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The Basics of Shooting Film Noir


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#1 Jamie McIntyre

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 01:38 AM

For a school project i have to DP a short film.

I have decided to shoot a film noir style piece. I just wondered which films are the best that fully show the 'real' noir style? So i can gather some stills to show the teacher and discuss on achieving a specific look.

Also, what are the basics of shooting noir? I'm trying to figure out what lights are best to use, which film stock (16mm), lenses, filters, etc? And any other production equipment.

I will be shooting on the Arri SR2.

It would be brilliant if you could help me on my way.

Thanks! :)

Jamie Mc
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#2 Michael Campanella

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 02:34 AM

"Touch of Evil" by Orson Welles is probably my favorite film noir. You should check out "The Big Combo" which as photographed by John Alton, that's a great example of noir photography. If you want a modern example then you should check out "The Man Who Wasn't There" by the Coen brothers.

As for the stock check out the Kodak site. They have a couple of options available like Plus-X 7231 (ISO 80) & Double-X (ISO 200). So you can figure out something based on what you can afford to work with lighting wise.

Hope this helps.
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#3 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 03:50 AM

Black and white IS noir and two of my favorites are Pickup on South Street and Double Indemnity. Of course there is Key Largo, Gilda,The Big Sleep and the movie that started it all, TYhe Maltese Falcon, but if you want to see a great noir done in color it's Body Heat followed closely by Blood Simple then Angel Heart. Noir is more a matter of lighting, pace, subject matter and story rather than than filmstock and lenses, those tend to more help define your own personal style rather than the film genra and that's something you'll figure out as you go along. B)
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#4 Ken Zukin

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 11:17 AM

Well, DP John Alton is the acknowledged king of film noir. Some of his work that has been released: "T-Men", "He Walked by Night", "Raw Deal", & "The Big Combo."

Lesser known, but super talented: Woody Bredel - "The Killers" and "Unsuspected" ("Unsuspected" has not been released).

Another great film that's available: Ernest Haller's "Mildred Pierce."

TCM (the network) is a good source.

Not to slam the previous post, but "The Maltese Falcon", "The Big Sleep", and "Double Indemnity" aren't highly regarded for their camerawork. "Touch of Evil" certainly is, though.
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#5 Joseph Winchester

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 11:29 AM

One of my favorite film noirs is "In a Lonely Place". Bogart is amazing.
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#6 Shaun Joye

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 11:56 AM

Touch of Evil is great. Keep in mind though what makes authentic film noir is the story and the lighting evolved from that. Movies like Sin City have borrowed some of the style but I haven't seen a modern film with the same kind of paranoia as the original ones.
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#7 Jamie McIntyre

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 12:07 PM

Wow, thanks for the amazing replies.

I'm going to go out and buy some of these movies. I've always wanted to see 'The Big Combo'.

So it's the lighting and story that give noir it's style, Is there any basic lighting set ups that are the fundamentals of lighting for that style.

I have heard it's hard to light smoke and it looks like in most noir films that the light is very controlled in most set ups. ANy tips on doing this>? Is it just a case of flagging, and flagging some more?

Thanks again,

Jamie McIntyre
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 12:45 PM

You should watch the film noir section of the documentary "Visions of Light" -- DP's like John Bailey describe that style of lighting well.
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#9 Jamie McIntyre

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 12:52 PM

Ahh, now you mention that i remember watching that a while back! I'm going to make sure i watch it again.

Thanks David.
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#10 Michael Campanella

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 12:59 PM

You might find the Wikipedia entry on film noir to have some interesting information regarding what characteristics make up a film noir.
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#11 Sander van de kerkhof

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Posted 08 May 2007 - 11:40 PM

You could also get a copy of "Painting With Light " by John Alton.
It has some nice setup examples.

Sander,
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#12 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 09 May 2007 - 01:12 AM

Not to slam the previous post, but "The Maltese Falcon", "The Big Sleep", and "Double Indemnity" aren't highly regarded for their camerawork. "Touch of Evil" certainly is, though.


But see, that's exactly my point, these are the three most well know noir films in existence and it shows that the camera is NOT the primary element of noir, it's story, subject matter and lighting. Touch of Evil has brillant camera work IN SPITE of it being noir BECAUSE it was directed by Wells. Had another director say Huston handled the film, it still would have been interesting, it still would have been noir but it probably wouldn't have transended the genra the way it did with Wells at the helm. Wells' style and personality are reflected in the way the camera is used in Touch of Evil. The Maltese Falcon was Huston's first feature so he probably tended to play it a little safer with reguards to camera movement plus there's a 12 to 17 year gap between the first 3 films, The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), "The Big Sleep (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958). Technological advances certainly also had an influence on Wells' ability to move the camera the way he did.

