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.