Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from 12 Years a Slave. "One of the things that we wanted to embrace and use for a number of different effects was the beauty of Louisiana. The place has an inherent natural beauty and was probably even more naturally beautiful in the times of Solomon Northrup. We didn’t want to fight against that. In the same way that we wanted to find the truth of the story, we were looking for the truth of the situation,” says Sean Bobbitt, Director of Photography.
Francois Duhamel—Fox Searchlight
By Paul Moakley
February 28, 2014

With the ever closer integration of digital photography and video on most professional cameras and the proliferation of smartphones, it seems that pretty much anyone can not only take high-quality pictures, but can also shift seamlessly into making videos and, in a sense, movies. In this new era, many photographers have moved into making film– and as part of a new series — LightBox is proud to present interviews with some of the world’s greatest cinematographers to discuss their art and its enduring, intimate connection with the still image.


Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has collaborated with filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen for well over a deacde on films such as Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), as well as on McQueen’s art projects like Western Deep (2002).

This year, the epic 12 Years a Slave is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It’s based on the true account of Solomon Northup, a free man who was sold into slavery in 1841 and it delivers an unflinching depiction of his journey.

Bobbitt began his career in journalism, working as a cameraman for TV news covering international breaking stories, and he still strives for visual honesty as a central ethos of his filmmaking.

The following is excerpted from a longer interview with LightBox. WARNING: This interview contains spoilers about the film, 12 Years a Slave.

LightBox: Talk a bit about the differences–or the similarities– between photography and cinematography from a narrative standpoint.

Sean Bobbitt: In photography you’re trying to capture a moment in time. In cinematography you’re also trying to capture a moment, but extended over a longer period. One of the major demands is to create a visual consistency over extended periods. You are basically compressing time, and making it believable, so people don’t see the artifice in a half-day’s filming that ends up as six minutes on screen.

We wanted to create something that felt real and accurate, so that at no point is the audience taken out of the film itself — so that the world we created has verisimilitude, that there is a truth to it, to heighten the impact of Solomon’s story.

Jail authorities knew of an heating problem and requested repairs one day before a mentally-ill inmate died in an overheated cell, though the repairs were delayed because of a long weekend. According to the Associated Press, two repair requests prepared on Friday, Feb. 14 weren't received until the following Tuesday because the maintenance department does not process work orders on weekends and because that Monday, President's Day, was a federal holiday. Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old former Marine, was arrested one week before his death for trespassing onto a Harlem public housing project while seeking warm shelter from a cold night. Four hours after his body was found in a pool of blood and vomit in a Rikers Island jail cell, his internal temperature was 103 degrees. A spokesperson did return the AP's request for comment. In March, one of four anonymous jail officials interviewed by AP said that Murdough "basically baked to death," though the medical examiner's office have not yet determined an official cause of death. The interviewed officials said Murdough was on anti-seizure and anti-psychotic medication, which may have made the inmates especially vulnerable to heat, and that he did not open a vent in his cell to cool down, as others in the jail did. [AP]
From left: Sean Bobbitt on location in Louisiana working on 12 Years a Slave with director, Steve McQueen.

LB: What else do you do to prepare yourself to start filming?

SB: Steve and I watched a lot of different films but it was the work of Jim Jarmusch in Down by Law that stood out. It’s a great film and what impressed us is its simplicity. That simplicity became one of the cornerstones to our whole approach.

LB: Can you describe the process of getting to a location and what happens before you begin filming?

SB: I take a lot of stills, then sit down with the director and show the different angles and looks that might work. It becomes a fantastic aid in narrowing down the approach and feel for each specific location.

LB: I’m imagining the day when the set, the actors, the wardrobe, the lighting’s all set. How much spontaneity can go into things once that’s all in play?

SB: One of the pleasures of working with Steve McQueen is that there are no shot lists and there are no story boards, because what’s important is what the actors do and then finding a performance. The idea is to find the space and then to light it in such a way that the actors can go wherever they like, and then to respond to what the actors have done. Only at that point are the final frames decided upon. So it can be very spontaneous.

Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba has filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission to go public in U.S., setting the stage for what could become the largest technology stock offering in history. If successful, Alibaba's IPO could eventually value the company at substantially more than $150 billion, according to Wall Street analysts, in what would amount to a windfall for Yahoo, which owns 24% of the e-commerce giant. Alibaba's public debut would be the largest ever by a Chinese company in the U.S. public markets. Alibaba, which was founded 15 years ago by English teacher-turned-entrepreneur Jack Ma, dominates the Chinese e-commerce market, powering four-fifths of all online commerce in that country, according to Reuters. Along with its flagship Taobao website, the company also operates a digital payments service and a cloud computing business. In its filing with the SEC, Alibaba said it aims to raise $1 billion, but that figure is a placeholder amount used to calculate registration fees. Wall Street analysts believe Alibaba could eventually top Facebook's 2012 $16 billion IPO, which set a record as the largest technology stock offering in history. Alibaba has yet to decide whether to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange or the Nasdaq. Alibaba aims to sell a 12% stake to the public, according to Bloomberg, which could generate as much as $20 billion in new capital for the company. In the coming months, Alibaba will embark on "road show" designed to woo Wall Street investors. Demand for a piece of the IPO is expected to be intense because Western investors are eager to gain exposure to China's massive and fast-growing e-commerce market. Alibaba could eventually have a market valuation of between $150 billion and $200 billion, according to Jeffries technology analyst Brian Pitz, who estimates that Alibaba accounts for about 75% of Yahoo's valuation, along with other Asian assets and cash holdings. At $200 billion, Alibaba would be worth more than U.S. tech titans Facebook and Amazon, but it would still trail Apple and Google, the world's two most valuable technology companies. Last year, Alibaba handled $248 billion in online transactions, according to the company's IPO filing, more than Amazon and eBay combined. Alibaba's meteoric growth has been powered by economic and demographic trends in China, including the ongoing emergence of a large, tech-savvy middle class. In its IPO filing, Alibaba cited China's population of 1.35 billion people, including 618 million Internet users. The company said there are 500 million mobile Internet users and 302 million Internet shoppers in China. Alibaba said its logistics partners delivered 5 billion packages last year, substantially more than UPS, which delivered 4.3 billion packages globally. "There is less of a retail culture in China, ie. 'Let's go shopping on Sunday,'" Paul Sweeney of Bloomberg Industries told PBS Newshour. "They don't really have that as much, and as a result, e-commerce has grown a lot faster in China than it has in a lot of the Western markets." Last month, Yahoo reported tepid results for its core business, but the company's stock jumped 8% based on Alibaba's revenue, which soared 66% from the year before. The company’s net income was $1.6 billion, more than double the previous year. Yahoo shares moved 1% higher in after-hours trading on Tuesday, following Alibaba's IPO filing. "The bottom line is that Yahoo's stock continues to be driven by Alibaba results," Macquarie tech analyst Ben Schachter wrote in a recent note to clients. "With its reaccelerating revenue growth and high margins, Yahoo will continue to reap the rewards of its Alibaba holdings." Investment banking giants Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Citi are listed as underwriters for Alibaba's stock offering.
Jaap Buitendijk—Fox Searchlight

LB: Are you working with many different cameras at once, shooting from different angles?

SB: No, it’s all single camera, and that’s an important part of the aesthetic. Once you put multiple cameras into a location you are, by the very nature of having more than one, going to be compromising all of them.

I find that the single camera approach is the most efficient and effective because it also makes you concentrate, instead of just hoovering up a bunch of images and finding the scene in the edit. You have to make decisions on the day itself, and that really sharpens everyone. For me that’s kind of the essence of filmmaking — that you have a group of people who are all focused and making important aesthetic and story decisions on the day, as opposed to putting those decisions off to some later point.

LB: I was hoping we could go through a few of your favorite scenes. Can we start with the the hanging scene?

