By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 31, 2013 at 11:58AM
Unlike most of these names, Sean Bobbitt has been working with a camera for well over thirty years. But it's only in the last few that he's really started to hit the stratosphere, including four films on the way in 2013 that are set to cement him as one of the most in-demand cinematographers around. Texas born, but U.K.-raised, Bobbitt started off as a news cameraman, principally for CBS, shooting in conflict zones like Lebanon and Northern Ireland throughout the 1980s. All through that time, Bobbitt had ambitions to move into fiction, but initially found it tough to break out of the niche (as Bobbitt told Katie Griffiths: "There's one producer in London who still refers to me as 'that news cameraman.'") But soon after the humiliation of being turned down for a job on long-running low-rent British police drama "The Bill," Bobbitt got a call from Michael Winterbottom, who was looking for a documentary cameraman to shoot his ensemble relationship drama "Wonderland."
The film is rough around the edges, but remains one of Winterbottom's most distinctive efforts, and offers came in for Bobbitt as a result. But he was keen not to be pigeonholed, and switched tracks, telling Griffiths, "For years, all people wanted was for me to redo that film. And I refused. And the next thing I did was a period drama, 'Nicholas Nickleby,' because I was always insistent that I’m not a one-trick pony. I’m a cinematographer, I should be able to interpret any story and bring it to the screen, not just a specific genre." Perhaps as a result, it took a while for Bobbitt to really become established. He was the DoP on the undervalued, little-seen Bill Nighy/Tom Hollander drama "Lawless Heart," and worked extensively on TV, but aside from second unit work on things like "Kidulthood" and "United 93," wasn't involved much in the film world.
But that started to change in 2007. He worked on two mostly unknown British films, "The Baker" (starring Damian Lewis) and "Mrs. Ratcliffe's Revolution" (with future "The Office" star Catherine Tate), and returned the following year with "Hunger," the first feature film from artist Steve McQueen, with whom he'd collaborated on video art projects in the past. The film, about hunger striker Bobby Sands, launched the career of both McQueen and star Michael Fassbender, but Bobbitt's work was hugely impressive, not least because the director let the shots play over minutes, with one already-legendary twenty-minute dialogue sequence. As Bobbitt said to IF, "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.”
McQueen and Bobbitt reteamed to even more impressive effect in 2011 on "Shame," which saw them turn their lens on New York, a city that Bobbitt wanted to explore in a new way. "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 said. The movie, shot on 35mm film, showed the same steady hand, but McQueen and Bobbitt had more resources to play with, not least in the unforgettable tracking shot that follows Fassbender's Brandon as he goes for a nighttime jog. It was one of the most beautiful-looking films of 2011, and yet Bobbitt was able to expose the rotten heart beneath the slick, blank NYC landscapes and its characters, and we're hugely excited to see how their third collaboration, on this year's "Twelve Years A Slave," turns out.
But that's far from Bobbitt's only endeavor in the next year. Two films premiered at TIFF back in September, in the shape of Neil Jordan's stunning-looking "Byzantium," and Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond The Pines," the latter of which our review said "captured the feel of small town Schenectady, while also opening up and providing breathtaking, beautiful vistas of New York state countryside." And there's one more film coming towards the end of the year too, Spike Lee's "Oldboy," which should be a fascinating collaboration. But it should look quite different from what we've seen from him so far, as Bobbitt said last year: "I’m still a new boy in the drama world. I’ve only been doing it for ten years, so I’m only just finding my way in, and also the technical skills of a cinematographer take a long time to develop. I feel that when I stop learning and start doing the same things I did on the last film, then it’s time to move on."
Cinematographers in general tend to be a bit more mercenary in their subject matter than directors, at least early in their careers. But none of our picks has quite such a diverse resume as Rachel Morrison, whose career has gone from MTV reality shows to absurd anti-comedy to buzzy Sundance awards contenders, all in only a few short years. Morrison is an AFI grad who started out as a camera operator, including on the behind-the-scenes featurettes for Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," before picking up an Emmy nomination for her work on "Rikers High," a documentary about the high school within Riker's Island correctional facility.
