Bright Lights Film Journal

Interview: Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt on Working with Steve McQueen and More

Sean Bobbitt (center) with Steve McQueen on the set of 12 Years a Slave

Sean Bobbitt talks about changes in the industry, shooting news and documentary versus dramatic features and shorts, and working with the acclaimed director of 12 Years a Slave.

Sean Bobbitt originally worked as a news cameraman in the early eighties, covering events ranging from the Lebanon War to The Troubles. Narrowly escaping death on several occasions, the job took its toll on Bobbitt. After leaving the news in the mid-nineties, he worked on TV documentaries until breaking into drama with the 1999 film Wonderland, directed by Michael Winterbottom. Bobbitt employed many techniques from news and documentary for Winterbottom’s film. It made for refreshing drama, and the aesthetic was quite unique, if not far from the work coming out of the Dogme 95 group at the time. Bobbitt’s work eventually caught the eye of Steve McQueen, who had already made a name for himself as a film and video artist. Bobbitt’s first collaboration with McQueen would be 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, 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. He was kind enough to speak with me from his houseboat on the River Thames, not long after 12 Years a Slave first started making the festival rounds.

Can you speak generally about what goes into the process of constructing an image?

So much of it comes down to a gut feeling that it’s hard to break it down in any comprehensive way. It also depends on what it is you’re trying to do. Because in the world of drama, you have so much more time. I come from the world of news and documentaries, where everything happens in real time, and the beauty of working in a dramatic situation is that you usually have a strong narrative element and a lot of time to think about it.

Sean Bobbitt on the set of 12 Years a Slave

The role of the cinematographer, as far as I’m concerned, is to visually realize the ideas and objectives of the director. Everything that you’re doing is hopefully driven by the script itself, and then it’s enhanced and informed by the director’s interpretation of the script, and that covers so many different levels, and not just the visual, but also the dramatic and the emotional. When working with Steve McQueen, the process is similar and yet quite distinct. Because the art installations don’t have a true narrative. They tend to be more of a visual exploration of an idea, concept, or place. Whereas the dramatic work with Steve is very much based on the script itself. Where the two join together is in a really interesting place that you might call “truth.” In all of his works, Steve is looking for something that is a universal. Something that in some way evokes a response from anyone who views it. And it doesn’t have to be the same response, but it is a response.

This idea of the response seems crucial. But obviously the conditions of viewing in the case of installation work and features are quite different, and this has a huge impact on the range of responses that an audience can have.

What does join [these two exhibition modes] together, in my case with working with Steve, is Steve himself. Because in both the installation work and the dramatic work, he is open absolutely to the ideas, and to the changes in ideas as they are presented and as the subject is explored, and then he takes those ideas and those images, and he transforms them: he infuses them with something that makes them greater than they would be if left as individual images. This struck me in the first work I did with him, Western Deep, which is probably the thing I am proudest of ever having shot. You cannot watch it and not have a response. But what it creates in you is actually very difficult to explain, but something is going on. And that in my mind is what good art should be. I never thought I would be working in art. It’s about as far away from news and documentary as you could possibly get. And initially this was a great source of frustration, because even in a documentary you have a premise or a thesis to explore, and the premise of Western Deep was so ephemeral. I can remember getting down there, and it took two hours to get to the bottom (it’s over two miles underground), and it was an extremely dangerous and hostile environment. And even though we’d talked about it for months and months, I said to Steve, “Ok, what do we do now?”

Western Deep (2002): South African miners take part in a compulsory physical stress test. 8mm color film.

And he said, “I don’t know, there’s something here.” And to someone who had grown up in the world of linear narrative, it was like madness to go that distance and then not know what was there. But, once we started filming, it was a remarkable liberation, because suddenly, there is no narrative. There is no right or wrong. It’s simply images and emotions. It’s an amazingly liberating thing, to suddenly be presented with that possibility that anything and everything that you could do was right. It was euphoric, in fact, and I will never forget that day, and it has changed me as a cinematographer.

So it was neither documentary, nor was it drama. Because drama is always structured around a story or narrative. And no matter how loosely it is written down, you still have a structure that you follow, whereas here you had none of those things. It was simply an exploration for the sake of it, which then was transformed into . . . an emotion? It’s hard to say exactly what it is. I mean physically we could say it is an art installation or a projected work. But exactly what it is, I’m not sure. You could say: “This is an exploration of the colonial exploitation of West Africa.” It could be this, but it is not this specifically. So art has to be differentiated from documentary or from drama.

