Sean Bobbitt is one of the highest profile cinematographers working in cinema today. A string of stunning recent work has taken him to the top of his field, leading to a collaboration with director Derek Cianfrance for ambitious drama The Place Beyond The Pines (in cinemas from Friday).
But if you thought Bobbitt was an up-and-coming whippersnapper, you’d be mistaken. Born in Texas in 1958, Bobbitt began his career as a news cameraman in the early 1980s, where he was on the scene in a number of fierce conflicts, including the Lebanon War in 1982. He went on to shoot documentaries and work extensively in TV, before teaming up with British director Michael Winterbottom for the gorgeous feature film Wonderland (1999), where his searching, handheld work sensitively illuminated London’s neon lights and lonely urban cul-de-sacs.
Gina McKee in Michael Winterbottom's 'Wonderland' (1999).
More TV followed (including a BAFTA nomination for his work on the BBC adaptation of Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm), but Bobbitt then began to gravitate toward film, working as director of photography on the second unit of Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 9/11 drama United 93 (2005). Bobbitt’s big cinematic breakthrough came in 2008, when he teamed up with former visual artist Steve McQueen on the gruelling drama Hunger, about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender).
Fassbender and Rory Mullen in McQueen's 'Hunger'.
Bobbitt’s realisation of the film’s impressively austere visual style (including an unbroken 17-minute conversation between Sands and a priest) led to him snagging a BIFA award for Best Technical Achievement. Of his minimalist style when working with McQueen, Bobbitt told IF Magazine: “Once you start introducing an edit into a scene you are subconsciously reminding the audience that this is a film ... If you don’t give them that escape then sometimes that can heighten the dramatic effect – an edit can often deflate the dramatic effect.”
The success of Hunger prompted a fruitful partnership with McQueen, but before their next collaboration Bobbitt was to lend his talents to Winterbottom’s stylish and shocking neo-noir The Killer Inside Me (2010). The film’s most controversial moment – a long, unbroken sequence showing Jessica Alba’s face being pulverised – reflected Bobbitt’s fondness for the unflinching gaze.
Jessica Alba and Casey Affleck in 2010's 'The Killer Inside Me'.
This stark style was to be replicated in Bobbitt’s next collaboration with McQueen – sex addiction drama Shame (2010), shot, like Hunger, on 35mm, despite the current trend for digital. Among many highlights were a brilliantly awkward date scene, in which the camera barely moved; and a stunning tracking shot which followed frustrated protagonist Brandon (Fassbender) on a late night Manhattan jog. On Shame’s gritty vision of New York, Bobbitt said: “We wanted to show a New York that during the day was more true to what New York really is as opposed to what most people see in the cinema” – he succeeded with flying colours, and was garlanded with the Carlo Di Palma European Cinematographer of the Year Award at the European Film Awards.
Fassbender in McQueen's New York-set 'Shame' (2010).
However, none of this is to say that Bobbitt is irresistibly attracted to the dark side – he showed his versatility by creating bright, stylish images for upbeat soccer drama Africa United (2010) and racy period comedy Hysteria (2011).
Now and into the future
Bobbitt’s fantastic work on ambitious family drama The Place Beyond The Pines is without question one of the chief reasons to recommend it. Equally at home capturing close-up, tender family moments or thrilling motorcycle sequences (the opening tracking shot is comparable with Fassbender’s Shame jog for jaw-dropping seamlessness), Bobbitt makes the very best of the leafy locations of Schenectady, New York. The film’s moody visuals and blue/auburn colour palette contribute to an undeniably effective atmosphere of foreboding.
Bobbitt and Gosling on the set of 'The Place Beyond The Pines'.
Bobbitt’s recent work has led to him being one of the most in-demand cinematographers in the business, and his productivity shows no signs of abating. Another current film to which Bobbitt has brought his talents is Neil Jordan’s visually stunning modern gothic fairytale Byzantium, starring Saiorse Ronan and Gemma Arterton. Already in the can and due for imminent release are third collaboration with Steve McQueen (and Fassbender) 12 Years A Slave, and Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chanwook’s cult classic Old Boy. We’re pretty excited about what Bobbitt will bring to the table in these films, and we’ll continue to watch this extremely talented individual with a close eye.
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