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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."
Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

And the only way to achieve such authentic beauty, according to Bobbitt, was with film, not digital. He used the ArriCam LT with Cook S4 lenses. "Because of the epic nature, there was no question that it was to be on film. Film gives you so many things for free. It's a shame that film is disappearing. We have been so privileged to have the choice and now the choice is being taken away. Choice is what everyone wants. It's what governments and democracies and economic theories are built on."

The other crucial scene, of course, is the whipping of Patsey (Nyong'o) by Northup, done in one continuous take to grip us more viscerally, which has become a signature of McQueen's ever since his acclaimed 16-minute discussion in "Hunger." 

"It's the culmination of the horror against humanity," Bobbitt recounts. "He's forced to become complicit yet rise above it after Patsey has begged him to take her life. You know there is a love between them that's not physical. Steve has explored the holding of the single frame in his artwork and his two previous films. There's this realization that when you are presenting extreme violence, if you do not cut away or put an edit of any sort in, then the audience is not given an escape. So many films today induce emotion through editing and it doesn't need to be that way."

But Bobbitt's favorite moment is a close-up of Northup at the two-thirds point with the trees out of focus behind him. The cinematographer was utterly transfixed while shooting it. "The interesting thing is that you're projecting all of your emotions into his. And you're wondering what he's thinking: It's loss, fear, compassion for others, an element of hope. And his face isn't moving until it turns and looks into the camera, and suddenly it's like a knife to your heart. All of those emotions just come through. It's remarkable because your compassion and love for him is sealed at that moment and he shows such dignity. It's such a powerful, simple, little moment."

It's about the primacy of performance, courtesy of Ejiofor, which helps us better comprehend the inhumanity of slavery up close. But the way the cinematographer captures it is primal. It's just one reminder why the very hot Bobbitt ("The Place Behind the Pines," Neil Jordan's "Byzantium," and Spike Lee's "Oldboy" remake) is very much in the Oscar running.

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

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Thompson on Hollywood

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.