Based on what you’re saying, documentary has much more in common with drama than with what you’re identifying as art, because documentary and drama are both highly structured, whereas art from your perspective is exactly about that lack of shooting structure. But how does news fall in here? What are the structures that a news cameraperson is expected to follow?

It’s very straightforward, the news. You’re reacting to the events around you. And you are attempting to react in such a wayas to be able to explain those events to other people visually. So you’re constantly responding to events that are happening in front of you, fully aware that at the end of the day, they have to cut together a piece, which may be thirty seconds, or a minute, or a minute and a half. But they need the images to illustrate that piece. News was always to me a four-dimensional chess game. Because the whole time, you’re trying to figure out what is going on, and trying to figure out what is the most important thing to film at a given point in time, as a way of illustrating what you are seeing, but also while trying to get as much information as you can, to try and see if there might be a bigger picture than what you might be witnessing. And it is all happening in real time. If you miss it, it’s gone. So it is a great challenge. People look down on news cameramen, and I don’t think they should at all. Because what you’re attempting to do is quite often almost impossible. To try and distill a very complex political situation into thirty seconds of image.

Now you can argue that a lot of people don’t bother, and all they’re shooting is just wallpaper to go behind the words. But that’s not being fair. Most news cameramen are seriously attempting to find images to tell the story.

In that sense, though, there seems to be some basic relationship between shooting for art and shooting for news. This idea of immediacy, or of shooting what’s exactly in front of you. But again there are these very real constraints.

An image from the documentary Crack House USA (2010), shot by Sean Bobbitt

Absolutely, because you have a very specific agenda when you’re shooting news. You know it’s going to be thirty seconds long, and that the story will be this. When I shoot with Steve, there’s no concept length, and there’s no concept story. That completely undermines the two basic elements of news gathering. So yes, you are searching for something in news, but in news there is a very, very specific agenda. And there are very specific time constraints, and constraints in terms of what is appropriate to show and what isn’t. News is very structured, and very codified as well. The visual images that you tend to work with tend towards the cliché, because clichés work really well in terms of quickly getting across a piece of information in a single shot. And the cliché is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do when you’re shooting an art installation piece.

So there’s always this logic of what is worthy of being news, or of what is “the story.” This is probably one of the reasons you moved out of news, or that made it not right for you, but were there ways you found to navigate that or subvert those constraints?

Absolutely. The one thing about news is, as exciting as it can be, there is a repetition to it. As animals, we have a very predictable nature, and after about ten years or so of doing news, it was actually getting boring. Riots are all the same. Military conflicts, and so on . . . you know, everyone fights in the same way. And you start to see the sort of cyclical nature of life. You start to be able to predict what is going to happen. And you start to realize that, as a cameraman, that being reactive the whole time is ultimately limiting in terms of creativity. And yes, you’re trying to subvert it all the time just to keep it interesting, and looking for different ways of covering things. And often you’re not rewarded for doing such things by the organizations themselves, who often want something that is simple and quick and easy to explain. From an emotional point of view, it is incredibly destructive to be consistently presented with the worst sides of human nature. You start to lose empathy. So as much respect as I have for people who still do this (and I don’t know how they could keep at it, because it is just so brutal), I absolutely understand why they do because it is also addictive. I had to change, because it wasn’t really creative. “Just get the story and survive.” This wasn’t ultimately very fulfilling.

In the documentary world, you can be a lot more creative. But I never thought I would be a news cameraman or a documentary cameraman. My idea was that I would always be a feature film director and writer. So life has a way of taking you to places you never expect to go. And up until 12 years ago, I still thought I would be a director. But I was fortunate enough to realize that, no, cinematography is what I am happiest doing. And I have absolutely no interest in directing anymore. It’s too much like hard work, whereas cinematography is actually fun.

A shot from 12 Years a Slave

For you it seems like variety and collaboration are key to keeping things creative and open. You seem to get a whole lot out of working with different directors, and working in new contexts for image-making.

That’s the joy of it. Every film is unique, every director is unique. And you have to figure out what your role is on that particular film. There is a constant input of challenge and newness in every production. There are some directors that are very, very visual. And there are some who have no interest in the visual at all, and their main interest is the actors, and with the performance. And everything falls within that spectrum. So there are some films where you are kind of just left to it, and that is the least satisfying way. And then there are those in which you are dictated to (also not very satisfactory). Those where you are working within a collaborative effort are by their very nature the most exciting, and I think the most successful, and certainly the most enjoyable.

The idea of editing, or more specifically of coverage, as you say, doesn’t factor in a lot into your work with Steve.

Coverage is like mass production. If you shoot enough, you can cobble it together into whatever you want. So it’s really about not making decisions. It’s a decision not to make a decision. So you can shoot all the different angles, and then find the performance “in the edit.” Now, that, to Steve, seems like a complete and utter waste of time, and I tend to agree with him. The point of the director is to make a decision about what is to be shown and what isn’t to be shown, and at what time, and how. So to simply create coverage, the director isn’t really doing their job. They’re sort of putting the job off, and to me I find it extremely painful to shoot coverage. It is so futile. Because you know that over 75% of what you’re shooting is not going to be used. So it is an extremely wasteful way of telling a story. It’s also just dull, so the images you end up with are dull. You’re simply accumulating stuff, and not really thinking them through, and thinking, “What is the most important thing at this time, and do we show it or do we hide it?” To shoot everything and figure that someone else will sort it out is tantamount to non-directing.

I’m finding it a lot more common in America, than in European cinema. In European cinema you still have the tradition of the auteur director who does make decisions on the day and on the set about what is being shot and what isn’t. Having spoken to a number of American film students now, I’m aware of how much they’re taught to create coverage. Therefore, you can’t make a mistake. It also means that other people can have a say in however they want to adjust the scene. It’s like in American television: the director is brought in and given very little time to produce the episode. They’re followed the whole time by a showrunner, who tells them what they can and cannot do. Once they’re finished, they’re given a couple of days in the edit suite, and then they’re kicked out. Then the showrunner comes in and cuts the episode. So it’s cookie-cutter. That doesn’t mean that is always bad! But it sort of undermines the position of the director in terms of his ability to make choices visually. And once the director is creatively shackled, then so is the cinematographer. So this whole multi-camera TV approach, I find, doesn’t create great images.

So you’re talking about this very active approach to filmmaking even before a movie makes it to the edit suite. And in this case you are actually very much an editor, aren’t you? You have all of these tools available to you as a cinematographer to decide, as you say, “What goes in and what doesn’t.” Can you talk some about the role of defocus or blur as one of these “decision-making tools.”

Absolutely. One of the many tools you have to tell the story as a cinematographer is focus. You can draw the viewer’s eyes to what you think is important in the frame, or you can hide (or partially hide) the information by adjusting the focus from one thing to another, or holding it and letting something fall off in the background. So it is a very important tool that can be very effective in terms of storytelling, and is one that sadly these days, with so many people using autofocus (particularly in the film schools), that people are kind of losing touch with. It also has directly to do with choosing lenses, and the focal length of the lens itself, because there’s a direct correlation between the focal length of the lens, the aperture you’re shooting at, and the amount of focus that there is within the frame. And so you balance all of those things together to try and create an image which is most effective at telling a story. So, yes, you are effectively editing, although it is not shot-to-shot, you are kind of editing within the shot by where you put the point of focus.

Three shots from Hunger (2008): A guard (Stuart Graham) smoking outside the Maze Prison.

I was actually thinking in particular of the sequence from Hunger of the prison guard (played by Stuart Graham) smoking against the wall outside in the snow. There is this long tracking shot towards him, and the film cuts to his hands, where everything else is thrown out of focus. Then the hands fall out of frame, but focus doesn’t shift, and what we’re left with after that is a series of totally blurred images of his body and his face.

So much of what goes into this really occurs on a gut level. You know, you say, “That’s really interesting, so what if we do this.” That’s the really exciting thing. And part of what is so great about working with Steve is that he’s really open to all of this. And if you look, one of Steve’s works, with Charlotte Rampling –

You shot that short, Charlotte.

Yes. And that film is all about where the focus is. It’s an exploration of focus. And how, then, by the decisions that are made, you create a truly bizarre emotional response. Like so many things, it was something that had been explored before, but now it has a new context. And Charlotte certainly wasn’t referenced when we were discussing that sequence from Hunger, but these things are subconsciously stored and come out in unexpected ways, especially if you’re given the freedom to explore these things.

