Acting Reference: 12 Years A Slave

September 27th, 2016

Acting Reference #77 from Kyle Kenworthy on Vimeo.

This acting clip from “12 Years a Slave” featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great look at the building of performance. What really stood out to me as an animator, aside from some of the more acting specific beats that we will soon discuss, is the ability to take a short bit of audio on loop (in this case the song) and build an entire emotional shot with depth that spans almost two minutes in actuality.

While the camera stays stable and the focal length keeps us grounded in the foreground Chiwtel’s performance takes us through an entire emotional arc. I have to first point out I have yet to see the movie, although I have watched numerous clips. So I don’t really know where we are in the movie and why. However, i have been looking at these shots as if I was watching a demo reel. The goal of animated tests on reels is to create short shots that essentially try to tell us a story within what we watch, and we definitely have that here.

We watch a lonely character having an intriguing internal thought process that keeps him separated from his blurry group, whom are all “connected” via a song he does not sing. It is a literal representation of an “outsider”. However, as he continues his internal struggle, and progressively breaks down, we actually watch him slowly start to mouth the song on beat, as if he is slowly transforming to match his group. The internal struggle is unknown to us (at least in the clip) yet we can see the various stages of the break down, until he finally cannot hold it inside any longer and breaks down into tears.

The range between passively out of it, to aware, to emotional — then instantly flipped to determined around 00:42 seconds, is just unbelievable. And it doesn’t end there, he then transitions into almost a form of micro anger, before exasperation and slightly hopeful…until the final tears that fully unite him with his surroundings.

This was looking at it out of context of course. Not having seen the film. When we look at the summary and generally speaking the story line however, what we see from the acting still relatively holds up, giving us a real sense of how astounding the performance really was.

“In the years before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner (Michael Fassbender), he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon’s life forever.”

For those whom have not seen the movie, where would you place this scene? Does it hold up at any point of does this give you a sense of the timeline?

I ask these questions because were you to make the scene from scratch these might be things that would help you solidify the shot, his character, his reactions, and generally speaking the purpose of what we see.

Lastly, Id like to take a look at his eyes. Take some time to go through it and really notice how they themselves not only give us a perception of internal struggle, but also lead the shot progression. There are moments where our character looks down on the ground and his eyes are no longer visible. How do you feel during those “breaks” ? We definitely lose a sense of where he is in his emotional progression. This really points out how important the eye is to our indications of human emotion. Food for thought!

You can watch it frame by frame and slow motion here!