Month: September, 2011

Film Review: “Drive”

The urban night photography in “Drive”, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel

I often gauge a film’s strength by how close it falls to its ideal position on the impressionism/exposition continuum. At the most extreme point on the exposition end of the spectrum lies motion picture work that is almost exclusively concerned with dispensing information. The nightly news, CNN, and the weakest documentary films––these are projects where content reigns supreme and there is little or no effort made to create a visceral experience for the audience. This work is closer to news, not art, and there is little room for the viewer to meet what he is watching with his own experience.

On the other extreme of the spectrum lie the most abstract and impressionistic films where only a bare minimum of information is provided, and sometimes not even that. This is the realm of poetry, not prose, with spare dialogue and sometimes only the faintest thread of exposition. It’s unclear what lies at the outer reaches of that extreme because so few films dare to go there. In the canon of less obscure cinema, the work of Andrei Tarkovsky probably comes closest. Blade Runner and Days of Heaven, both of which I’ve written about previously, are examples of mainstream films that have dared to tread into these satisfying waters, albeit only knee-deep. Rare is the American film willing to go deeper.

Every film has an ideal place on this continuum, and it’s rare to find a film that hits it on the nose. Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, with sublime photography by Newton Thomas Sigel, comes very close. It is patient, hypnotic and deliciously austere in its design, to the degree that feels as though the narrative serves the photography, and not the other way around. Los Angeles has been vilified in American culture for so long that it is refreshing to see a film that celebrates the city’s beauty, a beauty that is so deeply rooted in the automobile experience. There are car chases, sure, and they are exciting, but the film isn’t about these moments so much as the compulsion to move, the need to pause, and the impossibility of doing so. Refn’s success in creating an environment that supports this tension, especially through scoring and sound design, is masterful, though there are still elements of narrative hand-holding that I find frustrating. They are frustrating because they are unnecessary: economy is the goal with narrative, not coddling, and not everything must be explained to the audience.

All in all: 8.3 out of 10.

The Doc Interview: A Case Study

An interview set-up from Ted Gesing’s upcoming documentary, “Gary and the Romans”

Though we shot the interview in a 16:9 aspect ratio, the final version will be cropped to 4:3.

September has been a bit of a slow shooting month, so I’ve kept busy studying The King’s Gambit, entertaining old friends visiting from out of town, and picking up some lighting work on a few episodic dramas (CSI, 90210, etc). I had a brief shoot for an independent documentary directed by Ted Gesing last weekend that was a lot of fun. In many ways it was a classic interview set-up, though we had more set-up time than usual and the luxury of a more customized grip/electric package, both of which did a lot to help things go as smoothly as they did.

The biggest logistical challenge on this shoot was the combination of white walls and a small shooting space, which can often be tricky for the cinematographer. One thing that helped was the decision early on to pursue a composition and lighting scheme that would make having a backlight an option rather than a necessity (my thoughts on backlighting as an overused convention in American cinema are no secret). Another big challenge in small shooting spaces is the difficulty establishing depth in the composition, particularly when shooting on a camera format with an inherently large depth of field. This required a bit more thought than usual due to the fact that we were composing for a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is somewhat uncommon these days. Though we shot in 16:9, Ted plans to chop off the sides of the image to achieve the 4:3 dimensions, as featured above.

I didn’t think the 4:3 space left us enough room to hang a picture on the back wall without it competing with our talent in the frame, so we explored alternate methods for spicing up the flat wall behind him (ultimately deciding on simulated table lamp spill low in the frame). This effect had the added bonus of bouncing some color onto the frame-left side of his face as a bit of an edge light. I personally would have probably preferred the image without the edge (a simpler, cleaner look), but it would have been tricky to pull off without sacrificing the warm splash on the back wall.

All in all a fun shoot, and it’s always nice to support independent film. It was great to finally get a chance to work with Ted, and I owe a big thank-you to Nate Miller for helping out on the shoot.

What’s next?