March 4, 2014

Simplicity & Beauty: DP Sean Bobbitt Discusses the Stunning Cinematography of '12 Years A Slave'

Of the many excellent films to hit theaters last year, few were as powerful (or as well shot) as the Best Picture Oscar winner, 12 Years A Slave. It's one of those rare films that transcends its utterly brutal subject matter and makes a powerful statement about the resiliency of the human spirit. Although much of that power is derived from terrific acting and direction, Sean Bobbitt's masterful cinematography plays a critical role in allowing the emotionality of the story and its characters to emanate from the screen. In a pair of excellent interviews with Cinefii and Time LightBox, Bobbitt explains not only how he managed to craft such a gorgeous film, but also his theories behind portraying violence through film, working with Steve McQueen, and much, much more. Stick with us for a crash course in dramatic cinematography.

First, just in case you haven't seen it yet, here is the theatrical trailer for 12 Years A Slave, which gives a brief taste of Sean Bobbitt's extraordinary cinematography in the film.

The first interview with Bobbitt comes from our friends over at Cinefii, whose excellent cinematography videos I have shared several times. In this video, Bobbitt talks about a number of subjects (in his extremely charming accent), chiefly the two guiding principles for the cinematography of 12 Years A Slave, simplicity and beauty, and how these principles manifested themselves in the shooting of the film.

Oftentimes, films with overly violent content are shot in such a way where the cinematography itself mirrors the violence. And in many ways, this idea of form mirroring content can be an invaluable cinematic tool. However, Bobbitt and McQueen took a decidedly opposite approach, in which they utilized the natural beauty of Louisiana, coupled with an utterly beautiful filming style, and used this beauty as a counterpoint to the on-screen violence, and as a brief respite from the film's many emotionally devastating moments. It's an odd juxtaposition (violence and beauty), but one that actually benefits the film in many ways.

The second interview comes from a section of the Time magazine website called LightBox. In this fantastic interview (which contains some spoilers, in case you decide to read it in its entirety), Bobbitt talks about the collaborative and spontaneous nature of Steve McQueen's sets, and how his largely improvised shooting style can spur creativity like none other.

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.

Jaap Buitendijk - Fox Searchlight

He also talks about why a single camera setup is absolutely crucial for this style of filmmaking:

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.

There is quite a bit more information in the LightBox interview, so I strongly suggest that you head over to the Time website and read it.

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What do you guys think of the cinematography in 12 Years A Slave? How do you feel about the concept of juxtaposing violence with beauty within the context of a film? Does it surprise you that McQueen's improvisatory sets can produce such stunning cinematographic results? Let us know down in the comments!

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32 Comments

It's well done and the aesthetics wonderfully compliment the narrative and art direction. However, it's far from stunning.

March 4, 2014

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Fredo Ramos

Would rather say "brilliant" not stunning.

March 4, 2014

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Fredo Ramos

12 years of PR

March 5, 2014

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Biggest Iscar snub of the year.

March 4, 2014

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Brandon

you are all racist.
;)

March 5, 2014

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These comments are funny, "brilliant" not "stunning", this was one of the best looking movies in a long time, cinematography 101. Actually, 2013 was an amazing year for cinematography, I found it really hard to root for anyone in particular at the oscars since all of those nominees brought their A-game and gave us spectacular imagery.

March 4, 2014

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Harry

I agree. Amazing year for cinematography.
Real chances now being taken - CGI crossover, the restricted palette of the Coen film, Nebraska's digital B&W, 12 year's gorgeous yet restrained look.
On the operating side I also liked the massive amount of genuine handheld (as opposed to Steadicam) in Oscar films this year (Captain Phillips/Dallas Buyers Club).
2014 looking no slouch either.

March 4, 2014

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marklondon

Totally agree about the great handheld work in those two movies.

You left out Prisoners though. AMAZING stuff in that one. My personal favorite of the nominees although I think the merit of Gravity deserved the win.

What is coming out in 2014 you're stoked for? Other than Gone Girl I'm not too sure what I'm waiting for this year.

