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Lee Tamer September 10th, 2011 03:00 PM

Creating the Noir look
I am currently planning a short film influenced by the film noir genre and the movie serials from the same era.

From what I know it involves high key lighting, but thats about it.

Anyone have any tips?

Gary Nattrass September 11th, 2011 02:42 AM

Re: Creating the Noir look
Best use hard tungsten lighting sources and if you can get them fresnels so you can focus the light more, keep it simple and let the contrast make the mood.

You may also need to set your camera up to suit such a mood and give you the high contrast moody look you require.

Garrett Low September 12th, 2011 12:21 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
Hi Lee,

Actually, Film Noir usually uses Low Key lighting. Backgrounds are not evenly lit. Lots of streaks of lighting or use gobos to create interesting background patterns.

I've also been in pre-production for a Film Noir Project for a while now and it's a lot of fun experimenting with different looks. As Gary mentioned Fresnels work best for lighting instruments, using a lot of flagging so that you can really control the spill. Place your lights farther from your subject to get harder shadows. Remember that the development of the Film Noir style was due to a lack of budget for nice looking sets. So placing your talent far from detailed walls, background furniture etc. also adds to the feel of the scene.

The use of more aggressive angles for profiles are also commonly found. Many times you will only see one eye or the second eye of the talent will be partially obscured by their profile.

One of the best things to do is watch a lot of different Noir films and study the set ups. Try to analyze the lighting and then recreate the scene.


Andrew Stone September 12th, 2011 02:51 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
Really interesting post Garrett. Thanks for the info.

Lee Tamer September 13th, 2011 11:36 AM

Re: Creating the Noir look
Thankyou for the advice Gary and Garrett.

My film is for my senior project for college so I have access to the lights that the college has. Every film/video major is required to make a short film their senior year.

I am very familiar with the film noir genre and have watched quite a number of films. The one thing i have noticed is what you mentioned Garrett, the patterns of light on the walls.

Eric Lagerlof September 17th, 2011 02:13 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
Painting with Light by John Alton is a good book by one of the masters of noir lighting. Might be an interesting read and helpful as well.

Charles Papert September 17th, 2011 04:03 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
I tackled a noir feature called "The Perfect Sleep" some years ago, it was a hoot to work in that genre. It's kind of all about the shadows, whether on one side of the subject's face or in the background.

As Garrett says, watch films in that genre. Take notes, pull reference stills, build a "look book" for yourself. It's not as quick as asking people on message boards how to do it, but that's the best way. (note: I saw after posting that you had replied that you had watched a lot of the films, which is good).

The Perfect Sleep is by no means a classic of the genre, but for a modern low budget noir, I think it works visually. It can be streamed/rented from Netflix.

Garrett Low September 18th, 2011 01:34 AM

Re: Creating the Noir look
Charles, The Perfect Sleep was a very interesting study. I've got a ton of questions but don't want to hijack this thread. So, just a quick questions, did you light it and shoot it differently since it was color instead of B&W?


Charles Papert September 18th, 2011 08:01 AM

Re: Creating the Noir look
I guess it would be up to Lee to decide if it would be thread hijacking, but it seems pretty on-topic to me. I find it a lot easier to discuss lighting in specific terms than vagaries anyway. Much easier to dissect a given shot as an example of noir than to make a sweeping statement on how one would generally approach shooting in the noir style...?

To answer your question Garrett, for me the main difference between B/W and color is going to be that tonal separation in B/W is going to approached via pure luminance differentiation. I can't remember if we even discussed shooting B/W but if we did, it was a short discussion as the producers would have felt it would have hurt the distribution options. The bigger discussion was that they were insistent that we shoot it in HD rather than film, which in 2004 was a far more radical concept than it is now (it was primarily shot on the F900, delivering what I wryly described as "video noir").

The film is about two warring sides of a family and takes place in several "worlds" within these. Since it intercut quite a bit between these and a regular series of flashbacks, I felt it important to give the viewer a visual cue to where we were at any given moment. The trailer bounces around quite a bit but you can see examples of all of these; Roslyn Sanchez's house (the love interest) is painted in warm, soft tones; the enemy lairs are cool blue and desaturated, approaching monochrome; and the flashbacks such as the little boy receiving the watch were first desaturated and then tinted sepia/yellow. Within these, the classic noir look is most evident in the enemy lair segments, most often represented in the trailer by the fight scenes.

The biggest asset I had in the movie was the incredible locations (which lured me into the project, after several DP's passed, claiming that it was impossible to achieve given the budget). The director's day job was as a location manager and he pulled a lot of favors to get us access to the various environments on a shoestring, such as the legendary Bradbury building. Without the benefit of the kind of resources one would normally have to light these massive environments, I had to take a different approach and focused on lighting in at most two to three planes, i.e. foreground where the action took place and the deep background, such as seen in the opening sequence of the trailer. One of the nice things about having locations the size of football fields was that I could at least throw the backgrounds out of focus a little given the 2/3" chip. I also had the benefit of an amazing production and costume designer and while we didn't have the time or resources to collaborate as deeply as one might on a larger movie, we were all on the same page with the approach.

Overall, given that noir is as much about contrast and the play between light and shadow (i.e. no light), this lends itself well to the low budget approach since when you start from scratch, you are theoretically adding only half as much light! That's an oversimplification, but it does hold true--this is not a genre where a three-point lighting scheme will help you much.

Gary Nattrass September 19th, 2011 02:20 AM

Re: Creating the Noir look
Thank you for sharing that Charles I am always most interested in your thoughts and location experiences.

