Cinematographer Sean Bobbit, BSC, discusses his work on "12 Years a Slave", a film by Steve McQueen

Interview by Noé Bach and Eva Sehet

[English] [français]

During 21th Plus Camerimage Festival, K5600 Lighting and Transvideo, with Thales Angénieux, AFC’s Associate Members, invited twleve French cinema schools students – six of La Fémis, six of Louis-Lumière – to stay in Bydgoszcz. Two of them interviewed DoP Sean Bobbit, BSC. He speaks about the shooting of 12 Years a Slave, by Steve McQueen.

We met Sean Bobbit, BSC, at the Holiday Inn Hotel where he stayed for the festival. As cinematography students we were very Lucky to have the chance to interview him because he was very busy during this festival : he gave an incredible handheld workshop, had a conference about film-stock with Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC, was part of the Polish Competition jury and gave a very generous conference after the screening of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s latest movie (NB & ES).

How did your encounter with Steve McQueen impact your career ?

Sean Bobbit : I think every cinematographer is looking for a director who is a real collaborator. I’ve been working with Steve for 13 years now, we first met just after my first break into feature-film business, Wonderland, by Michael Winterbottom (1999). Steve’s wife had really liked the movie and advised him to meet me. Wonderland was shot in a very documentary-like style, which was the reason why I got the job : at that time, I especially worked as a documentary cameraman and news reporter.
So we met and we got along well. I worked with him on a few installations while keeping on working in the traditional industry, being a cinematographer on feature films and TV dramas. I didn’t know anything about art videos, and I especially didn’t excepted Steve to become a feature film director someday. But Channel 4 had the idea of giving a few contemporary artists a million pounds to direct a movie, and asked Steve to be one of them.
Even if it was his director’s debut, Steve had incredibly accurate ideas about what he wanted and learned very quickly the ‘making of the things’, because he had seen all the movies ever made. The collaboration with him was incredibly liberating : he had no preconceived ideas on narrative construction and didn’t work in a classic way.

12 Years a Slave is your latest collaboration with him, and maybe the most "ambitious" one. After three movies, how do you work together, what is the typical schedule of a shooting day ?

SB : Steve has a pretty standard approach. We go to the set early in the morning with the actors and they rehearse with Steve. Once they’re satisfied they invite me to see the action. We then have a very quick talk with Steve about the shots of the sequence, sometimes followed by a few changes in the action of the actors. Then the whole crew comes and sees what’s going on, while I give Steve the viewfinder and show him the camera positions I suggest. The actors are then sent to hair/makeup/costumes, a period of time I use to finish the light – all the set is primarily prelit by a rigging team – and anticipate the grip equipment I need. As soon as they come back, we shoot.

So you don’t have a shot-list beforehand ? How do you anticipate the technical needs then ?

SB : We never have a preconceived shot list but we do talk a lot during the prep and the location scouting. For some sequences we have a more accurate idea of what the shot will be, for example the selling of the slaves in 12 Years a Slave : the character played by Paul Giamatti is just a salesman, so we knew we wanted the sequence to look like a commercial, and the fluid Steadicam sequence-shot was an evidence.
On the other hand, the last shot of the sequence where Solomon leaves the plantation is very last minute : we saw during the rehearsal that having together Solomon in the carriage and Patsey collapsing at the background could be very strong. So I had the grips build the rig for the carriage while we were shooting the shots leading to that.
You have to be two or three scenes ahead in your mind, to anticipate, because you have to do so many shots per day that you cannot afford to make people wait for you. For example on The Place Beyond The Pines, which had a very fast shooting rhythm, we had an average of thirty-two shots per day, and that’s the rhythm I try to keep on other shootings as well, around thirty shots/day. On period drama like 12 Years a Slave, it’s a little bit slower, because you have all the set design and costumes : it’s around seventeen shots per day. You know, American cinema is an industry, and you have to be efficient. They even keep statistics on the DoPs, on the average number of shots per day, the time to get the first shot done, etc. That’s why I really like to say : “Camera standing by !”, while the 1st AD is still waiting for the actors. (Laughs)
The anticipation is such that sometimes you ask the grips to build one of those amazing rigs and when you get to the shot it’s not relevant anymore, so the rig needs to be undone. I try not to do that because it’s people’s work, but that’s cinema and you have to be flexible, that’s the way we work with Steve.

In this tight schedule, how do you get the lights ready ?

SB : On 12 Years a Slave, we had a five weeks prep, which was the absolute minimum for a period drama. About a month before the shooting we did technical scoutings with the gaffer and the heads of departments. We discussed about a rough lighting idea for each scene so the space would be prelit. I do ‘area lighting’ : I light the whole set so that the actors and the camera can be free within that space. I try to make 360° shots possible, which is basically having the light come through the windows and from top-lights or practicals, and to keep it simple.
This lets the actors come into a prelit set so that they can play with the atmosphere. Sometimes they tend to play just near the light, and sometimes they will find the darker space in the room ; if you got it wrong you have to be very quick to save your ass, and your gaffer is your best friend.
Cinematography is often about problem-solving, but you sometimes don’t have the time to be subtle, so you take a hammer and hit into it. The DI helps me a lot with that : one of the reasons why you can get thirty shots a day is that you make certain compromises. If you want to have a wall in shadows and no one walks in front of it, you can do it on the computer instead of spending thirty minutes with flags.

