From the News Cameraman in the early eighties, covering events ranging from the Lebanon War to The Troubles, narrowly escaping death on several occasions, to multi-award nominated cinematographer for 12 Years a Slave, Sean Bobbitt’s journey was anything but unadventurous and a classic story of luck and opportunity seizing.
Now 55, Bobbitt left the world of hard news reportage for the US TV networks in the 1980’s for a less dangerous career in documentaries, but soon received a phone call from Michael Winterbottom who was looking for a documentary-influenced cinematographer for his new feature Wonderland. Bobbitt has never looked back since. After seeing it, British video artist Steve McQueen felt prompted to track down Bobbitt and ask him to collaborate. Bobbitt’s first collaboration with McQueen was Western Deep (2002), which brought the two men to the bottom of one of the world’s deepest gold mines: Tau Tona in South Africa. Bobbitt would go on to shoot the majority of McQueen’s installation works, including Charlotte (2004), Gravesend (2007), Static, and Giardini (both from 2009). He also acted as the cinematographer on all three of McQueen’s feature films to date, including Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Bobbitt has remained busy since first breaking into dramatic filmmaking, working with directors such as Derek Cianfrance (most recently in 2012 on The Place Beyond the Pines), Neil Jordan, Spike Lee, and Barry Levinson. In 2012, he won a European Film Award for Best Technical Achievement in Cinematography for Shame. He received an Emmy nomination for his work on the miniseries Sense and Sensibility (2008) and three nominations from BAFTA, most recently for 12 Years a Slave.
In Shame and Hunger Bobbitt famously employed single long fixed-camera position takes in medium or long shot: the scene of “verbal tennis match” between a defiant Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a perplexed priest in Hunger is 17-minute long. Bobbitt’s philosophy behind the approach was that we had reached a point where most film-makers have lost trust in the audience and if they did not keep cutting and changing the point of view the audience will get bored and disengage from the film. Also, he had always felt that the art of filmmaking was all about focus.
The work on 12 Years a Slave was altogether a different game. It involved a painstaking exploration of various Southern locations and recreation of believable period sets, as well as shooting scenes in different light over a number of different hours in a day and finding rendering a non-Caucasian skin tone on film a huge challenge. Sean Bobbitt says he tends to light for areas, as opposed to for a specific face, as he has always felt that the camera is there to observe, and not to enforce.
Nowadays Bobbitt’s best work has an almost dreamy intimacy, as he is gradually perfecting his art of “blending into the background”. By putting the actors at ease and letting them forget about the cameraman’s presence they are able to open up and act themselves.