The concept of lighting for film noir is deep and complicated topic but a great subject for modern filmmakers. Film noir was created by filmmakers who were bound by their budgets and their technology. But they weren’t limited in their talents - that makes this an excellent starting point for studying lighting.
The common thread of film noir lighting is low key lighting - a style called Chiaroscuro in the art world.
Chiaroscuro emphasized shadows and harsh lighting to create a sense of depth and volume in paintings. Cinematographers working in the classical film noir era sought to do the same thing - trying to overcome the bland flatness that bright black and white film could have if there’s not much contrast.
Let’s turn to the traditional three point lighting setup that is the fundamental system all filmmakers learning how to light will start with. We’ll talk about the three point lighting system in regards to lighting a face mainly for terminology as noir setups could use fewer or considerably more more than three lights.
The first and most important light is the key light - this is usually the brightest and most dominant light of a setup. Complementing the key is the Fill light, which is place opposite of the key light to fill in some of the shadows left by the key. The final light of the three point setup is the back light - this light adds an outline to separate the subject from the background.
In Film Noir, the most prominent lights are going to be strong keys and back light. Fill light is not as dominant as we want to exaggerate the contrast and get that low key look.
Film Noir generally uses “hard lights” - the hardness or softness of a light is the type of shadows it creates. Hard lights leave sharp edged shadows - this is created by a single point source of light where the light rays are running more or less from a single point in space. Think of a bare halogen bulb. Soft lights leave fuzzy shadows and are created by a larger area of light where the light rays is being scattered in different directions the illumination is coming from many points. Think of this like a frosted bulb or Compact fluorescent.
Hard shadows almost define the film noir look: be it the alternating patterns of dark and light slashes from venetian blinds to a silhouette of a man running down an alleyway. Soft lighting is used more conservatively often glamorizing female characters.
To determine where to put your lights, here’s a tip from John Alton, the director of photography on “The Big Combo”. He suggests using a test lamp which I have created simply by attaching a simple worklamp and light bulb to the end of a boom pole. With this test lamp you can walk around the set can test different lighting positions and how they look before moving light fixtures into place.
Since shadows are so essential to film noir - let’s talk about a few of the tools often used to shape light and shadow.
The first which you see over and over again are Cucoloris - often called cookies. These are cutouts of wood, metal, plastic, or anything that cast a patterned shadow - say like a venetian blind pattern. Cookies go between the light fixture and the subject. They’re available commercially in different patterns and its easy to make your own.
Very similar are Gobos - short for Go Before Optics. These are cutouts made of metal or glass that go inside the light fixture between a light source and a lens. These can cast a perfectly crisp shadow but require specialized lights that have projection lenses.
Moving beyond the basic three point lighting setup, there’s one light in film noir that gets a lot of play - and that’s the eye light. Used in non-film noir productions to add reflection in the eyes, film noir often isolates this light illuminating only the eyes and brow to get a dramatic look.
You can do this in a couple of different ways, you can use flags, which are like solid cookies that don’t let any light through and place them so that they block all but your intended eye light, or you can barn doors - which are leaves that attach to your light fixture which act as mini flags.
We’ve only touched the surface of noir lighting, the rest can only be learned by studying the cinematography of the masters - from Nicolas Musuraca’s German expressionist lighting in “Stranger on the Third Floor” - to John F. Seitz’s polished studio noir look of Double Indemnity, John Alton’s dark but creative lighting placement in “The Big Combo” or the lively location lighting of Russell Metty on “Touch of Evil”
Look for source of the light - how much contrast between key and fill and the position of back lights. Let that inspire you in your own productions - go make something great.