamp right outside the window so you end up basically changing your lighting due to the nature of the shots. What Paul [McGuigan] and I would do quite often on series one is we’d do a big wide which would allow you to create more of that sharp shape and then you’d be into close-ups. But we very rarely moved the wide shots. The wide shots were always static. It’s driven by lots of things also because Jeremy wanted things to look different. It’s a weird conversation because when I met Jeremy he was very much like “oh we know what’s gone before and we want to kind of change things” and I was of the opinion that I don’t think there was that much to change really. Certainly in terms of the studio because I think we got the studio right. I mean you can always develop stuff but I think in series one the studio looked pretty good. That has an effect on it. Also you very rarely do things the same twice. It’s like if you’re ever given the opportunity to go back and do something again you’re going to do it differently. Even if you thought you had the right idea in the first place the thing is you’ll probably end up doing it differently again just because that’s human nature.  You’ll go “well why don’t I try this or why don’t I do that?” I’ve not really looked at the two (seasons) side-by-side in that respect. I think they do look different. I don’t think the episodes in series three have the contrast series one has. I’d say that’s probably down to the director. With series one Paul was up for going, for pushing it that little bit further.

MJW: So what did it feel like to be a wedding photographer [Sherlock episode, The Sign of Three]?

SL: The wedding was actually-— we spent a week in that environment shooting that wedding.

MJW: For the schedule, that’s a lot.

SL: Yes. One of the four weeks was spent in that location shooting the wedding. And it was a bit like being at a wedding. It was great to begin with, then it got very boring and tedious and then we ended up with a night shoot at the end of it which I enjoyed enormously with the dance and Sherlock’s speech on the stage. It was a nice thing to do something different. I found the environment quite difficult because it kind of goes against my instincts— the yellow on the wall, all the windows. The director wanted it to look very bright and have this feel to it. That goes against what I would normally want to do because I like things to be darker and more contrasty. You have to admit to yourself that it’s a wedding and a wedding needs to feel like that so… We had a lot of fun with the time slice. That was a nice thing to do. It was a nice thing to play around with that you wouldn’t normally do. It takes a long time.

MJW: The rig looked really complicated.

SL: Yes. It takes about half a day to set it up. And you take four shots and that’s it.

MJW: How does it work?

SL: Basically it’s 50 stills cameras in an arc, all with the same lens on, all with the same setting. They either all take the photo at the same time or they can be tripped like at a 25th of a second or a 50th of a second after each other.  [When the computer compiles them together] it’s as if they were single frames of the camera. What it feels like is that the camera is actually taking fifty frames on this track but it’s doing it much faster than what a real camera could do and also what it’s doing is it’s freezing the motion. It was originally done on The Matrix and lots of things like that. It was an idea that Colm [McCarthy] had you know— he kind of pushed for it and said he wanted to do it, thought it would be interesting and it was. It was a nice thing to play around with. Quite time consuming to set up and over very quickly.

The nice thing about Sherlock is that it’s one of those shows where there’s no such thing as a left field idea. It’s like in The Empty Hearse with John in the bonfire. We shot that in the studio. I wanted to shoot it on this thing I got called Lensbaby which is this very primitive shift and tilt lens you can manipulate yourself to get that claustrophobia and that idea of where are you. There’s very few shows you can do what we do on Sherlock on and get away with it. And one of the great things about Sherlock is you can really put out some left field ideas and people don’t look at you with blank faces. They look at you and smile.

MJW: What’s the oddest idea you’ve had do you think?

SL: Oddest? On Sherlock or in general?

MJW: Sherlock.

SL: I don’t know really… I can’t say anything comes to mind because none of them really seem odd to me.

In terms of ideas that are different to what you would normally do— I think the Sherlock stills thing and again on series three the two cameras together. It was one of those ideas I probably thought wouldn’t work in the beginning. I didn’t know whether it would work. But it’s actually…  When I was doing Pemberley we went out with a meal with the actors and the guy that plays Alveston [James Norton] he’d found out that I’d shot Sherlock and he was a huge fan and he didn’t realize that I’d shot Sherlock and he was talking about the Sherlock vision and why it worked and I said I basically came up with that idea and and he was like really (laughing) and I was like yeah I did. Yeah, that was one of mine and Paul [McGuigan’s] ideas and he was really kind of taken aback by it and I’d never had that before. And it was weird because it had become an accepted thing, it had become a normal thing. Given the tight situation everybody could come up with it— with an idea as good as that. I come up with as many shit ideas as I do good ideas. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to filter out the shit ideas before I verbalize them. (laughs) It’s important to work in a regime where you don’t feel threatened to come up with an idea when you’re going to get shot down and criticized for it. There are some sets where you come up with an idea and people snigger and you’re not going to come up with an idea again because you’re too intimidated. I think it’s important not to be intimidated and to feel that there’s no such thing as a bad idea. There shouldn’t be, you know.

