Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt sought truth in contrivance on '12 Years a Slave'
Filmmaker Steve McQueen’s relationship with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt goes farther back than their 2008 collaboration on McQueen’s feature debut “Hunger.” For some six or seven years before transitioning to the cinema, the two worked together on a series of film and video installations designed for gallery-based presentation. These early works were silent, stark pieces, often with a focus on the body (frequently McQueen’s own body). That aesthetic has deepened through their work on the big screen.
Bobbitt “wasn’t someone for hire, he was someone I knew,” McQueen said in a recent interview, and in a way similar to his continued work with actor Michael Fassbender, the collaboration has grown organically across 13 years. It’s almost like the relationship is one of a band, McQueen described, coming together every now and then to make an album. This year’s release: the aesthetically rich drama “12 Years a Slave.”
“When we start to talk about a film, we have a history and a background to work from,” Bobbitt says. “We spend a lot of time together looking at stuff, talking about scenes and just talking in general. The overriding feel of ’12 Years a Slave’ was that it should be beautiful in a painterly way, but often simple, that there's no — you have no staginess to it. It had to look real, but it would have been too easy and cliche for it to become a gritty, dirty, sort of militant world. And so we sort of came to this idea of simplicity and beauty and that's what we stuck to.”
The look of the film is very much informed by the story itself, written by freeman-turned-freed-slave Solomon Northup in 1855. The Louisiana locations in this case were of the utmost importance to the atmosphere of the film. Bobbitt spent a lot of time early on with McQueen wandering around and snapping still photographs, trying to find what was “real” in that environment, even though, Bobbitt admits, it may be within the context of cinema, whereby everything is contrived in one way or the other.
“But it's trying to find a truth in that contrivance,” he says. “Of course you're conformed by the locations dramatically, as are the actors when they arrive on the locations. But I try and spend as much time as I can immersing myself in the location so I really get a sense of what's there, so that once the actors arrive and the performing starts to develop, it's a simple matter of really maximizing what exists, and also having a good idea of what you then need to create to make that scene work.”
The film was shot on 35mm at a time when digital continues its inevitable march across the industry, like an eclipse over the landscape of analog media. But Bobbitt, whose background is in digital photography, is of course not averse to the new tech. For him it’s simply about options, and that the choices a cinematographer makes — whether as finite as a specific frame or as far-reaching as what format to use for photography — are relevant to the film being made. Apart from Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium,” the last nine films Bobbitt has shot were on film simply because that was the medium that best fit those stories.
That said, Bobbitt is as romantic for the receding form as anyone else. “The grain is something that, when you take it away, you actually really do start to miss it, or at least I do,” he says. “And I think this is also a generational thing. I've grown up watching films the whole of my life on film, where there are two generations now who have grown up on computers, watching digital images. To them the perception of quality is very, very different to mine. To me, that grain and how you use that grain and the depth of the film image is a very powerful tool, particularly when it comes to period dramas. It's the same for the 2.40 aspect ratio. That widescreen immediately says, ‘Look, this is a film. This isn't television. This isn't video. This is a feature film.’”
Another technique Bobbitt and McQueen have employed from the start are long, extended takes. On such take in particular is perhaps the most discussed shot of “12 Years a Slave,” an extended sequence depicting the whipping of a slave as the camera moves in and around the characters, settling in different ways before moving on and capturing the horror in one fluid burst.
“Something Steve and I have learned over the years is that if you put a cut into a sequence you subconsciously remind the audience that it is a film,” Bobbitt says. “And particularly when you're introducing elements of violence, it gives the audience an escape. If you don't cut, then they're drawn in to believing the reality of what is being presented to them, and it helps to build the tension and the horror so dramatically. It’s a very powerful tool, the single shot, in getting across that horror of violence and keeping your audience wrapped and glued to the screen.”
The latest film is also very much in keeping with what has been something of a mission statement in Bobbitt and McQueen’s shared art work from day one. It has always been about bravery and truth, honest and respect, Bobbitt says. Indeed, McQueen’s reaction to reported squeamishness over the subject matter of “12 Years a Slave” reflects this very idea. And that fearlessness, Bobbit says, has been an incalculable gift.
“That gives you then the possibility to do things,” Bobbitt says, “to think of things that you normally wouldn't do and to know that you have the honest support of someone in what you're attempting to do…It's a fantastic thing to have because it means that things are focused in the right direction all the time, that you're always headed in the right direction. But even if something mad comes to mind, the other person is going to look into it, and if they see the merit in it, then you implement it.”
“12 Years a Slave” is now playing in select theaters as it continues to expand nationwide.