On Chesil Beach DP Sean Bobbitt discusses collaboration, composition, and his strong opinions on the anonymity of coverage. Read the rest of our On Chesil Beach Special Issue here.
The classical, widescreen tableaus in On Chesil Beach are a speciality of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Most famous for his long-term collaboration with director Steve McQueen — on Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and the upcoming Widows — Bobbitt is a master of delicately intricate compositions. Yet what’s most impressive is his range: “My job is not to tell the director what to do; my job is to do what the director wants to do.” Despite his mastery of meticulous filmmaking, he started in documentary and used that more off-the-cuff style in films like Wonderland (1999) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), moulding himself to the vision of his director.
His work in On Chesil Beach subtly differentiates the film from your typical British period piece by not conforming to traditional film grammar. Much of it may look like a beautiful painting, with the seemingly endless horizon of Chesil Beach providing the backdrop for the film’s climactic scene. But this is a film that privileges ideas over shallow visual opulence. Bobbitt brings themes of class, social expectation, and gender to the fore in the way he shoots the film, using different shooting styles to contrast the very disparate homes that newly married couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) grew up in, and framing the couple to capture their precarious power dynamic as they navigate their fear of sex and intimacy.
I spoke to Sean Bobbitt about his experience working on On Chesil Beach, working with a team of collaborators to develop a film’s aesthetic, and his strong opinions on the anonymity of coverage.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get involved with On Chesil Beach?
Sean Bobbitt (SB): Initially, the idea of yet another British period drama didn’t really appeal to me — until I found out that Dominic Cooke was directing. I had met him once before but hadn’t had a chance to work with him. In that first meeting, I’d been so impressed by Dominic that I always said that I would love to work with him if I could.
The initial chat I had with Dominic reassured me that I was making the right choice. He had such a deep emotional understanding of what the characters were going through. It’s not about frocks and furniture. We all enjoyed Dominic’s sense of collaboration and his ability to very clearly and succinctly communicate his ideas so that we were all moving in the same direction. He’s able to explain it in such an eloquent, simple, but at the same time, heartbreaking way. I found his telling of the story absolutely compelling.
7R: How did you approach developing the aesthetic for On Chesil Beach with Dominic?
Sean Bobbitt: A lot of the time, when you talk about the script, people leap straight to the visual, but with Dominic, it was about the emotion. It was about the dramatic arc of the characters and what the story was really about. I found that very refreshing and stimulating, to approach it initially from a purely intellectual point of view as opposed to a purely visual point of view.
For me, it’s about understanding the story so that the look evolves out of that understanding, as opposed to coming up with the concept of a look and trying to impose that upon the story, which I always find less satisfying.'A lot of the time, when you talk about the script, people leap straight to the visual, but with Dominic, it was about the emotion.'Click To Tweet
The initial discussion was really about the period: the social classes, the changes that were going on. To follow up on that, Dominic proposed we watch a series of films from that era. We looked at a couple of classic British films: A Taste of Honey (1961), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). And then there were a couple of slightly different films, not traditionally English by any stretch of the imagination. One was Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and the other was John Ford’s The Misfits (1961). As we looked at those films, we saw things that we liked and thought were relevant to the story.
What we took away from the period films that we looked at was simplicity: they’re not static, but they’re not frenetic. Instead of fast cutting, there might be a simple pan from one side to the other. We wanted to create a complete sense of period that was beyond simply the clothing, the costumes, and the decoration.
Particularly in The Misfits, there were elements we found fascinating. It’s such a brilliant, flawed film. It was Marilyn Monroe’s last film, and she was not in very good shape. Sometimes, they’d only have one take with her; the scenes were designed so that if all you got was one take then you still had a scene. That was one of the things that we looked at and embraced.'I found it very refreshing and stimulating to approach it initially from a purely intellectual point of view as opposed to a purely visual point of view.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you decide to shoot on film?
Sean Bobbitt: It was very early on in the discussion. We were looking for, “What’s going to make this feel period?” Everything we had watched, all our references, were shot on film. It seemed like a no brainer.'We wanted to create a complete sense of period that was beyond simply the clothing, the costumes, and the decoration.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you choose the lenses?
Sean Bobbitt: I’m a great fan of the Cooke S4 lenses. They are my go to set of lenses.
These days, on the digital side, lenses have come back into their own again. Some people might argue that actually the lens parts aren’t as important with film, but I find the Cookes have an apparent softness to them, a slightly lower contrast than a lot of other lenses. I find the way that the focus drops off very pleasing. I think it lends itself to stories like this one.