MJW: Incredible stuff. I don’t want to take up too much of your time but I have one last question that I would like to ask-— this is one of those imagination ones. If you could have worked on any film in the past or with any director who would it be?

SL: Does it have to be the same film and the same director?

MJW: Nope. Not at all.

SL: Ok. Director would be Kieślowski without a doubt. Film? I’d probably say something like Lawrence of Arabia. Just because it’s I think it’s rare in cinema. There are few films like that.

MJW: I think it’s incredible.

SL: In terms of their performances, just everything about it it’s amazing you know. If I were going to choose a film it would probably be Lawrence of Arabia.

If I think in terms of somebody my whole idea of my work is based on it would be very difficult for me to work with [Kieślowski], well he’s dead now obviously but I think I would have been… there’s very few people I’m in awe of or starstruck by but I think Kieślowski would be one of those people. It’s quite interesting the films that have stood the test of time. There are lots of good films out there. There are very few films that you watch now that you can still say are as amazing as they were back then. But to those people who are part of those films it must be an amazing experience to be part of that.

I feel partly like that about Sherlock because the amount of times it gets talked about in conversation… it’s the kinds of things I appreciate like you said of Pemberley. It’s very easy for people to consider that you only just do one thing. You may even do that thing very well but it’s actually nice for people to realize that you can do more than one thing. That’s what happened right after Pemberley and Sherlock went out. When all three (including The Tractate Middoth) went out at Christmas. I had lots of unsolicited emails from people saying how much they loved them but what was interesting was when they talked about the contrast between Pemberley and Sherlock. Saying how interesting it was to see how differently I did that. It’s a huge compliment because that’s what I try and do. I don’t try and do the same thing all the time otherwise life would be rather boring.


Steve Lawes
 is a UK based Director of Photography whose credits include: Sherlock (BBC); Death Comes to Pemberley (BBC); The Street (BBC); Strike Back (HBO) and the feature film Skellig. For his work on Sherlock Steve received a BAFTA Cymru Award and a RTS Craft nomination.

Mary Jo Watts (mid0nz) is a 43-year-old, American BBC Sherlock fangirl. A blogger with an academic background in media studies and film theory, MJ writes metaanalyses about Sherlock’s visuals, soundtrack, props and set dressings.

Steve Lawes is a freelance cinematographer. The opinions he expresses above are his and do not reflect those of the BBC or Hartswood Films.

19 responses to Each Frame Tells a Story: An Interview with Cinematographer Steve Lawes

  1. roni says:

    It was an amazing read, both informative and fun. I’m grateful to both of you. Greetings from a Sherlock fan in Hungary.

  2. How does this not have more attention? (Well, it did come out today, and people are linking to it on tumblr). This is an amazing, amazing interview, with so much detail about the technicalities of the TV industry. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    As a person who’s interested in all forms of storytelling, the focus on framing and technical choices particularly caught my eye. I’ve always wondered just how much say producers and directors had in the angles of shots, the lighting, mood and tone and etc. I’m a writer, so everything is a one-man job, from the plotting (scriptwriting, I guess) and the word choice – what details do I focus on? What details about settings do I share? One thing not often taught in introductory writing courses is the issue of narrative distance – how far away is the “lens” of the narrator away from the object being observed? Usually readers pick up on romantic interest when the narrative distance lessens, and more time is spent detailing minute characteristics such as a particular curl of the hair, etc. – an indicator of zoning in. So it made be curious to think of all these executive decisions being carried out by different groups of people.

    One stark difference I noticed between the pilot and A Study In Pink was that the shots seemed to be less focused, of sorts, and seemed to be that “alright” that Steve Lawes mentions in the interview. There’s an exceptional quality to the shooting of Sherlock that I couldn’t pinpoint that well. This interview elucidated most of the workings behind the mystery for me.

