WWI: The Cinematography of ‘Drive’

Newton Thomas Siegel has a very simplistic approach to cinematography with underlying elements of complexity which subconsciously infer meaning in each of his shots throughout the film. Drawing inspiration from the Noir films of the early and mid-20th century, the film Drive modernises this cinematographic style in his approach to a similar theme and narrative. He works very well with two particular directors – Nicolas Refn and Bryan Singer. I feel as though his work can be very stylised but he does not want to be tied down to one particular photographic approach in his work as demonstrated by the contrasts between his work. This particular film essay will focus on the particulars of his lighting and camerawork judging from the film itself and not previous research, this leads me to believe that some of the drawn conclusions on the approach used will be unreliable.

The film Drive was not shot on film but with on the Alexa 2K. You can tell that they calibrated the sensor very expertly. Crushing all the data in the codec prioritises the highlights which holds up really well. To complement this they also filmed with the Cook-S4 and an Ingenu 28 as a clean and reliable setup. The bulk of the film was steady with an A and B camera setup but this didn’t appear as a compromise in my eyes. An LA film with a Chapman Hussler is used alongside a Tangohead for steady control. On a regular basis a 6x with a DPK filled in on the side for lighting.. Siegel uses a Preston MDR in his setup.

During one of the establishing shots of the film two contrasting colours are used with one green and one orange to form the colour palette at night which signifies as a visual metaphor for the warmth of nature and happiness and hope set aside the man-made, negative and greedy. Adding this why to the shooting process reads to the audience either consciously or subconsciously. When we switch to Ryan Gosling’s introduction we see the scorpion on the back of his jacket. The practical tells the reader a great deal about the location emitting the light from a lamp which is blacked out on top. Switching the shot to Gosling’s character driving we begin the heavy GTA influence as does the Miami Vice Pink 80s font throwback used in the starting credits. Not knowing a lot about his character, we look out on the dashboard in a semi-first person fashion. We see the dials and his hand lit by the set but also his reflected face in the rear-view mirror. The lighting scheme used is fluorescents and green Tungstuns. Despite the orange lights in the street all the light hitting Gosling’s face is controlled by the DP on dimmers swiveled round and strapped onto a process trailer. This is not circumstantial but planned.

The watch motif used in these shots is romantic in its antiquity and reflects the central theme of time as well as his monologue on the quick in and out nature of employment. This is used frequently in Noir movies to reflect the immediacy and pressure of the now as the universe forces one to act in the moment and quickly. The LED green light contrasts the before and after of him driving to the robbery job and after being pursued which acts as a visual reference as mentioned beforehand. This is emphasised when the car is hiding under the bridge with an orange lit foreground interior contrasting against the green of the  HMI search light in the background.

Arriving at the garage the set is lit by fluorescents, emitting a white light to help foreshadow the garage being a bad place. It uses some colour correct and is used to contrast against the warm backlight backlighting Gosling standing in the doorway. This makes him represent the good force. Cranston’s character is introduced in shadow, in a green environment so that you subconsciously believe he is a bad character despite his smooth talking. As he returns to his flat we see him in green light as the camera pulls forward behind him and the elevator doors reveal an amber interior containing the film’s love interest who is warm, kind, human and compassionate.

The darkness of the first sequence contrasts against the interior of Mulligan’s flat, using natural lighting with breezy open windows and kids toys on table as a form of respite. As the scene moves towards an over the shoulder shot Mulligan’s character becomes lit by a very soft light with a happy reflection on the tiles.Despite this simple front she puts on we are reminded of her complexity by keeping just enough focus to recognise her absentee husband and son in the background. Gosling is reflected in the mirror and is scarily backlit so that we can see him looking both at her and the photo behind her to emphasise the appearances vs reality look. She looks into the negative space at him in a standard shot but when the 180 rule reverse shot is revealed he looks into the short side away from the negative space to create an off feeling. This choice creates space between the characters. This is subtly emphasised by the red tile foreground with Mulligan and the green walls with Gosling. Moreover beauty lights and eyelights are used to boost the pretty innocence of her character. We see a strong, weird glare across his face using a soft filter or a net behind the filter to make Mulligan look more dreamy.

Later, we see him looking down on Mulligan and her character’s kid with an orange light falling on his back again. The two figures are in a park covered in trees and green which have been saturated for emphasis. Then as we switch to a view of the city this green continues. This articulates his character falling of love as well as teasing the development of his protective instinct. Moving onto the day out sequence the oranges could not be more blunt as the sunlight of her simple life seeps into Gosling’s character. The idea of making the leading lady of the film seem pretty and simply drawn with underlying depths is a very Noir approach which Siegel captures perfectly in his use of gentle orange lighting and coloru correction.

As the story moves into it’s second acts the green Kelvin fluorescent lights warn the viewer of the upcoming introduction. We are introduced to Nino with a blue background and Perlman’s character being hit by sunlight to set him up as an antagonist. Jump forward to the $300,000 deal on the side of the stunt track between Gosling and the investor we see a power shot as the camera looks up over the shoulder to the towering, and intimidating figure. As the framing switches to the reverse perspective the scene feels off which is supplemented by Gosling’s character not shaking the investor’s hand to foreshadow his mistrust. The jarring reverse shot formula is perfect for this scene.

Returning to the garage, this time during the day, the green dangerous garage interior is contrasted against the outdoors. The dialogue between Cranston and Mulligan in the background where he informs her that Gosling turned up out of nowhere demonstrated skill and accepted a meager pay packet in a light-hearted manner. This veils the underlying truth of Gosling’s character which is implied to be that he is lying low or avoiding a dangerous past as visually reflected in the same shot cleverly by Seigel by his shading from the Garage and suspended car. His hope for a normal life reminds us of the Noir influences yet again. After, we see the antagonist who is angled up to by the camera and therefore empowered. He is emphasised as being bad by a fully exposed shot of the long fluorescent lights lighting the interior. The cute orange Tungstun bulb lighting Gosling’s work-station contrasts against this which is very engaging.

Following the day out sequence the blue light of the television lights Gosling and the boy’s faces with practicals to demonstrate the paternal bonding. The mood of the scene quickly changes as the fluorescent practical light over his desk articulates his anger at the father figure in Mulligan’s family returning as emphasised by the muffled return party sounds. The small orange practical lighting his face appears small yet hopeful and Seigel uses this to emphasise him burrowing into the green light representing his anger. Moving forward to hallway scene following the party Mulligan’s character is seen sitting on the floor, the camera centered on the horizon on a level axis so that her position is emphasised and the blocking plays against cinematographic conventions. This composition is very engaging. The lighting of her face changes now and there is more shadow. At realising the more complex and less wholly positive effect she will have on him Gosling sees her face partially shaded.

The audience now sees the reverse shot again and we subvert expectations once again as he is seen looking away from the negative space. Siegel uses this visual cue to infer that each time we see this set up the perspective of one of these two characters shift on the other. This time however, the shot is subverted by the father figure appearing with the boy, his hand choreographed over the boy’s shoulder to feel protective. In this shot Mulligan’s character does not fill the frame and is now completely shaded revealing this man to be her underlying darkness or fault. The composition tells us a lot and adds a great deal of tension. We begin to see the falseness in her warmth.

All considered, Seigel is very adept at using colour and framing as well as expectations to subtly infer a tone, intention or dynamic between the characters and has a full comprehension of how to orchestrate lighting in such a way that elevates the mood of a scene. The use of static shots and very specific angles alongside measures of colour correction create a elasticity to each shot as it stretches between good and evil in an almost Taoist approach to narrative and visuals.

WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘DRIVE’

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