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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."
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

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.