ONFILM Interview: Sean Bobbitt, BSC

Published on website: March 25, 2014
Categories: ONFILM
Sean Bobbitt, BSC. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

“Cinema is really just a façade – light flickering on a screen. But because we invest it with ideas and emotions, it has the power to put images into our heads that will be there forever. Choices are based on instinct and immersion in the ideas of the script and director. I think film is better for the types of projects I work on. I prefer the way it looks, and I like what happens when you overexpose and underexpose it. It’s what I perceive as quality.”

Sean Bobbitt, BSC began his career as a news cameraman and documentary filmmaker. His narrative film credits include Wonderland, Hunger, Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Oldboy. His work on 12 Years a Slave for director Steve McQueen received critical acclaim and recognition from many industry organizations. In 2012, he won the European Film Award for Best Cinematographer. He also earned an Emmy® nomination for cinematography for the TV mini-series Sense & Sensibility.

[All these films were shot on KODAK Motion Picture Film.]

A Conversation with Sean Bobbitt, BSC

How far back can you trace your interest in photography?

My father always had a camera. We left Texas when I was 6 years old and moved to Saudi Arabia. My father had bought a Nikkormat, which is still kicking around the house, as a way of documenting our journeys. Once we were in Saudi Arabia, we traveled during our holidays and visited the rest of the world. My father was quite keen. It was interesting to me that he was interested in photography. So I sort of dabbled in it, you know, borrowed the camera and took some photos, but never created a passion for it.

Then, when I was at school in England doing my O-levels and my A-levels, two of my best friends were really good photographers, so I bought myself a camera. The first camera I ever bought was a Canon A-1, which was this magical and fantastic piece of equipment, and a couple of prime lenses. We used to go around and just take black-and-white photos, but there was nothing serious about it. My intention was never to be a cinematographer. I was a great pseudointellectual and heading towards becoming a writer, a director or philosopher. That was the path I thought my life was going to take.

Did the move to Saudi Arabia at a young age give you an outsider’s perspective?

Absolutely. I’ve always, not in a sad way, rather considered myself an outsider. Having lived in a lot of different countries and a lot of different cultures, of course, you assimilate over time. But there’s always that initial period where you are an outsider and because of that, you’re almost given this privilege to look at things in a very frank and different way. And I think that that’s why when I started doing news, I loved it, because you’re actually at places where things are happening. You’re seeing history unfold right in front of you and you’re making your own decisions about what is happening. I think I’m a very curious person in that regard. News and documentaries satisfied that amazing curiosity. And it also heightened the outsider thing, because professionally, as a cameraman, you have to remove yourself from the events themselves so that you are not part of it. You can purely document these events as they happen in front of you, and not in any way change the dynamic of what is happening.

It’s the same thing when you get into drama. If you think of yourself as the camera, you become the outsider viewing the events. And so, as the outsider, you’ve got the inquisitive bit: What is going on here? What do we show to make this interesting to that outsider, or what do we hide from the outsider that we’ll reveal later?

How did your work as a news cameraman and documentary filmmaker lead to narrative?

A very long, convoluted series of circumstance, as opposed to a real passion or decisions on my part, have gotten me to where I am now. But I recognize in retrospect, that this is the best possible place that I could be. When I was a news cameraman, my soundman, Nick Fellows, and I were together for seven years, day in and day out. He was a stunning still photographer and he had his beautiful Leica. When we were on location, we would take a small darkroom with us so that when we had long periods where we were just hanging out, we would go out and take black-and-white stills, then assess them and print them back in the hotel. The thing that defined that period for me was what a bad photographer I was. You know, he was taking all these beautiful photographs and I was taking these seriously mediocre ones. And to this day, he still laughs because he is the better photographer. But over time, I have developed a passion and worked on the skill. Little things incrementally clicked at different times and are still clicking to progress my move through this fantastic profession. I think that’s one of the things that thrills me – the constant demand made by the industry to master new things and understand new things, to always move forward.

Along with that constant moving forward, are there other aspects of your approach and your thought process that don’t change?

Well, I think that the most basic constant of all is that it’s all about the story. And in telling a story, there is no space in there for ego or frippery or showboating. Everything comes from the page through the eyes and brains of the director, and I think that is the only constant. Because everything else from that point on is open, how you interpret those words is part of that fantastic collaborative process that you hope every film is based around. There are infinite possibilities that every film and every script offers. And that process of exploration that you go through with the director, with the designer, with hair and make-up, with costume, with sound, with all of those, and even your own crew, help you to define what choices you make on a daily or a minute-by-minute basis when you’re actually working on the film.

