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Behind the Moving Image: The Cinematography of 12 Years a Slave

9 minute read

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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