How Film Production Students Can Add a Little “Noir” to Their Movies

Posted on February 5th, 2016 - Written by: Trebas Toronto

Killer pointing the gun at a terrified woman

What exactly is ‘film noir’? The term was coined by critics in the 1940s to describe a wave of new films that a adopted a dark, fatalistic attitude, which it is said mirrored the powerlessness many people felt in the face of the global conflict of the period. The movies were usually hard-boiled tales of urban crime and corruption, with excessive violence, deceitful characters and not a happy ending in sight.

Yet film noir grew into much more than just that. Over the years, innovative filmmakers have adapted its visual elements, character tropes and story structures into different genres and film styles. For film production students, using noir elements in their own films can help add excitement, depth and uniqueness.

A Darker Perspective: Noir Visual Cues You’ll Learn at Film Production College

To add dramatic tension and create an uneasy feel to their movies, noir filmmakers broke many of the classic Hollywood rules about cinematography. Shots with asymmetrical or imbalanced composition, or scenes where the viewer’s vision of the action is obscured were commonplace, while they would also use extreme close-ups of protagonists’ faces to heighten the intensity of the action.

Of course, as students enrolled in film courses can probably guess, the most important element of the noir visual style was darkness. Much of the action would take place at night, and even during indoors and daytime scenes the shots tended to be darker, using high contrast lighting without fill lights to create shadowy scenes. The visual style perfectly reflected the darkness of the characters and story.

Noir films typically contained many dark, shadowy scenes.

Noir films typically contained many dark, shadowy scenes.

No Happy Endings: How Students in Film Courses Can Use Noir Storytelling Elements

The key element of noir storytelling is fatalism. As critic Roger Ebert once said, a good film noir movie “at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.” To facilitate this, many noir filmmakers took to telling stories in flashback and using voiceovers from characters to narrate their story, both popular narrative devices in other genres today.

Film production college students could also learn a lot by studying the story structure of early noir movies. Many of these films use a plotting technique called a “spiderweb of deceit,” in which a character makes a mistake that creates a domino effect, leading to much greater problems.

Film Courses Teach Students to Add Shades Of Grey to Create Real ‘Noir’ Characters

Film noir is responsible for the famous ‘femme fatale’ archetype, in which the main protagonist is drawn into conflicts by a ruthless woman. The protagonists themselves are also quite flawed, and are usually presented as quite cynical and embittered, often with questionable pasts.

These classic tropes can be incorporated into a script in many different ways, and over the years, filmmakers have added their own unique twists to the character types. Above all else, presenting characters that are somewhat morally ambiguous and play with audience perceptions of good and evil is really the mark of true noir style.

The ‘femme fatale’ archetype originated in film noir.

The ‘femme fatale’ archetype originated in film noir.

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