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April 2, 2014
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Lighting Tips for Film Noir

Emphasizing shadows and harsh lighting creates a sense of volume and depth in your films that embodies the film noir style. Check out these great tutorials to create your own film noir look.

This Gun for Hire
From This Gun for Hire, 1942

Originating out of Europe after WWII, the 1940s and 50s saw the rise and huge success of the film noir genre on the silver screen. The look is still popular today, in such films as Black Swan, Drive and Sin City (each having a neo-noir style). But what exactly is the film noir look?

Using low-key lighting as well as emphasizing shadows and harsh lighting, the film noir look captured the dark side of American life: urban crime, mobsters and thieves. To light in a film noir style, there are three basic things to remember:

  • To get hard crisp shadows, use a small intense light. (Fresnels, lekos, reflector spots)
  • Emphasize the difference between high and low-key lighting (lots of fill, high-key lighting)
  • Use at least 500 watt lights to get solid crisp blacks and stark whites (eliminate grays)
Filmmaker IQ has a fantastic rundown of Film Noir lighting:

Similarly, filmmaker Mark Apsolon has an entertaining and informative lighting for film noir tutorial here:

Film Noir Lighting Setups

There are a number of different lighting setups to achieve your film noir look. Let’s take a look at a few:

The venetian blinds setup is a famous and well used trick for many films. To achieve this effect place a 1K (any hard, intense light) through a window with the venetian blinds tilted slightly. This can be a great contrasting effect adding detail to your shot.

venetian blinds

A foggy background can have add great effect to a silhouetted figure, especially when lit from the back. As the fog illuminates, it also simulates diffusion and casts an eerie glow as seen below from The Big Combo.

Fog FilmNoir

Shadowy figures are a big part of the film noir look and a well used technique even in modern times. Again, using intense lighting (1 or 2K), set up a series of lights that will be out of frame and slightly behind the actor so that the shadow is projected onto the wall behind.

Wall shadows

Check out this great resource from FilmmakerIQ with tons of info on film noir lighting. Know of any other great resources? Share yours in the comments below.

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