How did your work on documentaries train you to be a cinematographer, especially light-wise ?

SB : Documentary is a good train-ground if you want to get into drama business. It helps you to read light, to work with it while not being able to control it.
But the main lesson of documentary is : how to shoot sequences, how to read real-life action and very quickly get it into shots that are usable by the editor. It helps you to spot what’s really important in a sequence, and find the best way to shoot it. Feature film is just a different scale, you still have a time restrain, you still have to do the day, but you have more people to help you. Sometimes you have to work very quickly, especially when you begin a sequence about 20 minutes before the end of the shooting day !... (Laughs)

How do you build the sequence-shots with different directors ?

SB : Everybody has a slightly different way of working. As I told you before concerning the shot list is still valid for the sequence-shot : I see the rehearsal, I make a proposition to the director, and I try not to influence on the actors’ action. Only in extreme cases will I tell the director and then the director will maybe ask those changes to the actors.
I really admire actors, because they handle their art while being aware of all the jobs around : they will do a slight shift of weight before going out of a room, or lean forward a little bit before getting up from a chair.

Another important aspect to think about when you build a sequence-shot is the CG effects nowadays. For example in 12 Years a Slave, when Patsey gets whipped by Solomon and Epps, we couldn’t have a real make-up back, it was too dangerous, so the whip hits only three or four foot away from the back, and the rest was CG effects : the wounds on the back, the blasts of blood, and even the whip got a bit longer digitaly. I had to be on one side or the other so that the spectator wouldn’t feel the cheating of the distance : I was either on her side looking towards him or from his side looking towards her back. We didn’t do any large profile shot that would have revealed the distance cheat.

How do you light the sequence-shots ? Is there any change on lighting/diaphragm during the shot ?

SB : No, I usually don’t do that. For example, the selling of the slaves in 12 Years a Slave, was shot in a museum. I couldn’t build any grill or put light or paint on the walls, I could only have the light come from outside the windows, so we had eight 6Ks trough full grid cloth on the windows, and nothing more. We had chose this set knowing that, so we had the right color on the walls, the right space for the camera, etc. Once the light was set, I didn’t change it.

And how did you deal with the contrast in the room, with the source of light – the windows – in the frame ?

SB : That’s why I shoot on film : it has an immense dynamic range.

Why do you nearly always shoot Scope, but never with anamorphic lenses ?

SB : Producers never let me take anamorphic lenses ! It’s all about compromise : I want to shoot film, I want to shoot widescreen, so Techniscope 2-perf is the best compromise when the money is small. You have cheaper spherical lenses, and the film stock is saved. It’s not that I love 2-perf, but if it’s the condition to shoot on film, I go for that.

How do you work with natural light, for example in the sequences taking place in the cotton fields ?

SB : Shooting daytime exteriors can always be a challenge, especially when we’re in Louisiana, and when it’s summer. The sun goes straight up, stays there for the whole day, and then it goes straight down. So, the majority of the day the light is not very good, and you have to find a way in the schedule with the 1st AD and see if you can fit interiors when it’s the middle of the day.
For the cotton fields, we wanted to feel the harsh heat and light, so we shot right in the middle of the day. I was lucky because the faces of the actors were protected by their hats from the really horrible shadows (dark eyes, bright nose). So while we kept very hard shadows on the fields, there was soft and beautiful light on the faces, which we only enhanced with bounces.
Another example is the scene with Brad Pitt when they are building a small pavilion near the house : I asked the set designer to place it near a big tree so that the action would be in its shadow or backlit during the whole day. I didn’t know what camera angles we would use, but I could guess them : there was modern road just behind us. (Laughs)

It seems that you get a lot of inspiration from the real sets, were there any built-up sets on 12 Years a Slave shooting ?

SB : This movie was almost all set on location. Probably less than 10% was in studio location. Only the interior of the boat was shot in a studio. The set designer got the original plans of a real boat and just built it on set. My main adjustment was to ask him to increase the size of the ventilation that separates the deck and the hold and was the only source of light that the slaves had. They lived in perpetual darkness. For night scenes we had to cheat with candles.
In this set, like on the other Steve’s shootings, all the walls were built. We wanted to be able to do 360°. Hunger was about to be set in the real prison cells, but it was impossible because of political reasons : we had to build the cell blocks in studio, but it had to be very realistic. All the walls and the ceilings were built. We didn’t want to cheat the space : it has to feel real, with the limitations of the real world.

(Interview by Noé Bach and Eva Sehet, La fémis Dt. Image students, November 2013 – Courtesy of Film and Digital Times)

Top : Sean Bobbit - Photo Noé Bach