Sean Bobbitt – The Camera as Observer – movieScope
Sean Bobbitt is probably best known for his collaboration with British director Steve McQueen, and their latest, 12 Years a Slave, is receiving all sorts of awards buzz, including cinematography nominations in the recently announced Satellite and Independent Spirit awards. movieScope caught up with the UK-based Texan at Camerimage, where he was not only sitting on one of the competition juries and running workshops for ARRI and Kodak, but was also in the running for the coveted Golden Frog Award.
You started out working in docs?
I actually started out as news cameraman working freelance for the American networks, based out of London. I did that for eight or nine years, then transitioned into documentaries. I tried desperately to get into drama for many years, and was miraculously lifted out of docs by Michael Winterbottom. He was looking for a documentary cameraman to do Wonderland [and] he chose me.
How did you find the transition?
I was fortunate because Wonderland used a very documentary-style approach. What was being asked of me was to do what I could do. At the same time, I was presented with the structure of feature-filmmaking. It was a fantastic introduction, and a very forgiving one, so a lot of the things I did not know about I was able to learn very quickly. I thought I was ready to get into drama, and within the first day I realised how badly prepared I was, but it did open doors into a whole different world.
In your early career you worked mostly with video; now it’s mostly film. How did you find the difference between tape and celluloid?
One of the biggest differences was one of contrast ratio. You always had a very limited band of light you could work with on the tape formats. When you go to film, you have everything. The exposure latitude is amazing, the colour depth i remarkable; in a lot of ways it is easier to shoot film because the film negative has so much information on it.
These days, the digital formats are catching up very quickly. The exposure latitudes are approaching film but, irrespective of what the manufacturers say, film still has the edge in its ability to retain that latent image, particularly in the highlights. This whole discussion of film versus digital has bee going on for so long that I find it rather tedious.
The only thing I find very sad is that we are losing film. There was a brief period of time when, as cinematographers, we had the most incredible range of choices, but it’s disappearing very quickly.
Whenever a choice is taken away, that is to the detriment of the art. To lose film is a very sad thing. It’s not just the stock manufacturers. The real issue is of the labs. Kodak can survive because they have guarantees from the major studios, but if the labs keep closing at the rate they are now, then it becomes a fait accompli I hope there will be a new model developing for small, bespoke labs with much lower overheads that are able to survive in an increasingly frail market for film.
You’ve collaborated with Steve McQueen on many projects; how was the experience of working on 12 Years a Slave?
This was a remarkably effortless film. You see it in the film itself; there’s a simplicity to it. From the beginning, it is one of the things Steve and I have spoken about; the simplicity and the beauty.
Whenever we were faced with an issue as to what to do, it was, keep it simple, make it beautiful. Also, when you have material like that, which has a truth and an honesty to it, and you have actors with the abilities of those we had, and a script of such strength and simplicity… although a daunting story it is a simple story: man has freedom, man loses freedom, man finds freedom again. Within that, it is an epic as well. The degradations, the horrors, the deprivations, the humiliations; the narrative drives itself. You don’t need to sensationalise it, you just simply need to tell it. There are no tricks in there. It’s quite a frank camera that’s an observer, allowing the actors to get on with the really important thing which is the performance.
In modern films there does seem to be too much camera movement and shaky visuals… I do a lot of hand-held camerawork, which is part of that documentary background, but I’ve always attempted to make it as stable as I can, so that you’re not looking at the camera, you’re looking at what the camera sees. There are a couple of extended hand-held scenes in 12 Years, which I hope people don’t see as being hand-held, but simply perceived within the emotional content of the performance. The hand-held camera has been so abused over the years, but it is a very effective way to tell stories.
When used intelligently it is a very powerful tool. If you look at The Place Beyond the Pines, which I did with Derek Cianfrance, that’s almost 90 per cent hand-held. It meant that the actors could have an amazing amount of freedom in the confines of the space, and that the camera is never ahead of the action. It’s always responding to the action; that becomes part of the storytelling, and the audience never gets ahead of the actors.
Everything is being revealed as it is being revealed to the actors. I’m always asked, what is the key to successful hand-held camerawork? The answer is, put the camera on your shoulder and leave it there for 30 years. The digital revolution is making films more accessible, but do you think it’s resulting in the younger generation of cinematographers losing the craft of filmmaking?
There is that problem. If you don’t understand the basics of exposure, for example, and have only ever shot with auto exposure; if you don’t understand the basics of colour temperature because you’ve only ever shot with auto white balance; if you don’t understand the complexity of lenses and focus because you’ve only ever shot autofocus; then yes, you will be lacking dramatically in the traditional skills of cinematography.
Students on the media courses in the UK are being very badly served. They’re spending an awful lot of money and coming away with no skills at all. If you have talent, things come easier. If you have a sense of composition, if you can see light, if you can see colour and mix all those things together, then the technical aspects of making that into an image are simplified through the digital system. This alleged democratisation of the production process through the introduction of cheap digital cameras simply hasn’t paid off yet. It may change, but now people aren’t being well served by the existing educational system, in terms of creating cinematographers. When young cinematographers ask me how to get into the industry I say, just shoot. Shoot stuff. Shoot lots and lots and lots of stuff, and then look at it critically, and learn from the mistakes you make, and hopefully make really big mistakes. 12 Years a Slave opens in UK cinemas on January 10•