The Cookes are a fascinating lens, because although they appear slightly softer, they just have a slightly lower contrast, so they still have all the resolution.'The scenes were designed so that if all you got was one take then you still had a scene.'Click To Tweet
7R: You use a widescreen aspect ratio in a lot of your work. Was that an immediate choice here, as well?
Sean Bobbitt: The widescreen aspect ratio gives you stuff psychologically. It immediately says to an audience, “Oh, this is a bigger film.”'The widescreen aspect ratio gives you stuff psychologically. It immediately says to an audience, 'Oh, this is a bigger film.''Click To Tweet
It also means — because I operate [the camera], as well — that there’s a lot more that I can do compositionally within that frame. Particularly in a tale like this, where you have two disparate figures coming together, and then pulling apart, so dramatically. You can use the edges of the frame to show distance between people, literally. From a personal point of view, I find that that the aesthetic of the widescreen lends itself to slightly more sophisticated storytelling.
7R: How do you prep for a shoot?
Sean Bobbitt: To prep, I imagine the scene, I take a lot of photographs on all the locations, try to anticipate what the actors might be doing, and devise a broad lighting plan. Once the actors have actually rehearsed on the location, and we’re shown the rehearsal, then I very quickly modify the lighting to work. If you have good actors, they’re constantly surprising you with what they know of the character, what they bring to the scene, and what they do within the location.
It’s always important that everything goes through the director first. As the cinematographer — as any member of the crew on set really — any observations that you have, anything you want to say, goes through the director. You don’t directly talk to the actors about things that are relevant to their performance or positioning.'You can use the edges of the frame to show distance between people, literally.'Click To Tweet
7R: So your interaction with the actors on set is very limited?
Sean Bobbitt: Very limited, indeed. You try to keep it technical.
How things go on set are very important to the actors. For me, it’s important that an atmosphere is created where the actors feel safe, everything is quietly done, and that there is a deference to the actors in what they’re trying to do. Everything is done to ensure that the actors are given the greatest space, time, comfort, and confidence to get on with what they need to do. Part of that is not getting involved in discussion with the actors about the things they should be talking to the director about.'If you have good actors, they’re constantly surprising you with what they know of the character, what they bring to the scene, and what they do within the location.'Click To Tweet
7R: Have you worked with any theatre directors before Dominic? I’d imagine that collaboration would be quite different to someone who’s only worked in film.
Sean Bobbitt: I had imagined that that was going to be the case. I hadn’t worked specifically with someone who had primarily directed theatre — but I think Dominic is quite unique in many ways. He has a very, very strong visual sense, in a filmic way, not just a theatrical way. He’s an extremely competent director who has a lot of very, very strong visual concepts to work with.'Everything goes through the director first. Any observations that you have, anything you want to say, goes through the director.'Click To Tweet
One particular thing, which I think is perfect, but it’s so subtle: for the three quarters up to the point on the beach where the two of them break, all of the movement in the film is from left to right. They’re always heading somewhere. As she runs away to the beach, that’s the first time anyone moves from right to left. From that point in the film, all the movement is from right to left.
It’s such a simple idea, but it means that every piece of blocking that you do has to be with that in mind. It can sometimes twist you up and other people would get rid of it, but with Dominic, it was an important thing to do. I immensely respect that. It would be easier not to do it, but I think it’s also a very important and subtle element that no-one is ever going to recognise — but ultimately has a very powerful effect on the film.'Everything is done to ensure that the actors are given the greatest space, time, comfort, and confidence to get on with what they need to do.'Click To Tweet
7R: I really like the bold way that Florence and Edward stand out when we first see them, in one of the opening shots. It’s a huge wide of the landscape; they’re tiny within it, but very noticeable because of the colours they’re wearing. How did you think about when characters should stand out from their environment and when they should blend in?
Sean Bobbitt: When I first saw Saoirse’s dress, I thought it was an amazingly bold choice. Everything else in the film, outside of Saoirse’s clothing tends to be rather muted and of that era. It becomes a very powerful part of her character, that she stands out. That was a choice made by Keith Madden, the costume designer. At the time I was thinking, “Wow, this man has balls.” But he was absolutely right.
And then, the simplicity of Billy’s black suit. The two of them on the beach, they both stand out in a really dramatic way. It becomes a really powerful tool, and draws the eye to the characters themselves.
I have such respect for my fellow heads of department. They do things that invariably make me look good — but it’s their ideas. It gives me a great thrill to see what is presented to the camera.'Saoirse’s dress was an amazingly bold choice. Everything else in the film tends to be rather muted and of that era. It becomes a very powerful part of her character, that she stands out.'Click To Tweet
7R: I heard that the hotel room set was entirely built in a studio. Did you work with the production designer, Suzie Davies, to build light sources into the set?
