5 Things I learned from a top Hollywood cinematographer

“Take a deep breath.”

Who knew?! Breathing is critical to proper camera operation — at least for the Hollywood pros. Amazing what you can learn on the Internet, and how many talented people are willing to share their knowledge and expertise.

Such is the case with award-winning cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Shame, 12 Years a Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines). In an entertaining, informative 90-minute “masterclass” (it’s anything but stuffy as that title might suggest), Bobbitt shares some tips and best practices for handheld camera work. He’s been working on features and television for over twenty years, and now in his mid-50s I’d venture to say at the absolute top of his game.

Sean Bobbitt - Handheld Guide Video
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Creating a stable frame – requires the occasional f-bomb.

Handheld liberates the camera and the actors.

— Sean Bobbitt, cinematographer

For better and worse, I do a lot of handheld work for Stark Insider videos. Mind you, I don’t use an Arri Alexa, and my budget is closer to $0 than it is to $1M. Still, I found this to be a fascinating watch.

Sean confirms much of what I’ve learned shooting videos — “Starkey shakey-cam” — over the last six years (Canon Vixia -> Rebel T2i -> EOS 60D -> EOS 70D) and introduces new things that I never even considered before, such as the aforementioned breathing tip, which will oxygenate your muscles before a shot, and ensure your breathing and resulting body movement doesn’t interfere with a take.

I thought I’d share some of my takeaways from Sean Bobbitt’s presentation. In no particular order, and with some of my commentary added for what it’s worth. Note: he uses slightly more f-bombs than I do. Then again, he’s from Texas and I’m from Canada.

5 Things I Learned from Sean Bobbit About Handheld Camera Operation

1. Handheld is Physical

Stretch. Wear proper attire. Boots, back-brace, gloves.

One day after Loni Stark and I shot a Stark Insider segment in Napa, I found my body rebelling. It creaked, cracked, and groaned. Two Ibuprofen to the rescue. I realized then that handheld camerawork, even when using DSLRs like we do, can be very physical. Sounds silly I know. But if you’re bending at weird angles, walking backwards through streets and narrow hallways, and extending your arms all over the place — for hours — you need to ensure your body is prepared.

One day after Loni Stark and I shot a Stark Insider segment in Napa, I found my body rebelling.

That’s probably why Bobbitt spends so much time (maybe 20 minutes or so) just talking about stretching and various things you can do to prepare for long shoots. And, as he says, best not to down a bottle of vodka the night before a big day or event.

2. Three Points

Think like a tripod.

What advantage does a tripod have over handheld?

A third leg.

This wasn’t an entirely new concept to me, but it was helpful watching a top Hollywood cinematographer demonstrate how he stabilizes shots by always looking to establish three points of contact. Whether you lean against a wall, or use an eyepiece, or cradle the camera against your chest, handheld work should produce higher quality results if you always look for a third point of contact.

3. The Headspace Trick

Keep headspace constant to heighten the illusion of steadiness.

In one demo, Bobbitt demonstrates how he follows an actor in motion (using a large shoulder-mounted Arri camera) without the benefit of a steadicam. One trick is to keep headspace constant. Headspace is the gap between the top of a subject’s head and the top of the frame. If you can keep this as constant as possible the viewer will likely notice less the bobbing and weaving. Simple enough in theory at least!

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4. Rehearse Your Camera Moves

Simulate a shot. Practice your footwork. Again and again.

One thing that strikes me about Sean Bobbitt is his work ethic (another would be his passion for the craft). He works incessantly on set. On breaks, for example, he will prepare for an upcoming take by walking through the progression. He pays close attention to his footwork. Plans for doorways. And ensures his camera angles are true to the story and emotion required for that particular scene. He says in the presentation that he often gets strange looks from cast and crew as he does this sort of ghost dance. But who can argue with the phenomenal results?

5. Above All: It’s About People

Introduce yourself. Build relationships. Be human.

I love this one. Loni and I have endeavored over the past 10 years to make every relationship we encounter via Stark Insider count — be it a publicist, A-lister, unknown actor or director, musician,  struggling artist. This might be the most important lesson that Bobbitt gives us. Reputation is everything. You get the sense that he’s a real people person. On location, he always introduces himself; and explains what he does. This helps to make him “disappear.” Then, the actors and others, he says, can go about their business without him (and his camera) getting in the way. All the better, of course, to serve the story and creative process.

Reputation is everything.

There’s plenty of other nuggets in this video too: shoot subjects from afar, before moving in for tight shots so as to increase comfort levels and improve odds for best performances; lensing strategies and their impact on focus-pulling; composition and assessing the frame on the go; and a whole lot more. Fascinating stuff… well, at least for those of us who are handheld camera junkies.

Another thing I appreciate is that there is very little technical talk. No pixel peeping. No 4K this or 4K that. And no mention of high frame rates (imagine!). Instead this was about the craft, honing in on skills development, learning to get better at the physical and human elements of  using a camera.

Meanwhile, on Stark Insider we’re making the move soon to a Super 35 camera (Canon C100 II, or Blackmagic Ursa Mini, or Sony FS5 or…?). And I also went #starkravenmad and put down a deposit on the upcoming RED Raven camera (2016). More on that soon. Regardless, I know my skills need to develop. A lot.

Though I’m excited to move beyond DSLR, I’m aware that focusing too much on tech and specs can stifle the creative impulse. By watching people like Sean Bobbitt and others — Zach Zamboni, DP for Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is excellent too, as is this insanely creative 17 year-old who likes eating apples — I’m hoping to keep the creative neurons crackling.

WATCH: Sean Bobbitt – A Guide to Handheld Camera Operating

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