ALEXA gets into gear on DRIVE

Adapted from a novel by James Sallis, DRIVE is the story of a Hollywood stunt driver who offers out his skills to criminal gangs, only to find himself the intended target of a contract killing after a failed heist. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the film won the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was shot with ARRI ALEXA cameras by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC.

DRIVE trailer

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and shot with ALEXA cameras by Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, DRIVE is the story of a Hollywood stunt driver who offers out his skills to criminal gangs, only to find himself the intended target of a contract killing after a failed heist.

ARRI News: Did Nicolas give you strong guidance on a visual approach to the film?


Newton Thomas Sigel: I really liked the uniqueness of Nicolas' vision and his intention to approach this film a little differently from what you might expect. The main thing he told me was that he wanted to stick to a predominantly wide-angle palette and didn't want to shoot handheld; he was after a more composed and formal look. He had previously always worked in the ultra low budget digital world, with the exception of one Super 16 film, so I think he was most comfortable shooting digital. I knew I was going to be doing a lot of low light filming, driving around at night on the streets and I wanted to be able to utilize as much of the existing urban lighting as possible.


AN: Is that what led you to ALEXA?


NTS: I had seen a couple of test shots of the ALEXA that were done for MEN IN BLACK 3 and I thought it looked intriguing; what seemed unique to me was the enormous dynamic range. At the time there were only a few ALEXAs around, but Denny Clairmont managed to get two cameras together for me. I went out on a limb a little bit because I had only seen some very preliminary tests, but it was great; the camera delivered all that I expected and more, with amazing dynamic range and a remarkable ability to see into shadows.

Die ALEXA hielt den Belichtungsumfang zwischen Spitzenlichtern und Schatten besser als jede andere Kamera, die ich je gesehen habe.

AN: Did you do any testing yourself?


NTS: I couldn't get a camera until literally a few days before we started shooting, but I did go out one night to test with it. I drove around downtown LA with Ryan Gosling, trying out various small LED and tungsten lights rigged around the car to discover what was going to work. Some of that footage actually ended up in the movie, so we could immediately see how effective the ALEXA was. 


AN: Did ALEXA handle the huge exposure ranges that can traditionally make car shots quite difficult?


NTS: Absolutely - for day scenes ALEXA held that exposure range between highlight and shadow more than any camera I've ever seen. You might still have to do some lighting inside the car, depending on how you're trying to shape the light, but certainly not as much as in the old days. For night scenes it was easy to balance street and city lights in the background with very small lights on the actor, so we could drive for real, without towing or using an insert car. We didn't have to put big lights in Ryan's eye line, which meant he never felt uncomfortable driving himself.


AN: Did you experiment with different sensitivity ratings?


NTS: I stuck with the 800 ASA base sensitivity, although I did a couple of shots at 1600 just to see what it would do and basically I thought they were fine. Although I say I stuck to 800, I certainly found that you can underexpose quite a bit - almost as though it was 1200 or 1600 ASA - without increasing noise or creating any defects in the image.

AN: This shoot was fairly early days for ALEXA; what recording format were you using?

NTS: We recorded HDCAM SR to SRW-1 decks. We investigated ARRIRAW and the Codex system but at that stage there was an availability issue, so we ended up going to tape. We also looked at the SxS PRO cards and compared all three together in tests. Eventually we decided to use SxS recording as backup for some of the car stuff, but to use HDCAM SR as our principal recording medium.

AN: What was your dailies workflow?

NTS: We were very low budget and couldn't afford to have nice color corrected dailies like I'm used to, so I used a Truelight system on set for basic color correction and then the dailies were done through FotoKem. I would go in there occasionally to look at stuff on a big screen, but otherwise I would have to watch compressed DVDs on a monitor at home, which was pretty useless in terms of really gauging the quality of the material. The best way was to go to the lab either at the beginning or end of each day to see the dailies properly projected.

AN: Did you reference any other car chase movies?

NTS: We talked about the great car chases - BULLITT, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, RONIN and VANISHING POINT, and examined the grammar they used. We wanted to give each of our three big chases its own unique flavor or character, so it was a question of deciding which elements to utilize for which chase.