Professional Practice

SSI: Nicolas Winding Refn’s use of Lighting and Colour

Nicolas Winding Refn’s use of Lighting and Colour

Unit 4 – Criteria 3.1 and Unit 2 – Criteria 3.1, 3.2 & 3.3

In this essay I will be analysing and dissecting Nicolas Winding Refn’s films and comparing and contrasting them to his other works to further explain the use of light and colour to express a scene and convey emotion to an audience. I will be looking at two core films, ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives’. The reason I have selected these two films is because not only are they similar in terms of cinematography, they also share parallels between one another. This is probably down to the fact that they are both directed by Winding Refn.

Despite being colour blind himself, Nicolas Winding Refn’s films are flooded with colour, from the vibrant neon shown throughout Only God Forgives to the subtle backdrops in Drive that focus all the attention on the action taking place. Pictured below are stills that I have taken from Drive.

Drive - Irene

This still from drive is a perfect example as to how Refn uses colour to establish character. This is one of the first time we see Carey Mulligan’s character, Irene, an innocent woman who is taking care of her son whilst his father is in prison. From this single still we can see how Refn deliberately blends her in to the background by dressing her in almost the exact same shade as the wallpaper, a dull and neutral green. This already tells the audience almost everything they need to know about Irene. She is an innocent bystander in a life surrounded by trouble. Her undramatic clothing and general appearance is juxtaposed by Ryan Gosling’s character who remains nameless throughout the entire film. The image below is again a very deliberate attempt at establishing character in the early stages of the film. Like the image above, this is one of the first times a character is introduced to us, in this case the opening scene. Ryan Gosling’s character is immediately shown wearing a light coloured jacket that reflects the light of his surroundings, the jacket also has an embroidered scorpion on the back, a poisonous arachnid that immediately conjures up thoughts of fear, pain and danger. The slightly reflective surface on the jacket immerses the character in the surrounding colour, the neon lights of the city are absorbed by the jacket and thus, Gosling’s character, telling the audience that he is part of the city like the lights themselves.

Drive - Jacket

Picture from


After the Gosling’s and Carey Mulligan’s characters are established, Refn continues to build on the use of colour to portray emotion. In the scene shown above, Gosling’s character is sat in a hotel room having just witnessed Irene’s boyfriend being shot. The hotel room’s wallpaper is almost identical to the wallpaper in Irene’s apartment, a dismal green that is now associated with the ordinary. This, along with the dark, flat colours associated with confinement and sanctuary lulls the audience in to a false sense of security that is later shattered by the sudden appearance of two assassins. The pale green walls continue to play a role in this scene after one assassin shoots through the window to kill Gosling’s accomplice and blood is splattered all over the walls. The vividness of the red blood is dramatized by the colour contrast, green being the direct opposite of red on the colour spectrum (pictured). The still below shows how the red and green contrast to accentuate the blood splatter and add to the violence.



The next scene I’ll be looking at is the scene in the elevator, a well known scene for those who have seen Drive. Refn uses colour once again to portray emotion here. Shown above, the elevator is lit with off orange, beige colours to create a neutral environment. The beige matches the skin tones and hair colour of both Gosling and Carey Mulligans characters but also matches the clothing of the third person in the elevator. The common use of the neutral colours here creates an evenness between the three characters, the only noticeable stand out colour is the blue of Irene’s jacket, separating her from the other two characters and thus foreshadowing some sort of conflict between them. Later on in the scene this is confirmed after Gosling mercilessly stamps the assassin into oblivion. Finally the scene ends with another juxtaposition of colour when the elevator doors open to allow Irene to walk out into a predominantly blue underground car park, the blue of the car park merges with the blue of her clothing, firmly distancing her character from what she just witnessed. Note the stills below that show how Refn uses colour to distance characters from situations.


Colour continues to help portray emotion throughout Drive. As Gosling character begins to fall in love with Irene, scenes featuring her become lightly coloured, a reflection on the optimism she gives Gosling’s character, similarly scenes without her or scenes depicting violence are often dark or dimly lit to give a bleak and depressing vibe to the picture as shown by the pictures below.

We’ll now take a look at Refn’s most recent film, ‘Only God Forgives’, a gritty crime film based in the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. In this film, Gosling plays a similarly silent protagonist, in fact Gosling speaks just 17 lines in the entire film. With such little dialogue, the use of cinematography and colour is of vital importance to portray feeling and mood and although Only God Forgives was widely criticized for it’s lack of story, the cinematography can not be argued with as Refn immerses the characters in a jungle of kaleidoscopic neon.