Sean Bobbitt: Suzie was great; she already had them all designed. The major input I had was just making the window in the bedroom and the door out to the balcony slightly larger, from a purely practical point of view, so that I could more easily push light into the room. That was particularly important in the bedroom, where I wasn’t going to be able to get the daylight all the way up to and across the bed so that they were backlit when they were on the bed itself.
The set itself was on a very large studio, so there’s no natural lighting at all. It’s created from scratch. Given what we had shot already on the beach, there needed to be an overcast, soft light pushing in. The tying together of the interior and the exterior would hopefully feel seamless. The light that they come out of and go back into on the beach should be mirrored by the light coming in through the windows.'I have such respect for my fellow heads of department. They do things that invariably make me look good — but it’s their ideas. It gives me a great thrill to see what is presented to the camera.Click To Tweet
7R: Dominic said that both you and production designer Suzie Davies share the philosophy that, while there should be naturalism and realism, there should also be some deeper meaning beyond that. What’s your take on that? When do you make divergences from realism or cinematic convention to foreground the themes of the film?
Sean Bobbitt: A lot of that, for me, falls into composition. It’s where you place the characters within the frame and how you use that frame. That’s another reason why that widescreen aspect ratio is of such interest to me. Where you place a face in that frame can do many, many different things — very powerful things. By sticking someone smack in the middle, you can give such a weight to who they are and what they’re saying. Moving them way off to one side can really create elements of emotional chaos or insecurity. Shooting them from behind is always such a powerful thing to do, because you’re not seeing their emotions; you, as an audience, have to project what you think their emotions are. That can really engage the audience.'Where you place a face in that frame can do many, many different things — very powerful things.'Click To Tweet
We’re now so visually literate, it’s astounding. There’s never been a generation of people who watch films and television for so many tens of thousands of hours, so although we might not be vocally literate about what we’re watching, we’re subconsciously incredibly experienced. When things are put in that are not conventional, they can have a very powerful effect on the emotion of the audience, again, in a subconscious way. As a filmmaker, if you’re able to harness that, it can be an incredibly useful storytelling tool.
7R: When we talked to editor Nick Fenton, he said you didn’t shoot much coverage.
SB: If all you do is shoot coverage then your film is going to look like every other film. There is a formula to coverage which does away with the individual ideas of the director. You’re simply assembling things like you’ve got the film from IKEA.
I think it’s a lot more interesting to actually think about what shots are important for the scene, especially in a fairly low budget film where you have a tight schedule anyway. For me, it’s important to not spend all this time doing 100,000 shots because the actors are going to burn out, and you’re going to lose the performances. You have to spend just a little bit of time beforehand discussing with the director what the important parts are, where the key moments are, so you can focus on them. You’re also trying to find a frame that can tell the story all in one shot, and just let the actors get on with it.'If all you do is shoot coverage then your film is going to look like every other film. You’re simply assembling things like you’ve got the film from IKEA.'Click To Tweet
Everyone’s taught about coverage in school these days. The way American television works: the directors are hired in for an episode, and they’re told what they can and cannot do by a showrunner. They are allowed in the edit for X number of hours, and then they’re kicked out, and the producer puts the show together. So for that machine to work, coverage is essential. But if you believe in the concept of the auteur director, then coverage is sort of taking away the decision-making responsibility of the director on the day and putting off those decisions until you get into the edit suite. For me, it’s sort of, “Well, is that really directing?”
I feel quite strongly about coverage. I’ll shoot coverage if that’s what a director wants. My job is not to tell the director what to do; my job is to do what the director wants to do.'It’s important to not spend all this time doing 100,000 shots because the actors are going to burn out, and you’re going to lose the performances.'Click To Tweet
7R: So you aren’t drawn to working in TV?
SB: I worked on a TV episode, and I don’t choose to do that anymore.
But also, TV is changing so dramatically. There are some truly fantastic things coming out of television. It’s showing up a lot of what is coming out of the cinema. It’s almost like television has been reborn, and what it’s growing up to be is something exciting and special.'Coverage is taking away the decision-making responsibility of the director on the day and putting off those decisions until you get into the edit suite. For me, it’s sort of, 'Well, is that really directing?'' Click To Tweet
7R: Your work stands out for a lot of striking, quite still compositions, which is interesting since you started in documentary. But then there are films like The Place Beyond the Pines where your camera feels much more subjective and emotionally involved in the characters. It’s very different from On Chesil Beach or your work with Steve McQueen.
