June 6, 2014

Learn the 'Rules' of Film Noir & How to Light It

noir1Genres come and go, but 70 years after its birth, the "rules" of film noir have become part and parcel of the conventions of modern cinema. Why do filmmakers come back again and again to this bleak landscape? And why are these films still popular (if they weren't, well, there wouldn't be nearly as many. QED.) And just what, precisely, are its rules -- rules so skilfully subverted by modern directors? A documentary from the BBC, originally aired in 2009, seeks to answer just that, shining a light on the dark corners of film noir. Plus, check out tips that will help you achieve your own film-noir-style lighting effects.

The conventions of film noir (literally, black film, referring both to the lighting schema and the general weltanshauung of the pictures themselves) are inextricably tied in with American cinema to this day. In recent film history, one only has to look to two high-profile examples that toyed with the architecture of the genre: Memento, which inverted chronology and in doing so made a more noir-ish noir than almost any original, highlighting as it did the paranoia and uncertainty that are a staple of these films, and the Coen Bros.' Fargo, which toyed with film noir's pallette for ironic effect (N.b.: the Coen Bros. have returned again and again to the genre, in everything from their very first film, Blood Simple, to the recent, instant classic, No Country for Old Men). And, of course, the Roman Polanski directed, Robert Evans produced (seriously, for a walking suntan that says crazy things, that guy made some pretty good movies), Chinatown, often cited as a "perfect film," is an example of the early "self-aware" noir, and probably its apotheosis:

Film noir, in its classical sense, existed in Hollywood from the 1940s to the late 50s; at the time, though, film noir wasn't a term, and when these movies were referred to as a genre, per se, at all, it was as melodrama. Influenced by the novels of the "hard-boiled" crime fiction authors who gained popularity during the Great Depression, film noir is a profoundly modern genre, in that it is rooted, at its base, in existentialism. Hence, the term film noir is, not surprisingly, of French origin, and was indeed applied after the fact by the Gallic film critic Nino Frank.

The term was used to classify films which, in the main, used low-key lighting (rather than the evenly exposed 3-point lighting of classical Hollywood cinematography, film noir used harsh shadows and contrasts of black and white, an influence taken, in large part, from the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s and early 30s, e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's M) and which featured deeply cynical views of human nature.

In a film noir, you never know who your friends are, and there is a dreamlike quality (or rather a nightmarish hue) to the situations in which the protagonists find themselves. Many feature archetypal situations and characters, e.g., the bored housewife who lures a dupe into a crime, a drifter, a con man, or a private detective. The characters are drawn into the web of the story, leaving the well-lit world of Busby Berkeley for shadows thrown by a swinging light bulb. Even Stanley Kubrick started out in noir (his second and third feature films, Killer's Kiss and The Killing, are both noir of the highest order. (Yes, I will find a way to work Kubrick into everything.)

The main character in a film noir is sometimes clearly pointed out as such, but is, always, a victim of circumstance in some form, the caprice of cruel fate, a random, uncaring universe, &c. The Great Depression spawned crime novels for a country that cheered the exploits of Bonny and Clyde and John Dillinger, real life noir characters who played out their parts admirably, exiting stage left via bullet hole. Kubrick even remarked, “I've got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists -- neither takes life as it is." In this documentary from the BBC, hosted by Matthew Sweet (no, not the underrated 90s power pop exponent, but a British dude, who seems totally affable), more dictates of the genre are laid out than I could list here, plus there's clips from classic noirs. And everyone knows a picture is worth a thousand bloggers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MOFPXQOnaY

Film noir is existential because, like the (in its modern form primarily, and probably not coincidentally, French) philosophical movement, it denies absolute meaning, hinges existence on contingency, and in doing so seeks to answer a question that has been asked since antiquity: is the world random and absurd, or am I (not me, I'm fine, thank you) crazy? What was once a philosophical concern became, in industrialization, a pretty serious issue, as technology (motion picture technology itself was disruptive to previous aesthetic movements, to put it mildly) unmoored Western Civilization from millennia of relative stasis. The 20th century brought chaos, two world wars, mechanized death (and with the atom bomb, the prospect of total annihilation of the species), and, also, close ties with "friendly" European states. In the post-war period, Hollywood would import Continental cinematic proclivities and directors in record numbers.

If all this bleak, bleak talk has got you looking to shoot a little film noir yourself, then you'll want to check out this post from photographer Mark Anthony Grady, where he lays out a lighting schema for a film noir look. Check it out, and check out his site, too:

lightingsetup-film-noir-8290

Even though the plans are for a photograph, it's easy to discern the familiar aesthetic, achieved here by two lights, with the back one metered on the model's face. Everything except the man (and, actually, most of him) is in shadow, and that is how it should be, in a good film noir, where there's a sucker born every minute, every two-bit chump on the make is just a wrong turn away from a long goodnight, and every dame is a no good schemer out for a fast buck. Trust no one! Except me, when I tell you that film noir is cool. Because it is. Go to your local library, or google, or global online merchant, and read (and watch) all about it! K, good talk.

Link: Mark Anthony Grady Photography

[via Filmmaker IQ]

Your Comment

19 Comments

I dig these posts on lighting.