SB: When I first read the script, the hanging of Solomon was the most important visuals in the film, because up to that point we kind of know he’s a slave, but he’s with a master who’s seemingly benevolent, and we’re thinking, Oh, he’s gonna be ok. And then, suddenly, we realize this is not ok, this is not benevolent.

The horror of the reality of slavery is driven home in that scene, because he belongs to someone else and only that person can save him, only that person can touch him. It’s shocking, and it’s real.

What was very important is that the audience gets a sense of the passage of time, and sense the length of the shots, that feeling of the duration of the day as it goes through the heat of the day and drifts toward the evening.

You should feel the incredible pain and discomfort that he’s going through and that sensation of near death, which is seared into Solomon’s memory forever. But also the sheer horror of life going on around him, the people have become so used to this life of pain and torture that they pay it no heed.

So often these things are glossed over and the audience is let off the hook, and that’s where so many of the films of the past have failed. They have alluded to the barbarity of slavery, but never have really just shown it in its reality and baseness.

The Frozen juggernaut is still boosting Disney’s bottom line, the company revealed in its quarterly earnings report. The Walt Disney Company posted profits of $1.9 billion in the first quarter, up 27 percent year-over-year, as well as revenues of $11.6 billion, up 10 percent. Both numbers easily beat analysts’ estimates. Disney’s movie studio led the company in growth, with operating income more than tripling to $475 million and revenue climbing 35 percent year-over-year to $1.8 billion. Disney attributed the huge figures to Frozen, which was smashing both box office and home-video sales record during the first quarter, as well as Thor: The Dark World, another release in a string of hit movies based on the Marvel universe of characters. Disney stock was essentially flat in after-hours trading following the release of the earnings report.
Jaap Buitendijk—Fox Searchlight

My favorite scene, though, is so simple, just a medium shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor, when he just sort of glances into the camera.

At the end of the day the cinematography is there purely as a vehicle for the performance. The camera should be invisible, and in that scene that is very much the case, as Chiwetel goes off into this amazing state. His face isn’t moving, and yet we see the whole of his life written in his eyes, the compassion and the horror and the dignity all welled up inside him, and when he does that little glance into the camera, it was like a physical blow to the chest. It’s so simple and powerful, and for me that’s what cinematography should be.

Then there’s the whipping scene of Patsey, (played by Lupita Nyong’o). The reality is that, perversely, that was the most enjoyable scenes of the film to make. I live for those extended hand-held scenes, and to be able to get all the beats correct and to be in the right place at the right time for the whole of the take I found it exhilarating.

This scene is the culmination of all the humiliation, pain and fear and all the degradation, when he’s forced to whip the one person he has a connection with, someone he loves. It’s heartbreaking, so it was crucial for that scene to work. From the very beginning Steve and I agreed that if we could possibly do it in one shot, then we would. We’ve discovered over the years that if you extend a shot, particularly a scene of violence, and don’t edit it, you don’t lose the audience. But as soon as an edit appears in such a scene, subconsciously the audience is reminded that it’s watching a film — that it’s not real — and they relax. If there is no edit, then you’re not given that opportunity to relax, and are drawn deeper into the emotion of the scene itself.

It’s not there in the whipping scene as a flashy, extended hand-held shot. It’s there as a reminder that this is what happened — and we’re not going to let you look away from it.

