"The beauty about Steve McQueen ," says Sean Bobbitt , "is his collaboration. He picks people who he respects and trust; he briefs them very clearly and let's them get on with it. That's for every department, from cinematography to hair and makeup. In all these things he has the final say, but he lets you go. Because of that, working with him is incredibly rewarding. When you are allowed to be brave, it is so exciting." Bobbitt, we can assume, knows whereof he speaks: he has shot all three of McQueen's features – Hunger, Shame and now 12 Years a Slave – as well as five of McQueen's gallery shorts, dating back to 2002's Western Deep , shot in South Africa inside the world's deepest gold mine. He is clear that it is McQueen's background as a film-oriented visual artist (winning the 1999 Turner prize for one of them, Deadpan, in which McQueen recreated Buster Keaton's collapsing house stunt from Steamboat Bill Jr ) that marks him out as a director. "Because of where he's come from, he's not hidebound by the conventions of contemporary film-making. It's so refreshing; he has a unique view of narrative, and a healthy disrespect for it." Bobbitt cites McQueen's electrifying feature debut, Hunger, the 2008 study of Northern Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands , with its famous 17-minute shot of a priest, played by Liam Cunningham , discussing the politics of protest with Michael Fassbender's Sands. "If you look at its structure on the written page, it would never normally get made. The first third has no dialogue; the middle third is all dialogue – in fact, one long scene with the priest and prisoner discussing the issues – and the last third there's no dialogue again. With most scripts these days, it's all about the words; so to be presented with a script like that was such a joy. Otherwise you're just shooting people talking." Bobbitt, who looks certain to add an Oscar nomination for best cinematography to a Bafta nod for the same, says that the appeal of 12 Years a Slave was obvious, and he knew immediately after reading the script where he would have to concentrate his resources. "From its place in the script, the scene where Solomon is left hanging from the tree is absolutely crucial. It's there where the audience is faced with the true horror of what is going on. Up until then, you've had a reasonably benevolent owner [played by Benedict Cumberbatch ] who seems concerned for the slaves' wellbeing; you may think, it's not that bad. But actually, it is. Solomon belongs to someone else, no one can save him except the person who owns him. As he's hanging, life goes on around him; people will not help him, for fear of themselves ending up in the same situation. It really drives home the horror of the structure of slavery." It's a scene that is destined to become one of the all-time greats, the brutally memorable keystone of McQueen's project of forcing the US to confront the gruesome realities of slave culture; a long, long way from the "pretty world [in which] gallantry took its last bow" as Gone with the Wind would have it. With the enthusiasm of a master craftsman, Bobbitt explains how it was constructed. First there was the search for a Louisiana plantation house with exactly the right geography: "We had to find a tree, in relation to a house, with enough space to believably have slave shacks alongside." Then the hoisting of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor into position: "He was in a full body rig but it was still extremely painful being suspended for so long." Plus the careful consideration paid to the position of the sun in each shot: "Lots of people conceive of that sequence as a single shot, but it's actually a number of them. What it also shows is the movement of time." Like a good professional, Bobbitt pays due credit to others in the team, including production designer Adam Stockhausen and editor Joe Walker . "Each shot is held, and the timing of that in the edit is crucial. They push it in really interesting ways. Hopefully by the end of it you feel as if you have been hanging for the whole day, too." Quite how Bobbitt, now 55, ended up here is the traditional story of luck and opportunity grabbing. The son of an oil executive, he started off as a hard news cameraman freelancing for US TV networks in the 1980s ("You had a lot of freedom to figure out how to tell stories visually and succinctly"). He had some very dicey moments, including a very close shave in Lebanon in 1983 when a knife was held to his throat, and resolved to find a less traumatic career before it was too late ("There are very few happy, old news cameramen"). A sideways move into more formal documentaries was called for, but, as he tells it, he always had the itch to move into drama. But he says he found it almost impossible to break out of the reality straitjacket; he was even knocked back by The Bill ("Once they turned me down I thought that was that, I'll never do it"). Then, out of the blue, came a phone call from director Michael Winterbottom , who was looking for a documentary-influenced cinematographer for his new feature Wonderland, and Bobbitt has never looked back. "I owe Michael so much, because although I thought I was ready to do drama, until you're on a set it's impossible to know what it is. Michael was so patient: his experience of film-making was far greater than mine, and yet he was quite happy to guide me. It could not have been a better way to make a transition to drama." Wonderland, a raw but affecting examination of the lives of three sisters in London , was released in 1999, and proved instrumental in another way: after seeing it, McQueen was prompted to track Bobbitt down and ask him to collaborate. Their 13-year creative relationship has given Bobbitt a ringside seat in McQueen's development as a film-maker, and a special insight into his strengths. He returns to the theme of McQueen's signature extended shots. "That's one of the things Steve knows: if you hold something and let the audience engage, it can be so much more dramatic." He recalls the scene in Shame where Carey Mulligan sings New York, New York . "Carey can really sing and what's important at that moment is her performance and Michael [Fassbender]'s reaction. It's a very succinct way of telling a story, and very simple. We've reached a point where most film-makers have lost trust in the audience; if they don't keep cutting and changing the point of view the audience will get bored and disengage from the film. Steve and I both think that's wrong: if you have a strong story and a strong performance there's no need to try and trick people." In the years since Hunger, Bobbitt has become a much sought-after director of photography, shooting films as varied as moody crime thriller The Place Beyond the Pines, Neil Jordan's gothic fantasy Byzantium, and Spike Lee's Oldboy remake. He reflects on the adaptability required for success: "Every director is unique and your job is to figure out what your role is. Some directors are incredibly visual, others have no interest in the look and its all about the actors; you have to quickly assess how much say you're going to have." "I've worked on films that are dictatorships, but I can't tell you which. You have to be a politician and diplomatic, to move things forward. What you hope is it develops into a collaboration, and then exciting things can happen."
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