Sean Bobbitt Talks 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.”

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.”

Read the rest at TOH/Indiewire.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Cinematography, Clips, Movies, Tech

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