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12 Years a Slave D.P. Sean Bobbitt on Handheld Cinematography

“You always have to question when a director says, ‘Let’s go handheld.'” At Poland’s Camerimage International Film Festival a few weeks back, d.p. Sean Bobbitt gave an ARRI workshop keynote on the role of handheld cinematography in filmmaking. Far too often, directors, according to Bobbitt, resort to the use of handheld simply because they have no other ideas: “If we do handheld, it will feel kinetic!” and the like. But a knee-jerk instinct is not good enough — Bobbitt believes you should be able to justify every technical decision in the script: “The first and most important consideration is, does it help tell the story?”

Bobbitt notes that the rise of DIY filmmaking has played a role in the proliferation of unnecessary handheld shots, as there are “younger directors coming up who haven’t had the experience of working with a dolly…and are worried they aren’t going to have enough time.” News flash: there’s never enough time, no matter if you’re working with a $250 million budget or less than $1 million. Still, Bobbitt acknowledges the benefits of handheld, when it’s applied correctly, pointing to the “freedom that [it] gives the actors to move around…It can be incredibly creative.” With respect to the audience, it can be all the more immersive: “Because it’s one shot and because there’s no edit, at no point are you subconsciously reminded that you’re watching a film…[It] can actually magnify the emotional content of the scene.” In the highly informative video, Bobbitt also covers collaborating with camera operators, different rigs and techniques and exercises to assuage the physical duress of handheld camera work.


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