A Sequence in 12 Years A Slave shows Patsey, a plantation worker, being tied to a pole and whipped.

Parsley being whipped, screaming

The shot is horrifying, and shows her flesh being torn and rendered open by the whip as it makes contact, cleaving chunks of flesh away.

Obviously they didn't actually whip Lupita Nyong'o, and from this interview we can determine that no actual contact was made with her body during the scene:

It’s all about the crack of the whip. You hear it. And you feel it. I felt the wind of it every single time. I didn’t need much more. That was one technical thing, and definitely it took some finessing because obviously I can’t see what’s happening. I can’t see the whip. I can only react to the sound and the wind of it, yeah? So it was hard, but that day was as real as it could have possibly been for me, because in preparing for it, all I could do was be present.

It's unlikely the shots were achieved by CGI, unless it's literally the best CGI ever used in cinema and Steve McQueen is incredibly humble about what he's achieved (those of you who have seen the movie will no doubt vouch for this, it's incredible).

But I can't understand how they could have been achieved practically without physically touching the actress, which she has stated didn't happen.

Another interviewer was, like me, utterly incredulous as to how this scene was shot and asked Nyong'o herself, but she only replied:

It feels, as the viewer, like it would've taken longer to achieve -- not only because it's one continuous shot, but because it's so emotionally heavy. Were those practical effects or CGI effects employed?

I don't feel like telling! [Laughs]

Does anyone with any practical experience of S/FX understand how they could have filmed this? Does anyone actually know how this was achieved?

  • While I haven't seen 12 Years a Slave yet, I remember The Passion of the Christ also showing flesh ripped open by lashing (and being praised/criticized for it). While I obviously cannot say if that was in any way similar, it might be a place to look for answers, too.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jan 11, 2014 at 13:57
  • I know Passion was achieved through a CGI whip and latex, but it never actually went as far as showing the striking and rending of flesh. This Could be CGI, but it would be incredible if it was, it needs to be seen to be believed I think. Jan 11, 2014 at 14:00

2 Answers 2


(Not saying this is how it was really done - my background is in stage, not screen).

There are three effects going on there - the spray of blood from the whip, the (very brief) scene where you see the whip striking the actresses back, and the closeup of the wounds afterward.

In reverse order:

  • the closeup is basic prosthetics well within the abilities of a makeup student. They're a bit big - actual wounds of that scale would not have been survivable in that era.

  • the whip strikes don't need to be simulated. A layer of wetsuit neoprene can be applied (with a few pre-existing wounds on top) to take the quite weak hits of the whip. The recipient would barely notice. If you really want to lay it on you apply some plaster bandages under the neoprene. If you REALLY want to lay it on, make a body cast and use that to form a brass plate to her back (brass hand-forms easier than aluminum).

  • spray is easy. Put a sponge on her back or just use a mister filled with red water. Notice how much bigger the cloud is when filmed over her shoulder. CGI is even easier, just costs a lot more. Can't do CGI on stage.

All the above is a LOT easier to do on a black performer, especially with one as dark as Lupita Nyong'o. Because of the lower reflected light, lower contrast, the seams in the makeup just disappear.

Complements to the sound effect crew for avoiding the whip-crack cliche. Whips don't make the crack sound when they strike something.

We were such pleasant people back then.

  • 1
    Can you provide proof for your claim that wounds that size were not survivable for that time period? Also, could you rephrase, "..especially one as dark as that girl?" The actress is well known and won an Academy Award for the role, after all.
    – MattD
    Sep 5, 2014 at 14:37
  • 3
    @MattD: 1. cuts that penetrate the dermis will very likely get infected, especially if the cutting object was on the ground and picked up the usual detritus in the dirt. Multiple, 30cm long deep wounds will quickly attract various insects. If you are very lucky you might survive. Older armies lost more troops to post-battle infection than immediate death in combat.
    – paul
    Sep 5, 2014 at 23:36
  • @MattD 2. "as dark as that girl" refers to her skin colour. She's native Kenyan, and central Africans are usually very dark. How well known you are won't change that. We had a Kenyan pilot working for us once, black as a cloudy midnight. We called him "Stealth". He liked to come up to the office window after sunset and smile - looked like the Cheshire Cat.
    – paul
    Sep 5, 2014 at 23:48
  • 2
    @paul 1. Add this to your answer. 2. Referring to her as "that girl" just sounds a bit racist to me (not that I'm saying you're racist), but regardless of that she wasn't uncredited for her role, and won several awards for it. As such I felt it pertinent to provide her name instead of simply referring to her as "that girl".
    – MattD
    Sep 6, 2014 at 0:54
  • 4
    The question asks how to do a particular effect. The name of the "victim" is rather irrelevant - stage and screen crews generally don't care who the performer is, we do care (a lot) what they look like. Kristin Chenoweth is coming? Crew puts out the shorter mic stands and a chair step (production notes might say "singer: really short blonde girl"). Eddie Murphy? Change the nighttime backdrop for daytime and change the fill light on his side to a light purple (guest #2: african-american). Check Lupita's interview on Conan vs on Ellen. Better background on Ellen, better dress on Conan.
    – paul
    Sep 6, 2014 at 2:41

BuzzFeed has an article that describes the process as a mix of practical effects and CGI.

Logistically, it was a matter of some old-school camera trickery — the whip never came close to Nyong'o's back, but it looked like it did thanks to the camera angles director Steve McQueen chose for the scene, and Nyong'o moving her body as if she was being whipped. And when the camera swings around to capture the ruin inflicted upon Patsey's back, the effect is a combination of practical make-up and CGI.

As for the actual mechanics of what practical effects they used... unknown. Hopefully there's an industry professional somewhere around here.


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