SB: I try not to impose any of my own style. I hope I don’t actually have a style, at the end of the day. It really has to do with what the story is about and what is the most effective way of telling that story in relation to the ideas of the director.
The first feature I ever did, Wonderland, was all handheld. That was absolutely right for that film. Whereas something like On Chesil Beach, if we did it all handheld, I think it would have felt contrived, because in that era, there was a different pace to life. Certainly, within the cinema of that era, there was a very different taste and style by which films were made. The period lent itself to a very traditional track and dolly approach as opposed to anything too whizzy or handheld.'My job is not to tell the director what to do; my job is to do what the director wants to do.'Click To Tweet
7R: One of the biggest challenges with this film must have been making the simple conversation scenes, with just two people talking at a table, visually engaging.
Sean Bobbitt: You want to try to get a sense of the shots building in the same way that the emotions are building.
You try to approach each individual scene as an individual scene. Then you try to find a movement through them all. In this case, it starts off almost comically with the dinner being served, so it was about observing the comic details and the reactions of the characters to that. Then, it becomes more and more intimate, with closer shots, as things progress.'You want to try to get a sense of the shots building in the same way that the emotions are building.'Click To Tweet
One thing that we discussed a lot were the flashback transitions. Almost invariably, it would have to do with a look or an expression on the face of the actors — going into their heads and then getting lost in those thoughts and their memories.
7R: There are a lot of striking wides in On Chesil Beach. Because they’re used sparingly, they’re really felt. When did you think it was important to give that sudden distance?
Sean Bobbitt: A lot of that is a gut feeling. It’s what feels right given the emotion of the scene. Also, a lot of that is also truly found in the edit. You might have those shots on every location, but they will only work in certain locations and at certain moments. I think that is the strength and beauty of the editor: to find those shots and those moments and to marry the two in a way that makes them so much more important than, as a cinematographer, I could ever imagine they would be.
As television became increasingly pervasive, everything felt like it got small for a long time. Even in the cinema, things felt like they were getting smaller and tighter, and we were seeing less space. There was such a growing impetus on the closeup that the wide shot fell out of favour. I’ve always felt that that was just wrong; you have that big screen in front of you, you must use it. Let’s see some of it.
I think there has been a renaissance of the wide shot. Even in television, with something like Breaking Bad, their use of the wide angles and the wide shots was just stunning.'You have that big screen in front of you, you must use it. Let’s see some of it.'Click To Tweet
7R: Dominic Cooke said that a lot went into designing the final shot and there was a lot of going back and forth about it. What was that process like?
Sean Bobbitt: It was primarily logistics. The section of Chesil Beach that we were filming on is miles from anywhere, literally. The only way you can get to it is across the back water, that lagoon behind the beach. And because that was an area of special scientific interest, and a nature reserve, we were only allowed to cross that water in flat bottom row boats.
To get a crane across — to manhandle the crane, because you’re not allowed to have any vehicles on the beach… we were lucky that there happened to be a tractor there that was owned by one of the fisherman who had the right to use it. We were able to use that to get the element of the crane up the hill, and all of the wood to build the base. It was an amazing thing to do.
It was a gamble, because it’s a very windy point of the world. If we had gone to all that effort to get the crane, and the wind came up, it was quite possible that we wouldn’t be able to use the crane. Logistically, it was a leap of faith.'I think there has been a renaissance of the wide shot.'Click To Tweet
7R: But you felt that it was important to have that shot.
Sean Bobbitt: One of the earlier cuts, they didn’t use the crane shot, and I have to say, when I first saw it, a little bit of my heart sank, because we’d gone to all that effort. But at the same time it worked really well without the crane shot.
A lot of the time, this is where directors and editors are the key. They have to be honest to what’s good for the film. The director knew what the effort was to get the crane out there and to get that shot — but the editor doesn’t care. He wasn’t there. He has no idea. The only thing he cares about is what works and what makes the film good.'The director knew what the effort was to get that shot — but the editor doesn’t care. He wasn’t there.'Click To Tweet
From my point of view, as a cinematographer, I absolutely understand that a single shot can be done without, so I don’t take it personally at all when a shot doesn’t appear in the film. That’s not my decision. You have to trust the director and the editor.
In our ongoing series Behind The Lens, we talk to cinematographers at the top of their game about their work on a specific film, as well as how this compares to their work on other films. We’ve interviewed Jakob Ihre twice (Louder Than Bombs, Thelma), Joshua James Richards (God’s Own Country, The Rider), Tom Townend (You Were Never Really Here), and Magnus Jønck (Lean on Pete). We also wrote about the best cinematography of 2017.