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What is film noir?

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Film noir is one of the most complex and intriguing genres in the film industry. Until today, there have been one too many definitions of it. It's also often the subject of debate as to what makes a movie noir. Let’s explore this type of filming style.

Film noir

What is film noir?

Film noir is a French phrase that means “black film, black cinema, or dark film” in English. This type of film was most notable during the post-war years when a set of Hollywood films with high saturation and intense contrast came out and took over the cinemas.

One of the most common themes seen among noir movies is its European influence, tackling post-war struggles, highly realistic anxieties, and crime. They had propaganda-like concepts that were quite controversial especially since they first came out when there were just a few brave enough to speak up. Think of film noirs as an entertaining method to rant about societal issues.

Tell-tale signs of film noir style

Some filmmakers and producers still doubt if noir could be considered a genre rather than a style or technique of filming.

There are visual and technical features that can help identify if a movie is noir or not. However, it is crucial to understand that it does not have to have all these characteristics to make it film noir.

The film would often be shot in an urban setting, involving dark alleys, run-down buildings, and diners. There would be fight scenes on rain-soaked pavements with puddles or dramatic conversations in dark, claustrophobic interiors.

Film noir scenes are also known for their use of light and shadow. As prominent as dark areas are in the film, lit areas are also well-lit. So, you'd see a lot of spotlight-like street lamps and flickering neon signs.

Shadows in noir movies are often long and sharp. They're equally important as the characters casting them. There would also be slanting, vertical, and horizontal shadows cast on characters by Venetian blinds, fences, or windows.

Tell-tale signs of film noir style

Films under this category are also often shot in black and white with almost no gray tones. The main character, usually a detective, a former criminal, or an outcast of society, narrates the events in the movie.

The story will revolve around crime, gang wars, corruption, or conspiracy. There will be flashbacks, heroes, villains, and the femme fatale—a mysterious and seductive woman that will often lead male characters into deep trouble.

Eccentric techniques in film noir videos

Post-war, the amount of sex and violence in films was strictly limited. Filmmakers relied on lighting and composition to create scenes with high impact and intensity. So, they had to go against some of the basic rules of filming.

Instead of balancing the composition on screen, the elements are often placed in asymmetrical positions to stir visual impact through imbalance. Both the foreground and background elements are crisp, sharp, and have the same amount of importance. There's no blurring and no selective focus.

While traditional movies aim to be clear and realistic, film noir movies would use reflections and weird camera angles to create a sense of drama and unreality. The cameraman shoots subjects from a very low or a very high angle instead of the eye-level camera angles used in most movies and may even change the focal length to distort the shot even more.

Filmmakers use close-up shots to intensify emotionally charged scenes. And these aren't your typical close-ups, either. The camera gets close enough to fill the frame with only the character’s face, emphasizing the facial expression caused by intense emotion. Sometimes the screen only shows the mouth or eyes of the character.

Eccentric techniques in film noir videos

How to achieve the film noir effect in videos

If you want to apply the film noir effect to your videos, there are things you need to set up pre-production and customize post-production using a video editor.

Because visuals need to be impactful, create a storyboard to set up the flow of the video. Create a film shot list to break it down further with detailed attention to lighting, character positions, composition, and more.

When arranging the lights for a film noir effect, you need to use small, intense lights to achieve hard and distinct shadows. There should be no gradual difference between dark and light. You must remove any gray areas and emphasize the contrast between black and white.

Create your first film noir video

Making a film noir-inspired video will require a great plan and a reliable online video editor

No matter the genre, style, or purpose, Clipchamp’s video editor can help. 

And while you’re at it, explore Clipchamp’s list of video glossary terms to take your editing skills to a whole new level. 

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