The story of this film is based around Ryan Gosling’s character, Julian and Chang, a well respected and god like figure. Throughout the film Chang is only seen wearing black and white, giving him a sharp contrast to the ever present luminescent background and telling the audience that he is unequal and different. The black and white adds to theory that he is god like, Chang connotes light and dark, ying and yang, alpha and omega. Refn dresses Chang in this way as a very deliberate attempt to establish him as at the very least, a very powerful man. Like Gosling, his character is almost completely silent throughout the film, so it is up to the colour and cinematography to portray him and his disposition. This colour technique is used later on in the film with Julian’s mother, Crystal (pictured) who is first shown to us dressed heavily in pink with bright blonde hair. This once again separates the character from the norm, she is instantly viewed as foreign and westernized, not fitting in with her surroundings.


The colour red is relentlessly used throughout this film. The scene above is a great example of how red is used to connote so many different things at the same time. In this lewd scene, Julian is shown being tied up whilst he watches Mai, a prostitute masturbate in front of him. The scene is drenched in red lighting signifying feelings of lustful promiscuity, and passion toward the prostitute but also danger, anger and forbidden pleasure. Without the red lighting in this scene I think the sequence would lose a lot of purpose. It would be viewed as just an aimless sexually suggestive few minutes with no connotations because Julian remains expressionless throughout.


One of the most important aspects of this film is Karaoke and what Karaoke symbolises. Throughout the film, Chang is seen cutting off people’s arms as a form of punishment. This brutal form of discipline is always followed by Chang singing Karaoke. The stills below show the stark contrast of colour between scenes. The scene with Chang cutting off a persons arm is virtually void of colour altogether showing how grim the situation is, whereas the Karaoke scene is bathed in reds, blues and whites accompanied by fairy lights giving it a peaceful and pleasant vibe. It is because of this use of colour and lighting that we can detract that Karaoke acts as a cleansing process for Chang, he is essentially wiping his hands clean of the blood from severing off people’s arms and he does this by singing karaoke.

Nicolas Winding Refn grew up in a house of film makers, his mother was a cinematographer and his father was a director. His parents were both brought up on French New Wave but in a 2012 interview Refn stated [1] “I grew up in a cinema family. My parents were brought up on the French New Wave. That was God to them, but to me it was the antichrist, and how better to rebel against your parents than by watching something your mother is going to hate, which were American horror movies.” Refn’s hatred of French New Wave cinema may have something to do with why he uses colour so effectively in his films, to rebel against a form of cinema he loathes.


[1] Julie Mitchell. (2013). Nicolas Winding Refn and the French New Wave. Available: Last accessed 27/06/2014.

Scott Foundas. (2012). Anger Management. Available: Last accessed 27/06/2014.

Megan Boyle. (2011). Deleted Scenes from Drive. Available: Last accessed 27/06/2014.


Critical Evaluation: Unit 2 Criteria 4.1, 4.2 & 4.3 and Unit 4 Criteria 4.1 & 4.2

Overall, I am pleased with the outcome of my SSI project. I enjoyed taking a deeper look in to the process of how Refn uses colour effectively in his films and I was pleased to find out some new information for myself. This project also made me realise the importance of colour in film and just how effective it can be when used well, it can convey emotion and conjure up thoughts and moods without anybody speaking, a hugely powerful tool in film making that I hope to put in to practice in my own future projects. Although at the beginning of this project I thought there was limited information available online, I was pleased with the amount of information I found by thoroughly researching Refn and his films. Whilst I am pleased with my SSI, I do think it would have been good to attempt a video accompaniment so I could show precise moments in films where colour is used for specific reasons but I think still images did suffice for this project.

In terms of research techniques, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of information I found online from various blogs and databases. However, finding information elsewhere did prove difficult, for example trying to find books or journals on my chosen topic proved to be quite challenging. After an extensive search online for published material I was only able to find a couple of books, one on Nicolas Winding Refn which I didn’t buy because according to online reviews it was just basic information that was all available online. The other book I found was entitled ‘Nicolas Winding Refn and the Violence of Art: A Critical Study of the Films ‘ which on reflection I would have liked to read through because this sounds much more valid to my chosen area of research and I would have liked to include some quotes from other sources, rather than just online findings. I would have liked some quotes from published material as I believe it is a much more reliable source of information than finding anything online. Anybody can write anything and post it online, which often gets confused as fact whereas with published materials there is a process of proof reading for accuracy which makes for much more reliable information. This is definitely a valuable lesson for me that I will look to improve on in the Bsc.

The information I have found in this project is something that I hope to invest into all my work for next year on the Bsc both in terms of research techniques and practical elements such as lighting techniques and cinematography. To conclude, I am pleased with the outcome of my research but there are definitely aspects that I will look to improve on for next time, especially taking a more in depth look in to published materials like books and journals to add a more reliable source of information to my findings. But once again, this is something that I look forward to improving on for next year.

