The Beginning of a Beautiful Relationship
“The Great Game” (TGG) has it all. It was the first episode of Sherlock filmed in Series One, and as I write during the filming of Series Four, to my mind it remains the best. It’s got a complex twisty time bomb of a plot. Mark Gatiss’s dialog pops with characteristic wit and a droll darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is captivating, a petulant, preening, terribly pretty live wire. Martin Freeman plays the stalwart, sensible and mostly sleepless Dr. John Watson. The detective and his blogger have only recently met, they’re young, and John only has the vaguest sense that he will gladly endure years upon years of Sherlock’s… Sherlockiness.
Cumberbatch and Freeman are handsome men handsomely shot. TGG is gorgeous. 221b, London—they’re rich environments—contrasty, dark yet inviting. Painterly. Painterly. The cinematography of TGG is painterly. I can’t think of another word for it and given that the center of the plot is a mystery surrounding a “lost” Vermeer, I’ll stick with the term.
By the time the credits were rolling during my first viewing of TGG, I had fallen hopelessly in love with every aspect of Sherlock. Though amusingly dazed by its cliff-hanger, I managed to pause the screen right when the director of photography’s name appeared. I wrote his name down: Steve Lawes.
When Martin Freeman accepted his BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, he made the unusual move of specifically thanking Steve, “a fantastic DoP who managed to light me well.” I’d call that an understatement. For his work on Series One Steve Lawes won a BAFTA Cymru award and an RTS Craft nomination.
I couldn’t get the show off my mind. Finally, after Series Two aired in 2012, at 42 years old, I joined the Sherlock fandom, my first, on tumblr. I began blogging obsessively about the show, particularly its cinematography. When Series Three began filming I learned that Lawes was returning to the show as the Director of Photography for the first two episodes.
You know how you play that game– “if you could talk to anyone over dinner who would it be?” Well that someone for me was Steve. Once filming wrapped, I packaged up all my Sherlock blog posts that had anything to do with his work, sent the list to him, and asked for an interview. He agreed to talk after Series Three aired. The resulting interview, “Each Frame Tells a Story,” went well, was very well received, so we decided, much to my fannish elation, to continue our conversation.
Now I know film canon pretty well. I studied film theory in grad school—from early silent cinema to the usual Hollywood suspects. I’m fluent in the lingo from “aspect ratios” to “zooms”, but I desperately wanted to learn to speak cinematographer. Steve agreed to teach me. I spent the summer and fall cramming over piles and piles of production-focused cinematography blogs, textbooks and manuals, before we were officially to begin our work in the winter. My intellectual research could never have prepared me for the joyful journey ahead. I was to learn how to see Sherlock, a show I love dearly, in a whole new light. Through light.
In the brutally cold winter of February, 2015 Steve and I sat down together in my living room in Ithaca, NY. I’d gathered about 100 screen caps of TGG and we discussed each one of them before watching the episode together. This (incredibly) long transcript (about 100 printed pages!) is the result of some of the hours we’ve spent together happily geeking out. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as we enjoyed making it!
The Great Game