'12 Years a Slave' Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt: Not Letting the Audience Off the Hook
“A lot of people complained that the shots were too long and uncomfortable," says the lenser. "[Director Steve McQueen said] 'That worked perfect then, and we're not going to change that.'"
Steve McQueen’s period drama 12 Years a Slave -- an adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man who was sold into slavery -- was shot in and around New Orleans by director of photography Sean Bobbitt, who also operated the camera. The veteran cinematographer recently talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the photography and some of the most “powerful and horrific” sequences in the film.
“The scene where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs for the better part of the day was a critical scene to get right,” said Bobbitt, who photographed the movie on film. “For me, that scene really drove home the true horror of slavery. No one can help him because he belongs to someone else.... The fact that everyone else sort of gets on with their lives around him highlights that this was not unexpected or unusual.”
The long sequence uses several extended shots at different times of the day. “Steve wanted to show the transition from afternoon into early evening, so the horror of strangling would be driven home,” Bobbitt said. “Each of the shots is held for a long period of time, specifically to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible and to force them to reflect on what was happening to Solomon and how terrifying that must have been."
“When the film was first tested, a lot of people complained that the shots were too long and uncomfortable. And to Steve’s credit, he said, ‘That worked perfect then, and we‘re not going to change that.’ “
Bobbitt shared similar thoughts about the take during which the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is whipped. “For Steve and myself, that was always going to be one continuous shot,” he said. “The audience is given no relief. Once you put a cut it, then subconsciously everyone is aware that they are watching a film, and it lets them off the hook.… Particularly for a scene like that, with the complexity of the emotions and the violence going on, it really acts to heighten the drama and the performance of the actors.”
Bobbitt focused on lighting in a way that stayed true to the period. “There’s always a challenge when you're doing a period piece set in a time when there is no street lighting," he said, citing a night scene during which slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) drags Solomon out of bed to quiz him about an occurrence. The light for the actors comes from the candle in a lantern that Fassbender is carrying. “The background felt really dark, but we just have a sense of the world behind it -- particularly the house and the trees," Bobbit said. "It was quite a large area, and the weather was too unstable to put balloons up. So the challenge was how to light a large area for night and get the balance between the foreground and background exactly right. We suspended a series of Space Lights in between the trees so you get areas that are effectively moonlight lighting for the elements of the background. But because [the lighting] was suspended you could move the camera 360 degrees without worrying about seeing it.”
The cinematographer also reflected on capturing the performances. “I’m lucky, since I operate the camera, I’m right there with the actors,” he said. “I have that privilege; my eyes are the first eyes that performance goes through. You hope that on any film there will be moments where the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you are in the presence of something special in terms of the performance. I have never been on a film where it happened so often.”