The Beautiful Economy of Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt

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The eye behind Steve McQueen.

Though his most notable work has been with British filmmakers, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is Texas born and bred, coming from Corpus Christi. He started his career in film as a news gatherer for documentaries before transitioning into narrative movies. This background, however, meant that Bobbitt was tailor-made for independent film, used as he was to working on a shoestring budget and with less than optimal equipment and crew, which made him very attractive to burgeoning directors like Andrea Arnold (American Honey) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), who made their first short films with Bobbitt behind the camera.

In the case of McQueen, the two got on so well that when the director made the leap into feature films, he took the cinematographer with him. To date Bobbitt has shot every one of McQueen’s features – Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave – as well as half-a-dozen shorts. Bobbitt’s economical, intimate cinematography has enhanced and augmented McQueen’s aesthetic to the point the two men’s visions are practically inseparable, they operate like two halves of the same cinematic mind, one conjuring story and the other realizing it.

And as McQueen’s reputation has grown, so too has Bobbitt’s. He’s worked with Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines), Neil Jordan (Byzantium), Spike Lee (Old Boy), Barry Levinson (Rock the Kasbah), Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe), and David Gordon Green (upcoming Stronger), all of whom have selected Bobbitt for his ability to blend verisimilitude with cinematic grace, to depict the real as both real and fantastic, stark and lush, and thus achingly emotive.

In the latest Understanding Cinematography video from Sareesh Sudhakaran for wolfcrow, the style and substance of Sean Bobbitt is put under the microscope, discovering how his early forays in the industry informed his later efforts, and how he creates such distinct filmic worlds that feel plucked from our own.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist