Story-telling in Cinematography: Drive

This past week in class, we discussed the art of story-telling through pictures. Professor Zmikly made a point in explaining that every good series of photos should tell a story. Cinematographers are masters of this form of art, due to the fact that their sculpted shots must be necessary and further add to the story being told in a film. A brilliant example of this is showcased in one of my very favorite movies in the world, Drive (2011). Directed by Cannes-award winning artist, Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive is a refreshingly modern take on film-noir set in Los Angeles that follows an almost-mute man who is a movie stunt driver by day and getaway driver for criminals by night, whom finds himself caught in a web of gangster shenanigans. Although the movie is very dark, broody and intensely violent, it’s probably one of the most romantic films I’ve ever watched. Cinema-graphed by Newton Thomas Sigel, Drive is beautifully shot with gorgeous contrasting hues set at night to emphasis Los Angeles street life, and hazy pinks and purples during the day to capture what it feels like to casually drive around in your own car. I know I mention a lot of redundant, old, and “boring ass” movies for today’s generation, but if there’s any movie you should watch mentioned in my blog, it’s Drive.

Brilliantly acted by sexy-fellow Scorpio, Ryan Gosling, plays unnamed anti-hero, “Driver”, who is the true star of the movie. However, Drive features a ton of phenomenal actors, including: Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby), “Irene”- his love interest, Bryan Cranston (Do I even have to mention what he’s in?), Christina Hendricks (Mad Men, the greatest television show of all time), Albert Brooks (Argo, recently), up and coming actor, Oscar Isaac (starring in the new Star Wars, be there or be square), and lastly, Ron Perlman (he’s Hellboy from Hellboy).

In Drive‘s most notoriously famous scene, Newton Thomas Sigel tells us a story about a man, his lover, and their fate with just twelve shots in an elevator. The scene is approximately three-minutes long but the tension and emotion is so thick in the air that the scene feels like eternity.

In the beginning of Drive, Driver meets Irene in the elevator of their apartment complex. Irene’s son is annoying as hell, but there is an instant unspoken chemistry between Driver and Irene; the elevator is where their relationship begins. As the movie progresses, Driver and Irene’s relationship develops with few words spoken but chemistry flowing in volumes, with little to no physical contact between the two. Without spoiling the movie, Driver gets caught up in some mess that somehow involves Irene being on a hit list *eyeroll*, I know what you’re thinking but I swear she’s pretty okay. In the next thirteen shots, I will explain how Sigel’s cinematography impacts the shift in their relationship.


Driver and Irene enter an elevator with a man. Upon entering, Driver quickly notices the gun in the man’s jacket. Sigel has placed bright lights within the elevator to show all three characters but to leave the gun dark and hidden.


As the camera shifts back to Driver, his nostrils begin flaring, in rage or maybe in anticipation for what he knows is going to happen.


Just then, the camera is set on all three characters in the elevator. Driver is shown to quietly put his hand on Irene to move her out of the way. The lighting is still set evenly between all figures.


Then, the elevator lighting immediately dims. The only characters moving is Driver and Irene, while the man stands like stone, almost as if the frame is frozen for Driver and Irene to share a moment.


The entire elevator is almost completely darkened around everyone except Irene.


Then like an angel, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel places an overhead light only above Irene, to symbolize her as the only light Driver has ever known. Irene is honest, good, and pure. When Driver pushes her behind him, he knows he has officially let his “dark side” free. The only darkness is between Driver and the hitman, which Sigel symbolizes as two killers with nothing good in them.


Then, Driver turns around and gives Irene a passionate, slow first kiss. While he shares the last bit of light left within him.


Driver looks into Irene’s eyes, as if he were saying goodbye and acknowledging what they had.


Sigel then changes the view of the scene completely, and Irene and Driver’s moment is gone. Driver’s face is angry again and he looks over at the hit-man menacingly.


Once the hit-man and Driver exchange a quick wrestle, Driver throws the hit-man down and begins to repeatedly stomp the man’s face in without any sign of stopping. The scorpion on Driver’s face is the only thing in the spotlight of the scene, which Sigel wants the viewer to see as important. Irene backs away in astonishment and horror at the edge of the scene and elevator.


As the elevator dings at it’s destined floor, Irene backs out quickly. The scene is left on Driver who is shameful and emotionally wrecked for what he’s done in front of Irene, knowing that she’s seen the worst side of him.

Cinematography by: Newton Thomas Sigel Images Provided by: Drive movie screenshots
Cinematography by: Newton Thomas Sigel
Images Provided by: Drive movie screenshots I edited

The final scene of the twelve, depicts Irene in disbelief and fear as she stares at Driver one last time before the elevator door closes and never speaks to him again.

With these few scenes, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel has portrayed a loving union between two people and how easily it was destroyed by emphasizing on camera technique, visual lighting and long, strenuous shots.


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