It was a very conscious decision for us in shooting Charlotte to use the macro lens, which has an extremely narrow depth of field. So in that case, probably less than 1/8 of an inch. Everything else drops off very dramatically. And one of the reasons I prefer to use the Cooke S4 lenses is for the way the focus drops off on them. It’s quite unique. They have a slightly quicker drop-off of focus than, say, the ultra primes or just about anything else. The sort of physics of optics is quite interesting, because although they’re sort of written in stone, they don’t always quite seem to apply in the same way. And that’s also why I prefer to shoot in 35mm film also, because you have automatically an awful lot more control of the depth of focus because of the size of the image area.

Charlotte (2004) at the Basel Schauerlager. Photo: Tom Bisig

And you use double-perforation film.

That’s purely financial. If given a choice, I would use 4-perf every time, as we did on 12 Years a Slave. 2-perf is purely a financial decision, because you’re using half as much film and getting twice as many frames per roll of film. So it is half the cost of 4-perf. And on a film like Hunger, which had a million-pound budget initially, for us to shoot in film we had to find the cheapest, most cost-effective way of doing it. And we didn’t want to shoot it in super 16 because we didn’t want that grain structure, and we didn’t want it to feel documentary. The fact that I’ve done five or six feature films in 2-perf is simply because all those films had low budgets.

I’m from Rochester, NY, so I have to ask –

Kodak! Well, on Hunger we shot Fuji. I’ve always been a great fan of Fuji . . . the grain structure. And also its color imagery of Fuji lent itself much more to the color palette that we were working with in Hunger (the greens and browns). And there’s a softness, a pastel nature to it that really was appealing.

Will you try to shoot on film as much as possible in the future, then?

There’s going to be no choice in the foreseeable future. The problem is that yes, Kodak is still producing film, but the labs are closing. For example, I am going to South Africa this weekend to shoot a commercial, and we wanted to shoot on film, and there is still a lab in South Africa, but the rest of the commercial is being shot in China. There is no lab in China. You’d have to ship it to Bangkok. And if you’re shooting in New Zealand now, there are no labs there. You’d have to ship it to Bangkok. In the whole of Asia, there is one lab left: in Bangkok. You know, I was just in New Orleans, and the lab we used for 12 Years a Slave and Oldboy, which was shot in 2-perf, closed two weeks ago. So you’re fast reaching a point where you just don’t have the facilities to shoot film unless you are in . . . you know, London only has one lab and that’s only just going. Paris has a lab. Everywhere else is closing down. So it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince people to shoot film.

Can you talk about some of the particular challenges you face as a cinematographer in shooting images of people of color?

​From very early on, Steve had wanted to shoot on film. ​And I agreed. And one of the main reasons for that [was] not just purely aesthetic, and the fact that we wanted it to feel like an epic film, like a classic epic film. (And only film can give you that historical, emotional response.) But also modern film stocks are much less “racist” than they have been in the past. The earlier film stocks didn’t have the extended exposure latitude that the modern stocks have. You know, that if you have a very dark-skinned person standing next to a very light skinned person, you either had to lighten the skin of the dark person [with makeup and/or cosmetics], or to lighten up the skin of the dark person. And as a result of that, you had those films where you had Eddie Murphy with the most bizarre skin tones that you could possibly imagine, because he had so much makeup on him.

But luckily technology has increased so much, and particularly modern film stocks, that you have that exposure latitude where you don’t have to light up a dark face. You also have a lot more latitude when you’re actually doing the grading to lift a darker face slightly. And the whole point of the film was to try and be as honest as we could be about slavery. You know, there so much talk about finding “truth” in film, and the very nature of the imposition of this huge structure that goes around the film, truth becomes so ephemeral and impossible to attain, but at least we can try and be honest. And part of it is: a dark face in a dark place is a dark face. So, it is being kind of truthful to the reality of it. So there was no lightening of faces through the use of cosmetics. And if I had a darker face and a lighter face, I would find a mean exposure that would work for both of them.

