This article is a follow-up to the previous article “Rules of Composition for Cinema”. You don’t have to have read it before this article, but it might help further explain some of the concepts if you’re unfamiliar with them. Check it out now or hang onto it for later reading. Your choice!

How can you tell when a person is really angry with you? Is mourning the recent loss of someone important? Is facing a morally difficult dilemma? Often they don’t even need to say a word, you can just see it on their face.

 

Ryan Gosling Profile Shootryan gosling left profile shot

Quick…with just a glance here could you tell what the relationship between these 3 characters is? One of these characters is trying to kill another…gee, I wonder which one’s which?

 

In the previous article (see Rules of Composition for Cinema) we went over a number of effective uses of cinematography to help tell your story without deferring to clunky exposition. And now we’ll take a hard look at one film, in particular, to see how it excelled in using cinematography to tell you exactly what’s going on with our characters beyond just what is being said.

Some of the concepts we previously went over included how to frame your subject, using depth in a shot, and the all-important Rule of Thirds (which you absolutely should learn to follow…and then break when needed).

When last we spoke on the subject, we looked at the (mis)use of the rule of thirds in Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterpiece Drive (2011). He and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel artfully composed each shot to add many delicious layers to the story for you to take in. It’s one of those movies you could probably mute and pretty much still follow along. Let’s pull a few examples of how they did this.

(And since art is subjective, let’s just say that this is all one person’s interpretation of each shot, you might read something very different into it, that is why as a filmmaker, you should remember that not all audiences are going to get the same message from your movie)

 

OPENING/CLOSING SHOTS

When you compare a film’s opening and closing shot side-by-side, you can tell a lot about the journey that happened in between them. In this case both the opening and closing shots of Drive focus on our protagonist, the Driver (Ryan Gosling), and tells us a lot about his world.

 

hand-drawn mapdark room and a lampmonitor and a lamp in a dark roombody shoot, a man with a duffel bag

city night view out of a window

The opening shot is a slow, methodical tracking shot. Whenever you see a tracking shot, usually it’s because the director is saying “Hey! Look at this! This is important stuff!”. Notice how these key objects all end up centre-framed as the camera moves? They want you to focus on the stuff right in the middle of frame.

Camera starts on the marked-up road maps of LA (the Driver is planning a route…for what?), it moves to introduce us to our character with signature leather jacket highlighted as he stares out the window while talking to someone on the phone (he remains a shadowy figure for now, but we know he’s a badass with the jacket and there’s a verbal exchange going on), it centres on the basketball game on the TV (planting the seed for a real slick moment in the next scene), stops on his duffel bag (he’s packed and prepped for something going down) which he grabs and exits with while leaving us with a window-framed shot of the sprawling downtown of LA (where he’s about to lead us for the next scene).

This opening shot sets the stage for the movie’s opening chase scene, but also tells us that the Driver is methodical, brooding, a deep-thinker, subtle, cold and alludes to his profession as a getaway driver.

On the flipside, the ending contains just two simple shots of our hero, now having gone through the journey of rescuing his neighbour and love interest, Irene and her son.

 

ryan gosling face profilecar console during a night ride

 

He’s off-centre here, offset from the opening shot. Thrown out of balance. Framed left in cold light, he’s hurt (both emotionally and physically) with nothing but darkness behind and in front of him. In this image he’s isolated, alone, mournful and headed into uncertainty.

He’s lost his only friend, killed off lucrative chances of a future and is bleeding out…but he’s done the right thing and he helped someone who needed saving. He started out as a faceless figure in the shadows to being revealed as a pained human being by the end.

And the final image we see the endless, dark road ahead of him (depth!) with his eyes sneakily popping into the rearview mirror, still showing us more humanity than he did in the opening shot (the eyes being the window to the soul and all that).

Just examining these before-and-after shots that bookend the film tells you tons about where this character has been and the transformation that he has undergone.

And by the way, very little is heard in either of these scenes. In fact much of the movie uses thick spaces of silences to create tension between characters. At these points you shouldn’t forget that something still needs to fill that silence. So if you tackle this dialogue-less method I suggest looking into how to build a natural soundscape for your scene.

 

USE OF QUADRANTS

If you were to take two long strips of black tape and put them in a cross over your screen (don’t actually do that) while watching Drive, you would notice how they effectively framed the subjects of the movie in each scene with these four sections.

 

ryan gosling close up shot

When we see our first genuine interaction between the Driver and his neighbour, Irene, they both occupy the same space in each frame. There’s a closeness, an attraction, between the two. In the 2nd shot however, the Driver appears framed in the mirror. He’s in shadow overtop of her child and husband. His presence is a threat to her family.

 

two guys talkingguy in a suit and dark glasses

 

When the Driver meets our antagonist, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), he towers over him menacingly. The Driver appears as a child, staring up to the seemingly giant figure before him. Mind you Bernie has the benefit of standing on the bleacher steps, but it’s the framing here that gives away his power over the Driver.

 

 

Once the Driver and Irene get a chance to bond over a day together, they have this moment of prolonged silence as they gaze at each other. Notice the spacing between them? This shot goes on for over a minute and most of it is silence. They have this gap separating them and they seem unable to close it. Something is keeping them from getting too close to one another.

 

 

The next time we see the Driver with Bernie they are in business with one another. Bernie has funded the Driver and his new race car to ride for Bernie and make him some money. In Bernie’s frame, all lines lead to him. The girders in the ceiling and the hanging lights all lead into him. He’s the powerful focus again. Nothing intrudes on his territory. In the Driver’s frame he is trapped on the side, his body facing away from Bernie (he doesn’t welcome Bernie’s presence), the car literally closing around him and Bernie even invades in frame right a bit.

 

 

Midway through the film we see a brief exchange between the Driver and Irene again. They start off sharing the frame together, but as they talk the camera pushes in on each. The camera pushes each other apart in the depth until they are separated completely. He has a secret that he can’t share with her and it’s driving a wedge between the two of them, cutting him off completely from her.

 

YOU GET THE PICTURE

Without going into too much spoiler territory, although I’m sure you can fill in the blanks a bit, the story progress from here to its ultimately bittersweet ending. Taking a look at the images that you’ve seen so far, a lot of the story is told in the imagery themselves. On paper the dialogue between the main characters at times appears very minimal, not nearly as expositional as other scripts tend to be. This is because the filmmakers took great care in crafting these frames to show the evolution of each of these characters’ relationships. And you can, too.

When you find yourself looking over your next screenplay, take that red marker out and try to highlight lines that could be told with just a frame. If your viewer muted your movie, would they be able to follow the story still?