Before Sean Bobbitt earned his first Oscar nomination this year for Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, the veteran DP already enjoyed a close working relationship with Steve McQueen on a string of films, from McQueen’s 2008 directorial debut, Hunger, to titles including Shame, Widows and his best picture winner 12 Years a Slave. “He should have gotten nominated a long time ago. I’m very happy for him now,” says McQueen of his friend and collaborator. “That was very painful for me, when he didn’t get nominated for 12 Years.”
The director marvels at Bobbitt’s ability to bring “empathy and understanding” to this cinematography. “We see impressions of things,” he says. “We fill in the gaps with our brains. I think that’s what he’s done here in a way.” For Judas and the Black Messiah, the Warner Bros. drama about the assassination of Illinois Blank Panther chairman Fred Hampton, McQueen says Bobbitt uses light “almost like painting … What he’s done is given us an impression of things and allowing the emotion to come through.”
He adds, “A first point of contact to something is always with our eyes. We’re making judgments. And I think he’s a master at — and I use this word in a positive way — manipulating the light to translate it to the audience.”
James Mangold describes his longtime cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael — who earned his second Oscar nomination this year, for Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 — as “charming and extremely knowledgeable.” He adds, “My growth as a filmmaker is inextricably to tied to lessons I’ve learned from him. I think Phedon has taught me to be aware of what’s actually happening [on set] as opposed to arriving with too many preconceived notions of what I want. For many directors, I think there is a huge loss of treasure or brilliance in your movie when your preset ideas block you from seeing magic that is happening spontaneously on your set.”
The director — whose work with Papamichael includes 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line and Ford v Ferrari — adds that the DP is “brilliant” with actors. “He’s chasing the light and he’s chasing the image, but he’s extremely hungry and sensitive for performance,” Mangold says. “There’s huge amounts of empathy and kindness in his work toward the actors who are collaborating with him.”
Mangold adds, “There’s the moment where you’re working with your team, and you feel like a director with your team. And it was with Phedon for the first time I felt that I wasn’t fighting my collaborators or trying to get something out of them, but I was flooded with inspiration from them.”
This story first appeared in an April stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.