A day after 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, New York Film Academy Los Angeles students were treated to a private screening of the film at Warner Brothers studios followed by a Q&A with Sean Bobbitt, the film’s acclaimed cinematographer (fresh from winning the Spirit award for his work the previous day).
Sean Bobbitt is a British cinematographer, born in America, but grew up all over the world including England where his father was in the oil industry and worked abroad. He spent years working as a news and documentary cameraman before moving into narrative. He met Steve McQueen thirteen years ago when the director of 12 Years a Slave was doing art installations. After seeing Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland, Bobbitt’s first narrative feature, McQueen’s wife admired his work and encouraged McQueen to meet Bobbitt. During his first meeting with McQueen, Bobbitt recalls thinking the director was “Either an absolute genius or an absolute lunatic, but either way it was going to be interesting doing something with him.”
Throughout the years, Sean Bobbitt and Steve McQueen have developed a potent cinematic language that is such a breath of fresh air. An example of this is their propensity for long takes. Regarding this, Bobbitt said, “I think a part of the reason it is so powerful is because of that simplicity. We’re not used to it anymore. We’re used to the edit, the edit, the edit, so when you walk away from that people really look at it because it’s unusual, it’s different. And I think by extending those shots, it draws people into the scene, hopefully.” In regards specifically to the long shot in 12 Years a Slave in which actress Lupita Nyong’o’s character gets relentlessly whipped Bobbit said, “What we think happens is by not putting an edit here, particularly in scene of extreme violence, the audience is pulled in further and further into the story. As soon as you put a cut in, they are subconsciously reminded that it’s a film and that they don’t need to be upset because it’s a film. If there’s no cut, there’s no escape.”
Bobbitt discussed the thrill of exploring different techniques with different directors. Different from McQueen’s style, on “A Place Beyond the Pines” director Derek Cianfrance would run take after take and experiment with improve. “Derek is someone who you go into a scene and you just go at it. All handheld, thirty-five millimeter, two-perf, and we would literally just put another mag on a go and go. But he had a reason for that and a method to it that was so fascinating to watch,” Bobbitt said. “The actors were really able to explore the scene itself and come around to a performance.”
After being asked about the sacred relationship between the cinematographer and director Bobbitt said, “From day one it has to do with personality. If you get on with a director and you see the same things, or you over time start to see the same things. It does take time and it takes effort from both people. It’s important as a cinematographer that you get as long of a pre-production period as you can. On average, if you do not have five weeks of pre-production with the director, you don’t have enough time. Because as you become closer to the (shoot) day, your access (to the director) becomes less and less. So you’ve got to come in with ideas.”
A student asked Bobbitt what he looks for when choosing a project to work on, to which he said, “I have always been very choosy about the projects I’ve done. I have waited months, unemployed, for the right films. And I have designed my life so that I can go for months without an income. And I think that’s the key. Because you’re going to be giving your life, or you should be giving your life, to whatever film you’re going to be doing. So do the films you think are worth it, in any point in your career. The only caveat I would give to that is that in the early part of your career as a cinematographer, shoot anything. It’s about experience, and the only way you get experience as a cinematographer is by shooting. Nothing else.”
Bobbitt said that he reads every script that he receives and that, “The first time I read it I don’t read it as a cinematographer. I just read it… thinking is this a good story? Did this move me in some way? Is this interesting, is this original, is there something here that’s worth the effort?”
What was blatantly apparent during the Q&A was how extremely authentic Sean Bobbitt is. Clearly this permeates through his work and allows him to create such meaningful art. It was a pleasure to hear him speak and he offered sage advice to the audience who clung to his every word. A giant within his craft, Sean Bobbitt’s work has elevated the cinematic art form and his future is now brighter than ever.