Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Specialty Box Office: 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' Primes HBO Pump, Russell Crowe's 'Water Diviner' Is Spotty Specialty Box Office: 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' Primes HBO Pump, Russell Crowe's 'Water Diviner' Is Spotty Friday Box Office: 'Adaline' Bumps 'Furious' for a Day; 'Kurt Cobain' Big in 3 Theaters Friday Box Office: 'Adaline' Bumps 'Furious' for a Day; 'Kurt Cobain' Big in 3 Theaters Remembering Film Critic Richard Corliss (1944-2015) Remembering Film Critic Richard Corliss (1944-2015) Cannes: Denis Villeneuve Says Drug War Film 'Sicario' Is "Very Dark" and "Quite Violent" Cannes: Denis Villeneuve Says Drug War Film 'Sicario' Is "Very Dark" and "Quite Violent" How Do You Solve a Problem Like Erika? Universal Hires Husband to Write 'Fifty Shades Darker' How Do You Solve a Problem Like Erika? Universal Hires Husband to Write 'Fifty Shades Darker' 'Age of Ultron' Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It's His 'Rio Bravo' 'Age of Ultron' Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It's His 'Rio Bravo' Watch: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Amy Schumer Hilariously Slam Hollywood Sexism (NSFW) Watch: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Amy Schumer Hilariously Slam Hollywood Sexism (NSFW) CinemaCon: How Tom Cruise Stole the Paramount Show CinemaCon: How Tom Cruise Stole the Paramount Show Meet the Director of 'Tangerines,' the 2015 Dark Horse Oscar Nominee You Missed (Exclusive Video) Meet the Director of 'Tangerines,' the 2015 Dark Horse Oscar Nominee You Missed (Exclusive Video) LA Film Fest Unveils Horror Slate, More World Premieres, Zoe Cassavetes Film LA Film Fest Unveils Horror Slate, More World Premieres, Zoe Cassavetes Film Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Lines Up Vet Auteurs and American Indies Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Lines Up Vet Auteurs and American Indies Joe Wright's 'Pan' Gets Fall Release Date: Good News or Bad News? Joe Wright's 'Pan' Gets Fall Release Date: Good News or Bad News? Seeing Ryan Gosling's 'Lost River' Through Composer Johnny Jewel's Eyes (STREAM SOUNDTRACK) Seeing Ryan Gosling's 'Lost River' Through Composer Johnny Jewel's Eyes (STREAM SOUNDTRACK) 3 Women Genre Directors Get SF Film Society Fellowships 3 Women Genre Directors Get SF Film Society Fellowships Here's Why Jon Stewart Quit 'The Daily Show' Here's Why Jon Stewart Quit 'The Daily Show' Watch: From Tarantino to Cronenberg, Great Directors Talk the Art and Anxiety of Filmmaking Watch: From Tarantino to Cronenberg, Great Directors Talk the Art and Anxiety of Filmmaking Specialty Box Office: 'True Story' and 'Child 44' Flop as 'Ex Machina' Lures Audiences Specialty Box Office: 'True Story' and 'Child 44' Flop as 'Ex Machina' Lures Audiences 10 Films Booed at Cannes That Every Cinephile Should See 10 Films Booed at Cannes That Every Cinephile Should See 5 Things You Didn't Know About Lars von Trier, Who's Going Back to Work 5 Things You Didn't Know About Lars von Trier, Who's Going Back to Work 7 Things to Learn from 'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner About Compelling Storytelling (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO) 7 Things to Learn from 'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner About Compelling Storytelling (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt Talks '12 Years a Slave'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood October 18, 2013 at 12:33PM

Sean Bobbitt discusses going for visual simplicity in Steve McQueen's Oscar frontrunner, "12 Years a Slave."
1
Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"
Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

There's a good reason why Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is the early consensus Oscar frontrunner for best picture: Solomon Northup's harrowing story is both real and relatable in these precarious times. And for cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also shot McQueen's "Hunger" and Shame," this represents the culmination of a visual simplicity built around the award-contending performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o.

"You don't want to exploit the tale," explains the native Texan who resides in the UK. "You're creating a complete world that is believable of that period. But as you approach each scene, it becomes absolutely clear how it should be covered. You're trying to give them the freedom within that space to find that performance."

'12 Years a Slave'
'12 Years a Slave'

Informed by a shared aesthetic with McQueen as well as prior experience as a news cameraman who covered Lebanon, Bobbitt worked like mad to find something that would ring true and resonate with the viewer so we're immersed in the story and thinking about nothing else.

"Yes, it is specifically about slavery but it is universal and relevant," Bobbitt adds. "And you're presented with a character, Solomon Northup, who has such strength and dignity and humanity. It's a movie about love and fear at its most extreme. I was born in America and grew up oversees, but I never considered what slavery really meant. As I read the script, it was a revelation. It wasn't an ideology: it was an economic structure and from that everything else followed."

But the one scene in John Ridley's script that visually stimulated the cinematographer's imagination was the hanging because it was so emotive and embodied the essence of slavery. "Northrup's hanging for the better part of the day is inconceivable. And yet nobody can touch him because he belongs to another man. And to see everyone else moving around behind him is such a powerful statement."

The key to the hanging was finding the right composition. Again, it was a matter of classical simplicity. "Because your first thought is that no one can stand hanging for the whole day. The idea was to make it believable but also for the audience to viscerally become a party to that physical torture. But at the same time to be oddly beautiful so that it resonated and it wasn't an image that you could just throw away."

This beauty makes a striking counterpoint to the brutality. At no point did the filmmakers want this to seem like a documentary or be miserable-looking. "By making it beautiful, it makes it palatable for the audience. If we had made it ugly and gritty and desaturated, I don't think the audience would stay with it. There would be no hope and the look comes from the story. These plantations have an inherent natural beauty and to defy that would be a lie."

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Immersed In Movies, Awards, Awards, Oscars


E-Mail Updates