SSI Proposal Form

Unit 4 – Criteria 1.1, 1.2 & 1.3

My submitted SSI proposal form:

Pictured above is my proposal form for my SSI research project. I chose to conduct my research on Nicolas Winding Refn and his use of lighting and colour in his films. I am a personal fan on both Drive and Only God Forgives, two of his more well known films. The first time I saw both of these films I was interested in the lack of dialogue and how Refn made up for it with his unique style of cinematography. The cinematography in both the films fascinated me when I first saw them so I took this as an opportunity to explore how and why he uses the lights and colours the way he does. I also looked briefly at Winding Refn in my Auteur Theory essay so I have some prior knowledge that I hope will help my research.

How To Colour Grade

Unit 2 – Criteria: 1.1, 2.1, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2 & 3.3 and Unit 4 – Criteria: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 & 3.1

Firstly, what is colour grading? Colour grading and colour correction are often mistakenly identified as the same thing, however there are differences between the two. Colour correction is used for altering or enhancing an entire image or film, often to correct mistakes such as improper white balance, whereas colour grading is used for changing certain aspects of  a picture, usually for the purpose of creating an atmosphere or to make certain colours stand out.  In this instance and for this project we will be digitally modifying our video with Adobe Premiere Pro. We will be looking into colour grading, including when and how to colour grade. So, why do we colour grade? Colour in itself plays a huge role in film making and television,  it can evoke and portray emotion without any movement or dialogue, it is a underestimated means of creating the right mood. Serious television dramas for instance often have a dark and depressive feel to them, whereas sitcoms are bright and colourful to send out a happy and comical vibe. Colour grading can also help to remove unwanted aspects like under or overexposure. Colour grading is essential for creating a nice, detailed looking picture for any film, it can bring out hidden detail that is often lost by shooting on a DSLR and can give a realistic and deeper image quality. Colour grading can also be a useful tool for continuity purposes, if weather or lighting conditions differ from shot to shot then by colour grading we can keep the edit looking fluent and genuine.

Software Options:

There are a number of programmes that offer a decent colour grading package, for this project we are using Adobe Premiere Pro, which gives a good basic platform for colour grading, however for more complex and extensive colour grading there are programmes like After Effects and DaVinci Resolve which comes standard with the Black Magic Cinema Camera. DaVinci Resolve comes as standard with the Black Magic because the camera shoots flat, meaning that the video you receive from the camera will initially look very dull and washed out however after post production colour grading, the image quality is vibrant, detailed and very nice to look at, as demonstrated by the image below.

As I have very little prior knowledge on colour grading, I will be researching colour grading and learning how to colour grade on a basic level. The first place I want to look at is our tutor’s personal website as I know that this is a reliable source and any tutorials will contain software I am used to and familiar with. On this website,, I found a tutorial on primary colour grading which I followed to learn the basics of colour grading. After watching this tutorial, I watched a few others on YouTube but none were as useful or as easy to follow so I concentrated on Jon’s tutorial and followed it step by step and used it to colour grade a short clip of mine.

Arguably the easiest and most common form of colour grading can be done with something called a three way colour correcter. Three way colour correction is an essential tool for colour grading and is widely available on almost all image manipulation and editing software. Three way colour correction works by splitting the colour of an image into three categories, shadows (black), mid-tones and highlights (white) and by telling the software what you want to be absolute black and absolute white, the software will work out the colours in between and alter them accordingly. This tool is especially useful if the image from your camera is flat looking or if the white balance is slightly off. For our video, we will use this method to show how different our image can look with and without this colour grading.

Basics of Colour Grading:


Here is a quick tutorial on how to do a basic colour grade:


Overall I was pleased with my video, I went for a straight forward screen recording of a colour grade. I thought this would be the simplest method for people viewing the video as they would be able to follow the tutorial step by step. Feedback for my video has been mostly positive, with some useful comments. Jordan Schofield said it was ‘easy to follow and understand’ which I was pleased with, but also said I could have gone ‘a bit more in depth in areas’ which I fully agree with and with more time I would have liked to expand on a few points such as how other colour grading effects differ from the option I used.

Research: How Much?

For this research task we were given a the task of theoretically budgeting a short film with a £10,000 allowance.

The only thing we were given was the script, which didn’t cost anything. We had to take everything in to consideration, from actors and crew, to equipment and location.

The first thing I did was read through the script to get an idea of the kind of production the short film would be and after reading through it, I immediately went online to search for prices for crew rental. I decided that I would require a camera operator and assistant for obvious reasons, a director of photography to ensure the film was given a filmic look, along with a sound operator, a lighting technician and an editor for post production. I searched online for companies that hire out film crew, the screenshot below shows what I found:

Capture - crew

I used this information to base the film crew budget on. I added up the cost of the crew for 2 days and it came to a total of £2940.