I went to Intel's Chrome OS event this morning, which filled its San Francisco venue to the brim with new devices running Google's browser-centric operating system and packing powerful Intel chips--scads of new Chromebooks from major hardware makers, Chromebox mini-desktops and even an all-in-one machine from LG. It was an impressive showing, and I came away lusting after some of the models I saw. (I like my own Chromebook, an 11-inch HP with a Samsung ARM-based processor, but it can be pretty pokey when I open too many tabs.) As usual at a Chrome OS event, part of the goal was to make the point that Chrome devices are doing well. Figures got quoted: Sales rankings and user star ratings at Amazon, and the fact that 10,000 schools have adopted Chromebooks. Certainly, the platform feels viable in a way which it once did not. (When Gmail creator Paul Buchheit predicted Chrome OS's imminent demise in December 2010, it sounded like a perfectly reasonable prognostication.) Still, the more data points you consider, the harder it is to get a grip on whether Chrome OS is booming, filling a small-but-healthy niche or struggling to matter at all. Let's review the available evidence: Chromebooks took 9.6 percent of U.S. commercial sales of computing devices from January-November 2013, up from almost nothing in 2012. That's according to NPD's figures for the sales channels which target businesses, and it includes the iPad and other tablets as well as laptops and desktop PCs. For a computing platform which barely seemed to be going anywhere a year earlier, that's a huge deal. And if you count only notebooks, Chromebooks have an even more impressive 21 percent market share. In all, NPD says that 1.76 million Chromebooks shipped through U.S. commercial channels in the first eleven months of the 2013. Only 1 percent of PCs sold worldwide in 2013 were Chromebooks. In this case the numbers are IDC's. They're for the whole planet, not just the U.S.. and cover all sales channels, not just business-to-business ones. IDC says that 2.5 million Chromebooks were sold worldwide in 2013. At first blush, that sounds like it might conceivably jibe with NPD's figure of 1.76 million units sold in the first eleven months of the year. Except that NPD's number was for sales to U.S. businesses, while IDC says that "virtually zero" Chromebooks went to enterprises (ie, corporate customers) and that it's consumers who are buying them. I can't reconcile these viewpoints. Six of the top twenty laptops on Amazon are Chromebooks. ...including two of the top three models. And the single best-selling desktop on Amazon is Asus's Chromebox. These figures are as of the moment I write this--Amazon updates them hourly--but they always make Chrome OS machines look like hot sellers. Looking at them, I can understand why Microsoft is concerned enough about Chromebooks to helpfully advise people not to buy them. As of January, Chrome devices accounted for only .2 percent of U.S. and Canada web traffic. Chitika released that figure in February, and it covers September 2013 through January 2014. It represents a doubling of Chitika's previous number, but it's still so puny that you might as well round it down to zero. And in theory, the average Chrome OS user should be online more than a Windows PC or Mac user, since the whole idea is they provide an entirely web-based experience. Disclaimer: Except for the Amazon rankings, all of these stats are at least a few months out of date, and they don't include some of the data which I'm most curious about. For instance, you can buy Chromebooks at Best Buy, Walmart and Target, but I haven't seen any figures on how they're doing at these major retailers. (For what it's worth, I checked BestBuy.com's laptop section, supposedly sorted with the best sellers up top, and the first Chromebook came in at number 23.) It's also possible that all the data points above connect into a coherent story: Chrome OS devices are selling well to U.S. businesses and Amazon customers but barely matter on a global scale, and aren't yet being used by enough people to add up to meaningful web traffic. If Chrome OS use is growing rapidly, and continues to do so, I'd expect the picture to be clearer in the months and years to come. But for now, all I know for sure is that both Chrome skeptics and Chrome boosters can point to stats which seem to back up their respective stances. Convenient, isn't it?
Fox Searchlight

LB: Is there anything else that’s visually important to the film?

SB: One of the things that we wanted to embrace and use for a number of different effects was the beauty of Louisiana. The place has an inherent natural beauty and was probably even more naturally beautiful in the times of Solomon Northrup.

Another things is that, from the beginning, we wanted it to hark back to a traditional epic, hence the choice to shoot it on film and in a widescreen aspect ratio. Particularly for older members of the audience who grew up looking at film, there would be some kind of subconscious feeling that, okay, this is a classic epic film.

We always set out to make the best film we possibly can, but until an audience responds to it you have no idea what you have, and the response to 12 Years a Slave from audiences so far has been above and beyond what we could of ever have hoped.


Paul Moakley is the Deputy Photo Editor at TIME. You can follow him on Twitter @paulmoakley.

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