Given your background in news and documentary, I assume that you made a transition at one point from digital to film?

I went out and bought myself an ARRI SR 16 camera in 1982 to really teach myself film. I would shoot it and send it off to get it processed, and use that as a way of really trying to master the skills. I already had the basis through the photography that I had done. But I felt it was very important that I understand film, and there was no one at that time who was going to teach me. So I kind of taught myself, which was a fantastic and invaluable process because I could make really big mistakes and have only myself to blame. So the learning side of it was interesting and painful. But not that painful, because film isn’t that complicated, and that was one thing that I learned. Everyone built up an aura of mystery of film. But it actually is so much simpler than, for example, the video formats of the day. Because those early three-tube Plumbicon cameras, they had an exposure ratio of maybe a stop and a half or two stops. So there was really only one place to put your exposure. Whereas with film, you could put it all over the place and it’ll still be right.

And that’s what people don’t understand. They think that because you have a light meter, it’s somehow magic. And it is magic. But it’s not complicated. I think the most important thing I learned at that time was that it wasn’t a mystery. It just took a little bit of thought.

When you got that ARRI SR, were you consciously planning a move into narrative, or planning to shoot documentaries on film?

Anything and everything. At that time, I just wanted the technical skill and to understand. It’s easy to kind of redefine your past from the present. But the reality is, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was just interested. I wanted to know how to shoot film in case someone offered me a film job, and as just a way of moving on. For all that time I was doing news, and for a lot of the time I was doing documentary, I was still thinking, ‘Oh, well, you know, at some point, I’m going to write and direct.’ So there were all these other explorations going on. But there was no great plan.

12 Years a Slave is not a documentary, obviously. But it has a basis in reality. Do you think about that dichotomy when you’re making decisions about the cinematography?

In the case of 12 Years a Slave, it was important that people believed what Solomon Northup went through was real, and that the audience is feeling in each moment of time what he is going through during his twelve years of hell. And so when you intellectualize it and discuss it, it’s impossible for it to be real because it’s a fake. We’re surmising so many things, and we’re imposing so many ideas upon the images, which we have no way of knowing whether it’s true or not.

The whole thing of cinema is that it’s a façade. It is, literally, just flickering light on a screen. But we invest it with all of these emotions and ideas. One of the things that we wished to invest 12 Years a Slave with was a sense of truth and reality. You can never tell how well you succeeded. That’s up to the audience, and how they respond to what you have done. But I think if you at least have that pure motive behind you, and you’re not using the camera to trick the audience in any way, then hopefully, the audience responds and it touches them. You can’t always succeed in cinema. And you won’t succeed for everybody. But you hope that as many people as see the film will, at least in some way, be moved by it, or even trust it and believe it.

There is the technological aspect of cinematography, and then there is the ability to move the audience using moving images. These are two very different skills.

The technology is there to service the ideas that are associated with the making of the film. The technology is like any tool, it’s not smart and it doesn’t think. It simply does what it is built and designed to do. You then have to take that tool and, hopefully, use it intelligently to create the images that tell the story. In retrospect, it’s really easy to intellectualize that process. So much of it is purely gut instinct and is based upon experience and based upon that immersion in the ideas of the film and the script of the film. That immersion into the ideas of the director and the ideas of the designer, and all of those things comes together to inform you about a possible approach, visually.

In the case of 12 Years a Slave, until the actors are in the room and have worked out their performance, you know, there were no set frames. It all happened after the actors had found their place in their space and their movement within the space that was defined for them in discussions with (director) Steve (McQueen). We’d very quickly break each scene down into a series of shots or maybe even a single shot, and get on with it. There were no great sort of angst-ridden intellectual discussions. All of the discussions about the approach had been done before in preproduction. A lot of it is just your own personal feeling. And that feeling, hopefully, has been informed by all the work that has led to that moment, that time when a decision has to be made.

Is trusting your gut difficult sometimes, when there’s so much pressure in terms of time and money and logistics?

I think experience is everything. I’ve been behind a camera for more years than I can even add up. Quite often, there’s not an awful lot of time to make a decision, and I find that very helpful sometimes. You have to get on with it. Over time, if your gut has been right often enough, then you learn to trust it. But also, you hope that everyone else around you is watching and thinking, and particularly, the director will also be working with their gut and with their own intellect and thinking about what you’re doing. Through that collaborative effort, you keep going in the right direction. Sometimes, it’s so important to make mistakes and to be bold because sometimes wrong is the right, inevitably. It’s a contradiction, but it’s so important to keep an open mind, and to know that you will be wrong sometimes, and to accept that and use it, if need be.