I remember being shown the movie Drive by a girl I was dating at the time, thinking it was just going to be another ode to how pretty Ryan Gosling is, and being pleasantly surprised at how overall amazing this film truly is. Fantastic acting, nuanced storyline, and great action aside, the lighting in this movie really stands out.
The feel of the lighting in Drive jumps between film noir at night and 70s west coast style during the day, creating a sense of duplicity within the film. They apply the same sort of technique to lighting the main character, a mild-mannered and kind stunt driver during the day while moonlighting as a cold and calculated getaway driver for hire at night.
In scenes where Gosling’s character is meant to be seen as kindhearted and innocent, the lighting on his face becomes more broad, sometimes in full lighting but often in a closed loop setup with a touch of backlighting from a set of large windows, as seen in the shot below. In this scene, Ryan speaks to a mother and her child who just moved into the building, coming across as a gentle and well-mannered neighbor.
In the shot below, Ryan’s character (listed simply as “Driver” in the credits), is mid-interrogation, attempting to intimidate someone who had hired him to work under false pretenses. Here we see a much more extreme lighting, with the key light being played by the Motel room window to his left, and a faint kicker along his right cheek. That kicker plays a huge part in making him seem strong and intimidating, lighting up his jaw and cheekbones while leaving his face mostly in darkness.
In the future, I plan to shoot lots of music videos and action sequences, so this will be an extremely helpful technique when it comes to making performers and actors look as intimidating and powerful as possible. I’m realizing that I’ve previously used too much light, and using one or two sources for a higher contrast effect would have been better than simply filling the scene with light. As shown in the bottom screenshot, a little darkness on the face can go a long way.
The bottom screenshot is a sequence where Ryan's character is in a full on fight, the key light is the elevator light to his right, and he's getting backlit and an almost kicker from the ceiling lights as he's looking down. I felt I had to include this shot for one reason; the walls of the elevator seem to be a sort of semi-reflective brushed aluminum, yet the front of his face isn't being lit at all. I'm under the impression that they actually put a negative fill on the wall in front of him, actively removing the light from his face for a higher contrast effect.
Refn, N. W. (Director). (2011, August 9). Drive - Movie Trailer (2011) HD [Video file]. Retrieved March 1, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBiOF3y1W0Y
In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), a distinct film noir vibe hangs in the air. The lighting tends to be low-key and subdued, carrying a palpable flavour of intrigue and deception. In this shot, the lighting plays a major role in setting not only the scene but the mood.
By using either a focused light like a Fresnel, strong HMI lights, or a bare bulb, horizontal lines of light could be cast through the blinds and across the set. Based on those lines we can infer that the blinds have been mostly closed, concealing this scene from the outside world. Also, the angular nature of the light casts the scene almost on a tilt, as if to upset the scene further.
By lighting the scene as he did, we can also infer details about the characters. For instance, they might be trying to conceal their passion, casting a shadow of secrecy over the scene. Even at it’s most basic level, the use of such distinct lighting simply causes us to question the motivation of the scene, deeply affecting the mood of whatever might actually be happening in the scene by completely subverting it.
According to Filmmaker IQ’s video The Basics of Lighting for Film Noir, Film Noir tends toward using harder lights vs soft lights, which create well-defined shadows and deep contrast. The genre tends use shadows of people, props, or hard contrast to create greater depth within a scene. In this scene, they might have been using a cookie or gobo to create those horizontal lines, adding an extra layer of depth to the scene.
By adding this additional layer of depth to the scene, the lighting creates an extra layer of emotion in the scene. Without that light, the scene would be relatively low contrast and dimly lit. With the introduction of that light, the scene takes on much more depth, which cues us visually to a more dramatic scene.
After watching the whole film, it becomes clear just how much lighting really adds to the mood and emotion of a scene, as a lot of the film’s drama actually originates in the lighting. As each character is relatively subdued and mild mannered, and many of the sets are relatively simple and pretty, the lighting is what really sets the air of expectation and apprehension, as if something big could happen at any moment. By choosing to make the lighting so dramatic in comparison to the content of some scenes, the director does an amazing job of showing you what is coming instead of telling you or letting the script lead you to a conclusion on what will happen. There’s a constant expectation for violence and dramatic tension, which slowly builds over the course of the film.
In particular, this scene embodies that apprehension. While both characters embrace passionately, there is a subtext of infidelity, espionage, even hiding their passion from the curious maid in the other room. Using such solid horizontal lines of light at such a hard angle changes what could have been a scene of happy reunion to a moment of secretive, deceptive, and nervous passion.
F. (2013, May 11). The Basics of Lighting for Film Noir. Retrieved March 22, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsmVL7SDp5Y
M. (2014, August 07). The Conformist ( il conformista ) Theatrical Trailer by Bernardo Bertolucci. Retrieved March 22, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWZO1GLMD2Y