Sean Bobbitt thinks good cinematography is composed of a series of very carefully crafted and decided upon images. He began his career as a news camera shooter, but once he began to work on documentaries and features, Sean learned that each shot is not just coverage to edit together. After working in news and documentary for several years, Sean decided he wanted to transition into working on dramatic films, so he took a cinematography class with acclaimed cinematographer Billy Williams, and it changed his life. He knew he wanted to become a cinematographer. He soon got his first feature film job working on Wonderland, directed by Michael Winterbottom.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a gripping biographical drama about FBI informant William O’Neal and Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton. O’Neil is a small-time criminal who agrees to go undercover for the FBI and infiltrate the Chicago headquarters of the Black Panthers. O’Neal’s tips directly result in Chairman Hampton’s assassination in his bed by police in 1969. Sean found the script gripping and incredibly relevant to today’s ongoing issues of racial inequality. He realized he knew little about the Black Panthers and this chapter of racial injustice in America, and he needed to help tell the story. After reading the script, Sean met with director Shaka King, who brought hundreds of stills of the Black Panthers and talked Sean through the screenplay. Together, Sean and King began to explore what they wanted to visually create. The photographs became the basis for the look and color palette of the film. All the color photos were Kodachrome or Ektachrome, so they had a slightly faded look. Sean wanted high contrasts with punchy primary colors and worked closely with the DIT to get the color grade for the look he wanted.
Previously, Sean had worked on a few biopics with director Steve McQueen, such as 12 Years a Slave and Hunger. Sean finds McQueen a very unique artist and a fantastic collaborator. They’ve worked together for so long that they are very good at communicating on set. McQueen loves long takes, and really began exploring those with Hunger- the film features a 16 and a half minute take, based on the idealogical concept that if you simply hold the frame, the audience begins to project themselves into the action. If there’s no cut, the audience can’t be reminded it’s a film and can’t be let off the hook. Sean learned to compose very considered frames where the action happens. One of the main concepts of the movie Shame was that most New Yorkers live their lives in high rises in the air, and the characters in the film only came down for sordid reasons. Most of the takes in Shame are also very long and purposefully make the viewer feel uncomfortable.
You can watch Judas and the Black Messiah in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max. https://www.judasandtheblackmessiah.com/
Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep114/
Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com