A day after 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, New York Film Academy Los Angeles students were treated to a private screening of the film at Warner Brothers studios followed by a Q&A with Sean Bobbitt, the film’s acclaimed cinematographer (fresh from winning the Spirit award for his work the previous day).
Sean Bobbitt is a British cinematographer, born in America, but grew up all over the world including England where his father was in the oil industry and worked abroad. He spent years working as a news and documentary cameraman before moving into narrative. He met Steve McQueen thirteen years ago when the director of 12 Years a Slave was doing art installations. After seeing Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland, Bobbitt’s first narrative feature, McQueen’s wife admired his work and encouraged McQueen to meet Bobbitt. During his first meeting with McQueen, Bobbitt recalls thinking the director was “Either an absolute genius or an absolute lunatic, but either way it was going to be interesting doing something with him.”
Throughout the years, Sean Bobbitt and Steve McQueen have developed a potent cinematic language that is such a breath of fresh air. An example of this is their propensity for long takes. Regarding this, Bobbitt said, “I think a part of the reason it is so powerful is because of that simplicity. We’re not used to it anymore. We’re used to the edit, the edit, the edit, so when you walk away from that people really look at it because it’s unusual, it’s different. And I think by extending those shots, it draws people into the scene, hopefully.” In regards specifically to the long shot in 12 Years a Slave in which actress Lupita Nyong’o’s character gets relentlessly whipped Bobbit said, “What we think happens is by not putting an edit here, particularly in scene of extreme violence, the audience is pulled in further and further into the story. As soon as you put a cut in, they are subconsciously reminded that it’s a film and that they don’t need to be upset because it’s a film. If there’s no cut, there’s no escape.”