3 Things This Breakdown of 'Drive' Can Teach You About Cinematography

If you want to learn the art of cinematography, a great place to start is with a film that contains memorable images.

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is certainly one of those films that sticks in your head long after you've watched it, especially when it comes to cinematography. Not only did DP Newton Thomas Sigel create a unique, atmospheric aesthetic, but he managed to make his images incredibly psychological. Video essayist Darious Britt breaks down a ton of these elements in the cinenamtography of Drive in the video below.

Let's take a look at a few of the elements Britt mentions in the video:

Creative expositional scenes

You need to give information to your audience about what's going on in a scene, but no one likes clunky expositional scenes, ones in which all of the information is communicated through tedious and contrived dialog. You can be more imaginative by taking a page out of Refn and Sigel's book. Instead of using dialog to inform, use props, objects, and even facial expressions. In the opening scene of Drive, we learn about the protagonist's profession, his trademark, the mood of the scene, as well as an important plot point that comes up later in the film all with a sweeping shot of a room.

Psychological framing/blocking

Cinematography isn't just about making pretty pictures, it's also about telling stories with those pretty pictures. Sigel does some interesting things with framing and blocking throughout the film that have a psychological effect on the audience. For instance, in the scene in which the Driver goes inside Irene's house for the first time, Sigel makes several creative framing and blocking decisions that are able to subtly communicate the nature of the relationship between the Driver and Irene, as well as foreshadow what may happen in the future.

In this shot, the Driver's reflection in the mirror not only puts him and Irene side by side, but the photo in the mirror of her son and his husband makes his dimly lit figure seem like an intruder who may eventually encroach on the family (which he does).

Shot economy

If you don't have a budget that allows for the time to pick up substantial coverage, you need find ways to make each shot more economical so they can kill multiple birds with one stone. Fortunately, you can do a lot with a little when it comes to cinematography, as evidenced by the tracking shot in Drive when the Driver walks through the garage with his boss, Shannon. With one shot, we're able to get a sense of the space, see all of the sweet cars in a stylish way that appeals to car enthusiasts, and get multiple sized shots (when Shannon is in the foreground). These kinds of all-in-one shots aren't ideal or possible all of the time, but it's smart, faster, and cheaper to do them when you can.

There is so much more to learn about cinematography from Drive alone—imagine how much more you could glean from breaking down your favorite films.     

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Your Comment


Funny, had the editor in one of our editing suites the other day, cool guy, really liked him, also it was one of the most complicated avid loads ever, very cool approach!

August 31, 2016 at 1:07PM


Darious: in many of your examples of "great shots" there were multiple (really multiple!) dissolves that seemed to me to pick up the pacing a bit from the original footage--even though there was slo-mo involved, too. Why didn't you mention the dissolves?

September 1, 2016 at 5:25PM

Bob Byars

Thanks for the video.

September 3, 2016 at 4:43AM

Sameir Ali
Director of Photography

That last long shot he talks about... the intended purpose is to play a suspenseful game with the audience. Driver is cut badly, blood everywhere, not moving, sitting with a car door open (normally a door would be closed). We spend a minute and a half asking the question... is he alive? And he finally blinks and drives off.

September 6, 2016 at 2:59PM

Tony Clifford


March 21, 2018 at 4:58AM, Edited March 21, 4:58AM

Myrtle Tran