Jon Fairhurst September 22nd, 2011 05:13 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
We shot a noir short intended for festivals. We bought ceiling light fixtures at a big box hardware store that acted like snoots. We painted them black on the inside and used clear, high-wattage (200-300W) bulbs. We hand selected bulbs that had the smallest filament cross section when viewed from the end. That gave us lots of hard lights for setting up our scenes. We used black foil for flagging. A great solution on the cheap!

Somewhat off topic... the biggest mistake in modern, low-budget noir, IMHO, is that we've been overly influenced by noir parody: the dry narrator, the quippy dialog, too many cigarette butts in the ashtray, the overdone dame. Scratch all those images from your script. The essence of film noir, IMHO is the desperate emotions of broken people in a deteriorating world. Capture that with shadowy images and you've got true noir. The plot might be about a detective or a con. The protagonist might be true or black hearted. It might be a whodunnit, where the audience knows less than the hero (mystery), or a film where the audience is a step ahead (suspense.) There are lots of plot options. But the key is to focus on the human story: the emotions, the motivations, and the desperation. That's the heart of film noir.

Lee Tamer September 24th, 2011 10:20 AM

Re: Creating the Noir look
My biggest concern is wether or not black and white will look any good on video. I have very little experience with film. I plan to shoot this with my Canon 7D and the Sony NEX-FS100 or the Panasonic HVX 200, I havent decided (my school just purchased several new cameras). Im worried wether I should even bother post converting video to black and white. I really dont feel comfortable shooting in film even though I know I'll get the better end result.

@Eric Lagerlof: I have the book and its a great visual reference.

@Jon Fairhurst: I completely agree, Im trying to avoid the stereotypes and cliches of something like Sin City

@Charles: I always appreciate your input its always helpful

Gary Nattrass September 24th, 2011 01:32 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
If you use a camera that has the ability to shoot higher contrast filmic look and also have a few settings that you can adjust it will be better. I think my panasonic HPX301/371 cameras come with a B&W pre-set that adjusts the camera settings to suit once the images are made b&w in post, grading will also help to max out the contrast ratio.

Lee Tamer September 25th, 2011 01:05 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
On a semi-related note, I watched The Big Combo last night, which was shot by John Alton, The look of it is fantastic. Its a B-grade Noir, but the style is just grate. I'm definitely using it as a visual reference.

Dan Brockett September 25th, 2011 09:25 PM

Re: Creating the Noir look
I produced the audio commentaries for the Warner Bros. Film Noir Box DVD Set Vol II so I had a few months to watch, re-watch and study the films in this set.

I think that it is fair to say that Jon nails it in this thread as far as the film making motivation behind most film noir, it was lack of budget. Remember, film noir was mostly made toward the end of the Hollywood studio system when a lot of films were pretty much brightly lit, Technicolor, Cinemascope oriented while film noir was the exact opposite. Even though they were made within the studio system, the studios were often Poverty Row studios like Monogram and Republic, which meant that budgets were low and even the ones made for the larger studios were still made for very low budgets.

Clash by Night is a good example of a film noir that had nothing to do with crime, criminals, big cities or most other film noir cliches, yet it is still considered a classic of genre. It did feature characters who were broken, damaged and desperate though. A well written script with real pathos and drama would be the first prerequisite. Will your story be a modern film noir or are you trying to do a period feel?

As far as lighting, film noir, which literally translated means "black film" is more about shadows, high contrast and oblique angles than high-key lighting. They didn't have the money for lavish sets so the cheap sets that they did have were obscured by dark and shadows. One factor that is usually overlooked is that the B&W film stocks that they were using back then were pretty slow and the instruments that they lit with were huge. That is the most common obstacle that most modern filmmakers are going to run into today, few filmmakers are going to use or have access to an 18" lens fresnel carbon arc lighting package and a camera like your 7D has a native ISO that is MUCH higher than the film stocks used back then. The tools we have today are amazing but they are just trying to emulate the look, they don't really hit the mark quite. But good enough to tell an effective noir story for sure.

It is the same reason why nobody today, no matter how talented they are as a still photographer, can emulate the George Hurrell look with digital very convincingly, it is always too clean, clear, the gamma curve is totally different, etc. I have yet to see a modern noir that looks really much like the real deal, although I have seen many that look good, they don't look accurate to the real deal. I will have to take a look at Charles' film, I'm sure that if anyone could come close to the look of the original, Charles could.

I think the best advice to you would be to buy two or three of the Warners box sets used and just watch them as much as possible and run tests. You can probably come up with a decent look that approximates the noir feel with your 7D and with some study and experimentation you can probably get the lighting right, it isn't terribly difficult, but it is specific. Jon also nails it on the aesthetic, most noir looks you have seen from the past twenty years were inspired more as parody than the real thing, it's like a copy of the copy of the original so go back and watch the real thing in a pure vacuum, don't get your look from "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid".

Forgot to add, another good film for visual reference, even though it isn't considered a film noir is John Ford's "The Informer" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Inf...281935_film%29 from 1935. Made way before film noir but the exact same design and story requirements, difficult story about a tortured main character, shot in a single warehouse stage for almost nothing. Cheap sets, really basic stuff but I love the look that Ford got using film noir lighting to get the "Murnau/German Expressionist look", fog and imagination. Oh yeah, nominated for six Academy Awards, it won four of them. It was made for $243,000.00, which while it was a lot more back then, it was still small potatoes for 1935. Yep, I produced the DVD bonus mini-documentary on this one.

Good luck,


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