June 6, 2014 at 7:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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josh

Blinds are such a cliche though (yes, plenty of them in Chinatown and Psycho and Road to Perdition).
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Klute was dark (a Willis film) but a typical dramatic film noir is almost always a bright single source and almost nothing as a fill. And, naturally, shadows ... lots and lots of shadows.

Christopher Doyle shows how it's done.
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYc5gpZ8ajw

June 7, 2014 at 2:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Thanks for the tip! I'm no lighting expert, just sharing some info. And thanks for sharing yours!

June 7, 2014 at 7:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

An interesting comparison is between the original "Psycho" and Gus van Sant's - almost but not quite shot-for-shot - remake that was also lensed by Doyle. The original was in b&w, the remake was in color. I found the b&w more dramatic. The opening scene with John McGavin and Janet Leigh has two windows, with blinds, providing cross illumination.. In the middle of the scene, McGavin lifts the blinds off one window, shedding sunlight onto himself and leaving Leigh in the shadow. In the remake, Viggo Mortensen also lifts the blinds but there's only one window. Doyle also has the camera right on the couple, two closeups, he behind her. Too much light, IMO.

June 8, 2014 at 2:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Film noir isn't simply a style of film. It was a sub-genre of crime films post WWII. Just because you light a film a certain way it doesn't make it noir. Noir involves a protagonist who is morally compromised, usually by a femme fatale. They are morality plays that show the dark side of human nature (thus the noir). The protagonist, although sympathetic, is morally corrupt. The best example and one of the touchstones of noir is Double Indemnity. It has all the ingredients of film noir (and it looks spectacular on the new Blu-ray release).

Fargo is not noir. Not in the least. The protagonist is a pregnant cop. She is not compromised morally in any way. There is no femme fatale. It's a brilliant crime film with a style but would not qualify as noir. You might say that Blood Simple and No Country (still no femme fatale) come from that genre but Fargo belongs in the genre of Coen. Inspired by crime films but not noir.

June 7, 2014 at 9:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Cavner

What Cavner said: Before there was Film Noir there was Roman Noir... and this kind of goes back to Cornell Woolrich's Black series of novels. The three Fathers of Noir (as a fiction genre) were Woolrich, James M. Cain, and Horace McCoy. It's a different genre (or subgenre) than Hard Boiled and has very specific story elements. People who learn about Film Noir from film professors are often ignorant of the books which came before the films... and only see the surface (things like lighting) and miss what made it a fiction genre before any of the books were filmed.

The lighting style usually associated with Film Noir is German Expressionistic, but that style was also used in horror films.

June 8, 2014 at 4:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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#jeez guys. Lighten up (puns). No reason to get into a micturating competition over who knows the most about film noir, but feel free to micturate away, and as always, thanks for reading and adding your thoughts!

June 8, 2014 at 8:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

I agree with Justin on keeping it light-hearted (pun). All the excellent points included in the comments above I actually gathered from Justin's original post. Thanks for the excellent post, Justin!

June 9, 2014 at 8:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jer Gonda

I always win at micturating contests -- you could say I'm a whiz.

October 21, 2014 at 11:36AM

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Get John Alton's book, "Painting with Light". You'll need no further instruction...

June 9, 2014 at 8:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Frank

"The Big Combo"

John Alton at his best.

June 9, 2014 at 10:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Hobbs

Thanks to Mr. Morrow I feel that I'm beginning to actually have a shot at becoming film literate. I'm finally starting to grasp the art behind that which I've been taking in on a purely visceral level.

June 12, 2014 at 8:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Amanda

I don't post too often here, but I just had to say something seeing as I just love the Film Noir look and really tried to accomplish it in a video I did recently. Hope I add to the conversation :) [vimeo 88415013 w=500 h=281] Posse - Ronnie Voice & Zebuk from Zebuk on Vimeo.

June 13, 2014 at 3:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sorry. Thought I could embed here. https://vimeo.com/88415013

June 13, 2014 at 3:37AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Very nice post, interesting read. I shoot a lot of still photography in the noir genre, and try to keep my lighting very simple > http://bit.ly/N13qgO

~ Mark

June 13, 2014 at 1:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Please check out this cool book trailer done by the pros at California Videowork. Done in a kind of noir detective style.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndQ-NZQ8c6w&list=PLPRabrnle_BMF32aWdOKcQT...

June 13, 2014 at 3:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Edward

Murder by Moonlight is the noir style book trailer.

Unfortunately the you tube linked to all the trailers as well. My apologies.

June 13, 2014 at 3:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Edward

"(Yes, I will find a way to work Kubrick into everything.)"

Mi compadre!!! ; )

June 13, 2014 at 3:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Good stuff. Lighting is pretty important but to get the deep blacks you have to crush them in post with brightness and contrast tools or under exposure if working with film. Check out my little lighting practice.
The Man in the Room-Final Cut: http://youtu.be/UGGSObJUiDo

August 6, 2014 at 10:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Aaron Munoz Z.

Thank you so much for this, It has been like a bible for me in creating my first film noir, more people need to understand how important lighting is, and not just the camera you are using.

Almost everything covered here made it into my short film

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_QsrjrRRg8&google_comment_id=z13xypmarm...

So thank you

March 4, 2015 at 7:26AM, Edited March 4, 7:26AM

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Ben Davies
Film Student, Aspiring Cinematographer
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