A scene from 12 Years a Slave

I’ve been in situations where the cameras felt racist, because they simply wouldn’t show a dark face. These cameras are tuned to work only with a Caucasian flesh tone. It has never, of course, been a conscious effort on anyone’s part to make the technology racially biased, it is just that it has been technologically simpler for it to work better one way than another. But you can’t help but feel that this is all very odd. But of course there are very simple technological explanations for it. This is not a huge conspiracy, but that’s why when it came to choosing film or video, there was no choice, because film is currently the most effective way to honestly render the range of flesh tones.

I’d like to talk about blocking, and your relationship with the actors on the films you work on. A lot of the actors that you’ve worked with have noted that you, Sean Bobbitt, create a “safe,” or “comfortable” space for them to work. This is interesting but admittedly vague from anyone else’s perspective. I’m interested in what it means for you to create these safe, open spaces for actors.

It is a conscious effort. As a cinematographer, you have a relationship with the director, you have a relationship with all the heads of other departments, and you have a relationship with your crew, but you also have a relationship with the actors. And it is very important that the actors feel safe in your hands. That they don’t feel like they’re going to get “stitched up” by the lighting or by anything. I think part of the role of the cinematographer is to keep them comfortable with that, and to constantly reassure them . . . to be showing, to be caring, to be respectful of their job, and for their well-being. And part of that is by having a soft touch: by not imposing yourself or your department upon them. So they have as much freedom as they need to move within the space that the location has: to find the performance to tell the story.

A lot of directors are a lot more hands-on with the actors, and are very specific as to what they want from the actors to do. Now, my relationship with the actors has to, by its very nature, be very subtle and very limited. I can never tell an actor what to do. That is the director’s job. I can ask the actor to move from one place to another to get a better shot. But anything beyond that, as far as I’m concerned, must go through the director. Quite often the director is off in the distance, behind a monitor or in another room or space. So at the end of a performance, the first person they look at is me. And it is very important to be supportive but not to give notes. And it can be quite embarrassing, because quite often the actors will want something from me, and if it doesn’t immediately come from the director, it has to come from you. So you have to play this very careful game, of being reassuring but without overstepping the mark. It can be tricky, but usually it’s not. Because the actors know the game. And I’ve always felt it is very important that the director (particularly if it is a young or first-time director) never feels threatened by the cinematographer. By the very nature of the game, even a very young cinematographer will have made many more films than a young director. Diplomacy is a very big part of cinematography, in every aspect.

I’ve always felt that the camera is there to observe, and not to enforce. I tend to light for areas, as opposed to lighting for a specific face. So I try to ensure that the acting space is as uncluttered as possible, so that the camera has freedom to move 360 degrees within that space. And part of that is also about speed and efficiency, because you have the pre-production time, and you work with the director and the designer and everyone else to get an idea of what will happen in that space. So you create a lighting design based around that idea, but full in the knowledge that once the actors get there, everything could change. So you must be flexible, and watch and listen very carefully, so that if things do change, you can facilitate that change as quickly and efficiently as possible. So that the actors feel that they have the freedom to do what they need to do, and the director feels also that he has the freedom to work with the actors to do whatever they need to do to make that scene work, with the knowledge that even if things change completely, it’s not going to take half a day to relight everything.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Do you feel that some of the same principles here apply to working with actors in dramatic filmmaking and working with social actors for documentary? This dynamic of trust and flexibility would seem totally applicable at least in theory.

It’s a very good point. You know, when you’re working in documentary, especially if it’s something that’s emotionally charged, where you’re with vulnerable people who have been through some sort of traumatic event, it’s the same sort of thing. You do have to get them to trust you very quickly, but not engage with them too much. You know, there’s a trick, something I learned very early on in the news days that held over into documentary: you can make yourself invisible as a cameraman. It is preferable that you do that in most documentary situations, so that they forget you’re there and so they do open up.

The first thing, of course, that you need to do is introduce yourself. People need to know who you are, and why you’re there, and what your role is, very specifically. And then I find just something small to put them at their ease. Something I say, so that they know you’re just a normal person. And once they know who you are and what you’re doing, you’re just kind of a normal, pleasant, guy, then they can sort of forget about you. And then, once you’re filming, that you’re respectful – no sudden movements, no loud noises, no interruptions – you can literally disappear into the background. And that’s kind of what you’d wish to do with the actors.

It’s a very interesting dynamic, working on a set, because there are so many different interpersonal interactions going on at so many different levels. As a sociological study it would be fascinating, because there are so many power dynamics involved, and none of it said. It just carries on.