March 4, 2014

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I agree Prisoners looked great but you know: Deakins. Never a badly lit frame. But as often happens to him, let down a bit by the film for me.
Also have you seen The Great Beauty? Its like gorging on the richest, warmest images you've seen in some time. Too rich a diet to live on, but nice to be reminded that the Italians can still really bring it when they want to.
I thought Budapest Hotel looked great. Lots of deep focus if you're into that.
Have seen some stuff from a couple of very interesting looking films not out yet. Keep an eye on SXSW.
Also: Caleb Daschenel is my frontrunner for worst cinematography for Winters Tale. It actually made me angry :-)

March 4, 2014

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marklondon

I feel that way about every Jeff Cronenweth film. He's lit some great films, but his style is is so blah to me.

March 4, 2014

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Nick

March 4, 2014

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biagio

I agree as well, it was truly artistic and stunning in every sense...not so much of just HOW it looked but WHY it looked how it did to help convey emotion, and the story. Bobbit is one of the best IMO and all of his work is phenomenal. People just don't seem to get it.

March 4, 2014

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Brad Watts

I thought it looked really good, but I've seen better this year ('Prisoners' looks amazing).

This part of the article I am struggling to understand.:

"It’s one of those rare films that transcends its utterly brutal subject matter and makes a powerful statement about the resiliency of the human spirit."

March 4, 2014

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Fresno Bob

I'm struggling to find were your struggling.

March 5, 2014

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ArchiCine

12 Years was beautiful, no doubt. Un-manipulated natural light and natural light augmentation is far less challenging than creating from scratch. God was the gaffer for much of this. So just looking at composition is harder to separate its 'brilliance' from all the rest. I think it was absolutely beautiful, yes. But the 'standout' that many claim it to be? Definitely not; it was only as good as the rest of the noms.

March 4, 2014

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"Un-manipulated natural light and natural light augmentation is far less challenging than creating from scratch"
I actually almost spat my coffee out. I think i know what you're trying to say, but even then, no.

March 4, 2014

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marklondon

Dafuq?

March 5, 2014

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ArchiCine

lol

March 4, 2014

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Marcus

1. Simplicity and superb taste - understanding how to make the color and camera not get in the way of the story.

2. I think we are getting to the point where there is such a flood of new talent coming from amateur youtube moviemakers, and cheap cameras and editing gear, that standards at the top are getting better and better, but less and less real. So, this movie is very well done, and very real, perhaps a key to its success.

3. My fave movie this year shares the simplicity of camera and lighting, the award winning Blue is the Warmest Color. But, in that movie, the director so punishes the actors that they lose their artificial nature and offer up the single best acting performances in years, in particular their love scenes, the break up, and the eating scenes. Almost like a reality TV show. 12 Years A Slave never gets to that. It is still a story, and the lines of the actors are from a story, a great story, but just that, a story.

March 4, 2014

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Keating Willcox

...a true story as well.

March 5, 2014

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Huh

March 5, 2014

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Conrad

Gravity blew 12 years a Slave out the water for cinematography. The Grandmaster was also pretty incredible.

March 5, 2014

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Conrad

If you consider that maybe only 10% of Gravity was actual cinematography and 90% CG created (with at most, the DP's suggestions on camera and lighting virtually), then yeah.

March 5, 2014

1
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+Infinity

March 5, 2014

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Nick

12 years of crap

March 5, 2014

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12 years of PR, would be probably more accurate.

March 5, 2014

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I read these comments. Apparently there's a lot of idiots that read nofilmschool.

March 5, 2014

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Johnny five

I read these comments. Apparently there’s a lot of "genius" that showcase their IQ.

March 6, 2014

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mon

12 years was thee most hardcore film to be put out my a major studio in decades. It deserves it's awards...

March 7, 2014

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Slinky

well,I do believe that everything is basically tools,CG,camera,lighting etc... its not what tool you use, it's HOW you use these tools , in order to make a story to live with stunning cinematography.

March 6, 2014

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mon

Agreed. You don't just show up on set and throw the camera down because the suns out. There's plenty of manipulation to be had in natural light, especially since you can't directly control it.

March 11, 2014

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jackshepard

Its a beautiful work of camera,and the use of sound and light,so wonderful...love the dept of field in the picture....gud work.

May 19, 2014

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Atoyebi Babatun...