How to Get that Film Noir Effect

Film noir has been quite a successful cinematographic genre, ever since it came out in the 1940s. Though you don't see much of it today, it cannot be denied that it's one of the more stylish filmmaking techniques to make use of. 

But, have you ever wondered what goes into creating the film noir effect? Well, you might have a theoretical idea, but it’s always good to know what exactly goes on. After all, there might come a time when you may want to or even have to use it in your own productions.

So, here are a few basic tips on how to get the film noir effect.

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The first and most obvious aspect of the whole process is getting the lighting right. After all, film noir literally translates to "black film" and traces its origins to a much darker form of filmmaking called German Expressionism.

So, the key point here is that you need to create a dark and disturbing atmosphere. This means you’ll need to use low-key lighting and also emphasize harsh lighting and shadows. When film noir came out, it was meant to sort of represent negative elements. This is why a lot of mobster or crime films made use of the film noir technique.

Now, to get the lighting right, you just need to follow 3 simple rules. First, use small intense light to get crisp shadows. Then, make sure you emphasize the contrast between low key and high key lighting.

Finally, makes sure you use 500-watt bulbs or one with higher wattage to create the solid blacks and white.

A common film noir lighting effect you can try is the ‘Venetian blinds setup.' To get this effect, all you have to do is pass hard or intense light through a window with Venetian blinds. Make sure the blinds are tilted to the sides a bit. The end result is an interesting contrast effect that's suspenseful.

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Aside from lighting, set design plays a critical role in creating the intended effect. One of the reasons why film noir stands out is because of the décor and props that are used. The way a set is designed can have a great impact on the tone of the film.

For instance, think of the movie Matrix, which boasts a fair bit of film noir characteristics. What went into creating that dull and dreary look? Was it just the colors? Well, clearly not. The architecture plays a key role here for starters. You have these old, dark buildings that resemble something you would typically see in the projects. Those buildings go a long way in creating that menacing and depressive environment that is common to the film noir style. Plus, they lend that dystopian look and feel, which is in line with the Matrix's storyline.

So, yes, set design matters. Every prop or piece can add to or completely eliminate the impact that you’re looking to create.

film noir costumes


Once again, let’s use the Matrix as an example – you basically have the protagonists and the antagonists dressing up in nothing but blacks and greys. Of course, you don’t have to go that far, but we sort of hope you get the point here.

The whole minimalist approach, in terms of color and fashion, helps create a very serious and dark atmosphere. There’s no flash here whatsoever, which works very well considering the fairly serious narrative in the film.

Now, some might disagree with you saying that film noir has to imitate the fashion from the 40s or the 50s. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix, though categorized as neo-noir, fall under the larger banner of film noir.

Film noir is all about creating that dark and mysterious feel. That’s what you need to go for. It has very little to do with the time period as such.

That brings us to another important point.


Before you go around creating the film noir effect, make sure your story fits the look. Film noir, at the end of the day, is all about murder, mystery, dystopia, oppression, and human vices, etc. So, make sure you know what you're doing.

Though there are no hard and fast rules, it’s better to play it safe, unless, of course, you’re doing a parody or a spoof.

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Lucas Chu

Melty Cone is a full service video production company in NYC. We make commercials, corporate videos, branded content, brand videos and the best videos in New York!