Another example is in Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street. One of the most effective scenes in the film and perhaps of all times is where a woman is being beaten, the camera stays in a master shot throughout the sequence. There is no camera movement and yet THAT is what make the scene so powerful and disturbing. Camera movement is not nessarally an element of a great scene, the LACK of movement can be just as powerful. That's the problem with a lot of inexpirenced directors, they think to make a scene exciting, the MUST move the camera. Maybe it's a lack of confidence or maybe it an egotistical exercise in proving how great they are by saying essentailly "Hey, look how great a filmmaker I am. Just LOOK what I can do with this camera!" when in fact less can be SSSOOOO much more. B)
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#13 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 09 May 2007 - 01:44 AM

So it's the lighting and story that give noir it's style, Is there any basic lighting set ups that are the fundamentals of lighting for that style.

I have heard it's hard to light smoke and it looks like in most noir films that the light is very controlled in most set ups. ANy tips on doing this>? Is it just a case of flagging, and flagging some more?


Noir in French means black, the term came about when French critics began to study American films, this had a profound effect on the French New Wave movement of the late 50's and early 60's. Film noir litterally translates to black film and it is what it implies, dark, shadowy with strong key and muted fill. One thing that has not been mentioned here is mood. Noir is ALL about mood, generally with a protagonist that is in most cases an anti-hero. The stories are generally about the seemy, underbelly of life. Even in The Big Sleep or Chinatown, in which the stories revolve around the uppercrust of society, it is the seedied side of that world, the DARK side and that is reflected in the lighting. The fog and smoke is also a mood element within the production design of these films, the fact that things hide in the shadows and are seen through the fog. That's what makes the texture of noir so rich and heavy.

Hitchock though known as the Master of Suspense was also a master of Noir, if you look at his ultimate mastepiece, Vertigo, it contains all the elements of noir but as with Wells, he manages to transend through his sheer brilliance as a filmmaker the bounderies of the genra to art on a universal scale. Mood and style are paramount when working in this genra, add to this a great story and brillent acting and it's a formula that works over and over again. It's to only combination I can think of the is a sure-fire hit every time. Take a look at this:

www.metaphilm.com/philm.php?id=461_0_2_0

There's a lot of history and essay on Noir. It may help. B)

Edited by James Steven Beverly, 09 May 2007 - 01:48 AM.

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#14 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 09 May 2007 - 01:57 AM

Oh another relitively modern Noir you outta check out is David Lynch's Blue Velvet. I think Lynch is another filmmaker that has transended the genra with this film but then again, Lynch is in a catigory all his own so it's not suprising. B)
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#15 Ken Zukin

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Posted 09 May 2007 - 02:04 AM

Well, James, I'll have to respectfully disagree with you.

The original post here asked for examples of "film noir style." By that, I took it to mean Chiaroscuro lighting and bold composition.

"The Big Sleep", "The Maltese Falcon" and "Double Indemnity" are wonderful films - far better than most of the formulaic trash that's released currently. But they aren't very bold visually.

Film Noir really started up post WWII and stuck around for 7 -8 years. In that time stretch there are dozens of films that were visual tour-de-forces. In my opinion, the above-mentioned films aren't in that upper eschelon.

For what it's worth, here are some of the standouts: "Nightmare Alley" (Lee Garmes, DP), "Out of the Past" (Nicholas Musuraca, DP), "Border Incident" (John Alton, DP), "Cornered" (Harry Wild, DP), "Kiss Me Deadly" (Ernest Laszlo, DP), "99 River Street" (Franz Planer, DP), and "The Killing" (Lucien Ballard, DP). All (except "99 River Street") available on DVD.

And I agree with you that there's a lot more involved in creating a good film than camera movement. That's another reason I really like the Noir genre - the good ones were SO well written.

Ken
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#16 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 09 May 2007 - 02:49 AM

Well, James, I'll have to respectfully disagree with you.
The original post here asked for examples of "film noir style." By that, I took it to mean Chiaroscuro lighting and bold composition.


Low key IS an element of classic noir, but it is not a defining element. Low key has been used in many film ganras, Horror, Sci/Fi, Suspense but that does not make these films noir. Alien is a great film but it's not Noir. As for bold composition, I think that's also not a defining factor. Kurosawa was a master of composition but none of his films can be considered Noir

"The Big Sleep", "The Maltese Falcon" and "Double Indemnity" are wonderful films - far better than most of the formulaic trash that's released currently. But they aren't very bold visually.


Exactly my point, bold visuals are not the essense of Noir, mood is. Going back to the term Noir, part of the reason dark and light play such an inportant part in a Noir film is not because the are "bold" but becase the are mediphoric for the story lines. Dark, light and grey are the elements of a great Noir story.

