Film and TV Studio in London - Broadley Studio
Film and TV Studio in London - Broadley Studio
Film and TV Studio in London - Broadley Studio

Film Noir Lighting: An Exploration

May 24, 2024 by Naz Foroodian

Film Noir began its life in the 1940’s in the United States. It was reminiscent of the darker post war American city nights where prostitution, drugs and crime were still in the shadows. The use of smaller lighting set-ups and the advancement of easier location shoots meant these Film Noir techniques could now be deployed in new and exciting cinematic ways.

film noir lighting

The main emotions and moods characterised by Film Noir are those of alienation, paranoia, bleakness, disenchantment, evil and ambiguity. The art of Film Noir is being able to bring these emotions to the foreground without the use of modern techniques such as colour, special effects and other advanced production technology.

Film Noir narrative is often skewed and non-linear. Twisted camera angles called Dutch angles come into play and they also use great towering high and low shots to insinuate dominance or passivity in the hero’s and villains.

These are great cinematic devices for low budget film-making and can, and continue to be, deployed in many other films. Its use of voice-overs, flashbacks and edgy editing styles are still practised to this day.

The Film Noir hero is typically an anti-hero and the lines between the heroes and villains can often be blurred. Ideal for a black and white, good vs evil, light vs dark battle of the senses.

Lighting

A good 1 or 2 point lighting set up is ideal.

Nowadays the overly used soft light set-up floods areas. Ideal for larger scenes but not ideal for Film Noir.

Use 800w red heads, 2kW Fresnel’s with barn doors and ideally a 1kW spot lamp with adjustable shutters. This will give a letter box or confined corridor of light. This type of lighting is diffused only really in situations were you have no dimmer and need to drop the intensity of light.

Using ND filters can be much more effective. This intense lighting is called hard lighting. Depending on your aperture and shutter speeds you will need to work on the high key/low key basis. Ideally matching shots as you go.

A high shutter speed will work well for the smoke you will undoubtedly be using in some scenes. This can also work well in crushing those black areas even darker. Close the Aperture and you will reduce the light and the background will be nice and blurred and mysterious, perfection for Film Noir.

If you don’t use enough light (800watts and upwards) you will end up with a picture that is full of non-noir grey and white. You’ll need to increase the contrast between the dark and light areas by adding higher wattage or moving the light source closer to the subject, plan carefully and safely for this.

Remember: Black or White - No greys!!

Film Noir Scenes

Provide great textures and back drops. You may be lucky and get some natural moonlight for outside scenes.

What action are you going to light in the scene? Is it a chase scene or setting the scene in general? Use these 2 examples below for a typical Film Noir set-up.

Creating Atmosphere

You may wish to have the character run through channels of hard spotted down lights against a brick wall in an alleyway. You may want to insinuate that the street light is causing a very heavily backlit scene (use a 2kW with barn doors, out of shot facing towards the action/camera).

If so, use a smoke machine and that will highlight the beams of light streaking through the shot. Take care with the weather as a windy night will cause havoc with smoke filled set ups. Film smoke from behind for the best effect. Also this back lighting can be a very good way to create shadows. Ideal for an introduction of a character and his or her movements without giving away their identity.

Creating Tension

When shooting indoors, windows and blinds can create a very dramatic set of shapes and lines. Place a 2kW Fresnel outside the window pointed in. The closer the light the harder the edges of the blinds/window bars or window frame will be. It can be a great way to highlight a smaller section of face such as the eyes or a weapon thus adding greater mystery and subsequent tension, to the scene.

FAQ: What are Film Noir Lighting Techniques?

Film noir lighting can infuse a range of emotions and ambience into any production.

It's all about tone, look and feel.

Remember, film noir lighting and techniques:

1.  Are still used today in many productions across the world
2.  Are very effective at giving your production real atmosphere and style as well as creating mood and mystery
3.  Use twisted camera angles and unusual shots
4.  Use voice-overs, flashbacks and edgy editing styles
5.  Use lighting creatively to up the tension

Want to add that extra something special to your production, but not sure how to incorporate film noir techniques into your shoot? Then hire real production experts like Broadley Studio to help create the drama, atmosphere and style you really want...

Broadley Studio - THE Production Experts

At Broadley Studio, we have a long track record of helping productions like yours; which includes using film noir techniques to take shoots in entirely different, but more stylish and dramatic directions.

To get a flavour of what we can do for you, check out our latest showcase, case studies and studio specs. Or take a virtual tour of our studios.

To find out more about our studios and production services, our experience of film noir lighting and techniques, and how we can help you and your shoot, please call us on +442077255858 or email us at [email protected].

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