After assembling a crew, I looked in to the cost of hiring the equipment we would need to film. I read through the script again and tried to visualize the equipment we would need. I think this kind of short film could be shot using DSLR cameras or Black Magic Cinema Cameras so I looked at the rate for day/week hire. I compared the cost of a DSLR and a Black Magic. The Black Magic, with a shoulder rig is £120 per day and a Canon 5D mk iii is £65 per day. After adding lenses, there wasn’t much of a difference in cost so I budgeted a total of £500 for cameras, this would allow enough funding for either, depending on the director’s preference.

Capture - cams bm

Capture - cams

The cost of lighting, sound and grip equipment can be seen below. The total cost of the best lighting equipment and microphones came to £140 for the two days. This brings the total to £640 for equipment.


Capture - lights

After this, I re-read the script to count the characters I would need. I would require three actors in total. One elderly woman and two younger men. The hiring process for actors often depends on the film, and who people know. Actors may sometimes agree to be part of a film for free, just for exposure or in some cases as a favour to directors or producers. However for this task I looked in to the average rate of hiring actors. The standard rate for amateur actors is roughly between £100-£200 per day depending on experience. From this information, I used an average of £150 per actor, per day. So for three actors, for two days the cost came to a total of £900. After once again reading through the script, I began to look for suitable locations to film. Some of the shots would be in a car on a country road surrounded by fields. Due to the relatively small scale of this shot, I thought this didn’t require any booking or hiring. However some of the scenes would be interior shots of a lounge with a ’50’s style’. I searched through pages of companies who offer locations for film shots, this ranged from grand country manors to small flats in central London.  I took a screenshot of prices that provided a rough guide to how much a small house would cost to rent for a couple of days filming.

How much property

Again, using this as a rough guide I budgeted £1000 for the rental of a small house for two days worth of filming. This covers the equipment, crew, actors and location which altogether totals £5480. Taking away a few hundred pounds for props, this still allows thousands of pounds left for miscellaneous and unexpected costs.

After the filming process has ended and the film is past over to the editor for post production. We now need to think about disseminating the film. Obviously if you wish to put the finished film online, it is completely free to show it on YouTube and Vimeo etc, however to show your work to a wider audience it can be very beneficial to enter your film in film festivals. As shown below the cost of entering film festivals varies so I got the cost of entering two well-known film festivals, Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca.

Capture - festival prices sundanceCapture - tribeca

Research – How Filmmakers Show Their Work

For this task we were asked to conduct research into how filmmakers show their work. We were told to look at three examples of filmmakers, one amateur, one professional and one who has access to bigger budgets. I chose to look at a personal favourite director, Adam Powell for both the new and professional example because his story tells how to progress from amateur to professional. I also thought it would be interesting to look at a director who isn’t associated with just films, Adam’s career as a director is an interesting one as he specializes in music videos and now working with top artists around the world. For the big budget example, i looked at arguably the three most well known directors today, James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Michael Bay as I thought this would demonstrate the difference between amateur and professional directors to Hollywood filmmakers.

What is Research?

According to The Oxford Dictionary, research is defined as the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

In layman’s terms, research is the development of new knowledge or the expansion of existing knowledge.

The types of research are qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative research is by definition exploratory, and it is used when we don’t know what to expect, to define the problem or develop an approach to the problem. It’s also used to go deeper into issues of interest and explore nuances related to the problem at hand. Common data collection methods used in qualitative research are focus groups, triads, dyads,  in-depth interviews, uninterrupted observation, bulletin boards, and ethnographic participation/observation.

Quantitative research is conclusive in its purpose as it tries to quantify the problem and understand how prevalent it is by looking for projectable results to a larger population. Here we collect data through surveys (online, phone, paper), audits, points of purchase (purchase transactions), and click-streams.’

Michaela Mora. (2010). Quantitative Vs. Qualitative Research – When to Use Which. Available: Last accessed 04/10/2013.

Key components of writing your research are:

• A description of the research problem.
• An argument as to why that problem is important.
• A review of literature relevant to the research problem.
• A description of the proposed research methodology.
• A description of how the research findings will be used and/or disseminated.

Capture - research hourglass

This picture explains the process of writing research.

In this instance, we began with the question ‘What is Research?’, we then narrowed down this broad question and looked closely in to the types of research and the methods used for each. After reading articles, guides and theories on the topic, we analyzed the information and date we collected to reach a valid conclusion. Finally, we link the conclusion back to the original question. Research is the pursuit of data and information to gain a better understanding of a subject or to reach new conclusions.

William M.K. Trochim. (2006). Structure of Research. Available: Last accessed 04/10/2013.