Film Noir really started up post WWII and stuck around for 7 -8 years. In that time stretch there are dozens of films that were visual tour-de-forces. In my opinion, the above-mentioned films aren't in that upper eschelon.


Actually The Maltese Falcon, which is considered by most film historians to be the first true Noir was made in 1941, A Touch of Evil, which is considered by most Film historians to be the last of the classic Noirs was made in 1958 so the classic Noir era ran 17 years. As for them not being in the upper eschelon, they've survived and been seen by more people than all the others put together....so what exactly do you consider "upper eschelon"? Those movies DEFINE Noir, what can be more upper eschelon than that?

For what it's worth, here are some of the standouts: "Nightmare Alley" (Lee Garmes, DP), "Out of the Past" (Nicholas Musuraca, DP), "Border Incident" (John Alton, DP), "Cornered" (Harry Wild, DP), "Kiss Me Deadly" (Ernest Laszlo, DP), "99 River Street" (Franz Planer, DP), and "The Killing" (Lucien Ballard, DP). All (except "99 River Street") available on DVD.


All good movies, none of which has had the staying power of The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity OR Blue Velvet and Chinatown for that matter. I could go into ANY decently stocked movie rental place and find Double Indemnity, Blue Velvet and Chinatown and ANY movie rental place in the world and find The Maltese Falcon. That does not mean the films you listed aren't good films, just that they don't represent the pinicle of Noir. They may have elements that are bold and exciting but the true test of greatness is the ability to transend time. The Maltese Falcon does that, and of THAT there is no denighing.

And I agree with you that there's a lot more involved in creating a good film than camera movement. That's another reason I really like the Noir genre - the good ones were SO well written.
Ken


I can't argue with ya there. B)
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#17 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 May 2007 - 10:29 AM

I tend to agree with Ken... if you want to study the strongest visual elements of what made up Film Noir -- almost the cliche of what a noir is -- you should start with the center of the period, its height during post-WW2, not a proto-noir like "Maltese Falcon", although it certainly is a good movie that should be watched (I just watched it again this Christmas).

The raw movies shot by John Alton like "T-Men" or "Big Combo", for example. Or the movies shot by Nick Musuraca like "Out of the Past".

Film Noir, at its peak, evolved into almost a re-incarnation of the visual principles of German Expressionism mixed into a realistic crime setting (which is why b&w was so effective in noir) -- but shot on a budget usually. So it developed a rather terse, brutal form of visual design.

I think you two are just disagreeing because James is suggesting great noir movies while Ken is suggesting those movies that best represent the stylistic intent of film noir, which for the purposes of study the lighting designs of film noir, may be more helpful (although "Double Indemnity" has some great lighting in it.)

You could study many of the films shot by Greg Toland too, whether or not they were noirs, because they have that German Expressionism influence.
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#18 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 09 May 2007 - 11:16 PM

Well, all I can say is if Dave tells you there's something you need to study in order to learn more about a certain style of lighting, then you should do it. I've seen his work and he is brillant and I bow to his expertice in this area. B)
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#19 Sam Wells

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 06:13 PM

Film Noir, at its peak, evolved into almost a re-incarnation of the visual principles of German Expressionism mixed into a realistic crime setting (which is why b&w was so effective in noir) -- but shot on a budget usually. So it developed a rather terse, brutal form of visual design.


I think the Godfather of Film Noir is Fritz Lang. Watch "M" (and the two prewar Dr. Mabuse movies for extra credit) and I think you'll see the seeds of everything that follows.

(And Lang's Hollywood films like "You Only Live Once" and "The Big Heat" are well worth taking a look at in this context.....)


-Sam
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#20 Shawn Mielke

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 06:34 PM

I am smack dab in the middle of film noir gluttony. Portland OR's North West Film Center just finished almost an entire month of noir screenings, double features no less, and I have perhaps forty films more lined up on my Netflix que. Not that they're all great films, but as a body of work, if they can be considered as such, you can only learn heaps about black and white photography (or videography). Someone has brought up Fritz Lang, and that is important. Absolutely, see "M" in conjunction with your project. See also Lang's "Testmament of Dr. Mabuse". But the art movement that had a rather even handed influence on what is considered the golden age of "film noir" was German Expressionism, a movement Lang was not exactly at the center of (in fact, he loathed it).

Nosferatu
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

So far, my favorite film noir proper has been

Kiss Me Deadly

Absurdist, delirious, anarchistic, ridiculous. 1955. The height of American noir's powers, imo. No Kiss Me Deadly, no Tarantino or Cohens.
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