Two years later, she made her debut as feature DoP with "Palo Alto, CA," which screened at the Tribeca and Austin Film Festivals that year. Not long after, Morrison took something of a left turn, serving as cinematographer on the third and fourth seasons of hit MTV semi-reality series "The Hills," Maybe it's not a job that everyone would have taken, but Morrison found it invaluable on the film that would become her breakthrough, Zal Batmanglij's "Sound Of My Voice," which premiered at Sundance in 2011 having shot at the tail end of 2010.
As Morrison told Junsui Films, "What I learned from DPing The Hills was how to light for 270 degrees, so multiple cameras can cross shoot if need be, without compromising too much on the lighting. I also learned to light in broad strokes, rigging and hiding lights or incorporating them into the practical lighting, so we could improvise as needed. All of this became relevant to the lensing of 'Sound Of My Voice,' a two-camera shoot with an ensemble cast, with very little time for principal photography. The trick is to light efficiently, but to still serve the story cinematically." Shooting on a Canon 7D DSLR camera, Morrison achieved pretty spectacular results, especially given the challenges (as she asked Junsui, "What DP wants to hear that 30 pages take place in a room with white walls?"). The amber/yellow tinted look of the film gives an impressive aesthetic uniformity to the film that matches the cultish subject matter, and certainly marked her as someone to watch.
The indie "Dorfman" premiered later that year, and she was back at Sundance in 2012 with as big a reverse from "Sound of my Voice" as you can imagine, in the shape of "Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie." She made it three times lucky at Sundance, arriving in 2013 with "Fruitvale," Ryan Coogler's based-in-fact drama that was one of the buzziest films of the festival in the last few weeks, and that should be talked about for much of the rest of the year.
There's lots more to come, including Neil LaBute adaptation "Some Girl(s)" with Adam Brody, Samantha Morton and Zoe Kazan, "The Between" starring Isabelle Fuhrman and "Super 8" actor Joel Courtney, and perhaps most promisingly of all, "The Harvest," starring Michael Shannon. From the looks of her showreel (see below), what we've seen so far is only a taste of what Morrison has to offer.
Cinematography was dealt a pretty serious blow last year with the death of Harris Savides, one of the absolute A-listers out there thanks to his work with David Fincher, Gus Van Sant and Sofia Coppola, among others (read our retrospective of his work here). But fortunately, Savides had a sort of apprentice, one who we'll be seeing much more of in the years to come. The 41-year-old Christopher Blauvelt is an L.A. native, and a third-generation film professional who went into the family trade, his first credit coming as a clapper loader on "The Rocketeer" in 1991.
He worked his way up the ranks on the likes of "Speed," "Jade" and "The Game," seemingly coming to the attention of Savides on the latter. They were reunited in 2002 on "Gerry," by which time Blauvelt was working as first assistant camera, and he went on to work with him either as first assistant or camera operator on "Elephant," "Last Days," "Zodiac," "Margot At The Wedding," "Greenberg" and "Restless," while also operating camera on "Where The Wild Things Are," "A Single Man" and "I'm Still Here," among others.
In the meantime, Blauvelt had started acting as DoP on shorts, and made his feature film debut in 2010 with Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff." Boldly shot in Academy ratio, it immediately established Blauvelt as a talent in his own right, and some impressive work followed, not least in Ry-Russo Young's underrated 2012 Sundance picture "Nobody Walks." While the film received tepid reviews from most, all rightfully praised Blauvelt's lyrical, sensual photography.
That was swiftly followed by Harmony Korine's "Lotus Community Workshop," the Val Kilmer-starring segment of anthology film "The Fourth Dimension," and yet-to-be-released "The Discoverers," with Griffin Dunne and Dreama Walker. But last year brought sadness with the shoot for Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring." It's unclear who shot what, but it is clear that Savides and Blauvelt are sharing credit on the film, and that the older DoP trusted his one-time apprentice to finish the work would appear to speak volumes.
The film will be released later in the year, but Blauvelt has lots more on his plate; he shot both parts of the split-perspective double-bill "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby," starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, and has reteamed with Reichardt on "Night Moves," with Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard. Right now, he's just got underway on "Max Rose," which marks Jerry Lewis' return to the screen. It's still relatively early in his career, but it's a promising and diverse line-up, and if they prove to be as gorgeous as "Meek's Cutoff" or "Nobody Walks," it will be very much cause for celebration.