Raindance - Filmmaking

Hello, I’m Ivan! I’m the new intern here. I am very interested in cinematography and would love to show you some fantastic examples of the art. This week I would like to talk the 2011 film, Drive directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.


The director of photography for the film was Newton Thomas Sigel. He has been working in his field for more than 40 years. Futhermore, he has helped create the visual style for films such as The Usual Suspects (1995), X-Men (2000) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). His cinematography has been a massive influence on the superhero, crime and war film genres. This understanding and experience of the rules of cinematography are exemplified in Drive. It is a fantastic study into creative lighting, thoughtful composition, economic shot and camera usage. Therefore, film is a must watch for anyone who wants to see fantastic practical application of skilled cinematography. Before I go into more detail, please have a watch of this short scene in which some of the movie’s core photographic aesthetics are laid out.

One of the things that I find most impressive about this scene is its ability to form meaningful narrative progression without dialogue. This is in part because of the composition of each shot! Notice as well the slow-motion from shot 6 through to shot 8 as it dims the light in combination with the kiss. Through camera action and disjointed rhythmic editing in 26 shots, a story beat (of the main protagonists romance) is established, followed through and completed.

Deep Shadows and Bright Lights

Preparation and planning of lighting in scenes was essential to create the dreamy look of the film. The urban environment of the L.A. night-time setting has a fantastic atmosphere, with dots of neon piercing the darkness of the city perfectly representing the film’s lighting philosophy.

In many interior shots and exposition scenes, a stylised lighting system is used, which often suggests emotional reflections in the characters. This system priorities deep shadows and bright lights to create high contrast ratio lighting in certain scenes.


The lighting system transforms even the most dry exposition scenes into something quite interesting as every facial expression and reaction is given a dramatic twist.

Moving onto the action set pieces, the three car chase scenes in the film stand out for multiple reasons as all require radically different lighting scenarios. Lighting gels and other LED uses were designed by the camera department to be used on car bonnets and dashboards without being particularly visible. Other cameras were set up in fixed camera positions in order to avoid re-shooting costly stunt scenes.

Shot Economy and Camera Usage

The film was shot primarily on an Arri Alexa. While shots on car dashboard and hood are Cannon 5d MII and Iconix HD-RH1 (because of their smaller size). Prime lenses were used for the car interiors, as it allows for a bit more light to get into the camera compared to zoom lenses. Placement and shot amount was also very important to provide coverage for a shoot with a limited amount of time to pre-produce and film.


Speaking to the ASC, Sigel explains that he “was intrigued by the look I could get shooting available light downtown”. The Arri Alexa was used for its ability to shoot high ISO exposure without producing much noise. This was essential for having a large dynamic range of light in the nighttime shots.

Compositional Theory: Opposites and Reflections

One more important aspect of the film is its use of composition. Using both sides and the top/bottom of the frame to show information acts as a quadrant system for the film. It also shows off the complex shot divisions while telling the audience much more than what can be said through dialogue.

Tony Zhong expresses this well in his Every Frame a Painting video: “The director, by emphasising different quadrants, can create shots that are both tightly composed and weirdly unpredictable.”

Final Thoughts

Drive is an accomplished piece of work from a fantastic director working alongside a pro cinematographer with 40 years of experience. The director, Refa has gone on to make some very interesting films such as the Neon Demon (2016) and Only God Forgives (2013). Seigal brought his artistic intuition and professional experties to express the director’s vision of a modern L.A. mythology.

If you enjoyed reading more deeply into the art of cinematography, you may be interested in some of Raindances’ courses on the technical processes of filmmaking. Interested in learning more about using DSLR cameras? We have just the course for you! How about exploring the mysterious practise of editing? There is a brilliant editing basics course for that. If you want to learn the foundations of cinematography from a fantastic and experienced cinematographer we have a basic course coming up soon!

Sources and Thanks:

The Raindance team!

‘Drive’: The Unexpected Urban Western – Jessica Fowler

Shot by Shot Podcast: The Perfect Shots of ‘Drive’- Film School Rejects

Photo stills of Drive (2011)

Interview from Oct 2018 ASC- Road Warriors interview with Newton Thomas Sigel and Nicolas Winding Refn

Technical specs info for Drive (2011)

The Warm Light of a Dark Day: The Cinematography of ‘Drive’- Chris Magdalenski



Ivan is an intern at Raindance who joined in April 2019. He is a graduate from Nottingham Trent University where he aquired a joint honours course in Philosophy and TV/Film. After moving back to London, he is pursuing a career in camera operation and dreams of working as a cinematographer. When he is not frantically writing blog posts or helping around the office, he loves watching films and working on content for the future.

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