    Also, I adore that Steve Lawes is gushing so much about Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch – particularly Martin Freeman, haha. MF seems to be a skilled method actor who memorizes his script as soon as he gets it and just becomes “in character”. I can’t wait to see the cut stag do scenes.

    Once again, thank you so much for sharing this interview. We hear a lot from the directors, producers and actors but not from the photographers. Thank you.

  3. Eric Tan says:

    Thanks, I really enjoyed reading this. The results prove that Steve and everyone in the cast and crew absolutely love their jobs, and we are much better for it.

  4. esther says:

    Thankyou! I haven’t read the whole post yet (I’m at work) but the opening paragraph fit me to a T. I am glad you said what I’ve been thinking but don’t know how to express! I am absolutely addicted to Sherlock, and re-watch my favorite episodes almost daily. and yes it’s “the look” that got me hooked, too! I will certainly be reading more of your blog now that I’ve discovered it!

  5. OMG, I’m actually flattened like a pancake by this fantastic and in-depth interview. I have to read it about eight more times to take everything in, I think. I had no idea how very complex and complicated all of this is.

    “They might not be able to describe what the differences are but they know by seeing what those differences are.”

    That would be me. I’m a total idiot regarding all the technical aspects and my head is spinning at the moment. But it’s so interesting to get an idea about all the things one takes as a given and has no idea how they come to pass.

    One thing I can say is that I would never ever turn up on a shot as a spectator after reading this (not that I did before), because I really wouldn’t want to make their job even more difficult for all this wonderful creative people. I have really got a new appreciation of all the hard work going on behind the camera now.

    Thank you very much to both of you!

  6. Wow, this was absolutely fascinating! So much to dig your teeth into; thanks for the links to terms referenced that might be confusing or new to us. It really highlights the importance of the cinematographer in the vision/tone/look of the series; we owe him so much for his brilliant work on Sherlock in particular, but much fewer people know his name (hopefully this brilliant interview will help with that! How wonderful that he agreed to speak with you so candidly about his work!).

    I loved it that he mentioned how Martin name-checked him in his acceptance speech and Benedict called him to thank him after the first episode–they at least know they owe him a lot for making them look great! Very funny that it takes him more time to work on Martin, lol! Thanks, Benedict’s bone structure. And Lawes’ response to the question about people remixing his work was so very touching.

    Wonderful interview. Hope you do some more interviews, if that’s even possible. You’re clearly very easy to talk to and extremely knowledgeable, patient, and asking the right questions to get people to open up about their craft! I adore this show. In my opinion it’s the best thing on television. So few other shows (and even films) really agonize about all these details (pushing the envelope in writing, acting, filming–deliberately doing things differently so that every single shot has layered meanings). I love analyzing exactly why and how everything comes together to work so well. Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. moosh says:

    Thankyou thankyou thankyou. Absolutely agree this interview should be more widely read, as it’s so interesting and detailed on the process of creativity in screenwork. One of the most enjoyable articles I’ve read for a while and I feel I’ve learned from it as well. What an eloquent interviewee Mr Lawes is!

  8. segmation says:

    I can’t wait to see this cinematographer’s – Jimmy McGovern’s Epic ‘Banished’. Steve is really talented. Thanks for sharing this awesome blog!

  9. kellyconferencevideo says:

    Reblogged this on Kelly Conference Video and commented:
    Fascinating interview. Especially to see how Steve got into this position by just plugging away and ending up in a dream job…

  10. obzervashunal says:

    fantastic post and interview. Just making my way to season #2. There’s just something about the BBC, ’cause they got this one right!

  11. cmselby says:

    What an impressive thorough job you did. My son is an aspiring film maker. This will be required reading for him in the not-too-distant future. Cheers to you both!

  12. words4jp says:

    this is an awesome post. I am in love with this show as well and have a son in college majoring in film – he will be watching one of these episodes in a film genre class which is focusing on ‘mysteries’. i cannot wait to discuss it with him. He likes cinematography, as well as editing.

  13. I really enjoyed reading this interview! I’ve never watched BBC Sherlock before, but this whole concept of shooting for emotion and keeping it organic—I liked it. Thanks for sharing.

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