Lighting Research: Neo-noir, and Dark City.

One principle of film making that can completely impact each shot of a film is the lighting it contains – lighting adds a layer of mood and putting more or taking it away can have dramatic effects on the audience with the type of emotions a scene is trying to convey, giving extra characteristics to what would otherwise be a normal character standing in a scene, or even just to add some contrast to what might otherwise be an ‘every day’ framing.

One genre where lighting thrives within movie production is film noir, of which the term was first recognized in English by Charles Higham’s “Hollywood in the Forties” (1968.) The word noir itself is French meaning ‘black’, which makes the title all the more fitting for what film noir is about: creating a darker atmosphere where lighting can take pride not only in its appearance, but also its absence, to create a better sense of contrast and humanistic ‘darkness’ that supports the genre’s roots of being crime dramas and an exploration in humans, morally. The 1960s-70s began a new, ‘post modern’ movement of noir known as neo-noir that now brought this genre into the coloured format of film, while still allowing similar (but more modernized) themes and style.

One overlooked and somewhat recent example is the “Dark City” (1998) directed by Alex Proyas. To say that this film is neo-noir would be unspoken, as the entire film is filled with noir influence – it’s called Dark City for a reason: The entire city is always night time. It is also noticeable on viewing that lighting has been thought about a lot throughout the film’s production to make sure it gives off the correct feeling, but also keeps a level of realism to try and make this entirely fictionalized world Dark City takes place in to feel like not such an impossibility. Proyas himself, during Director’s Commentary of the film, said he wanted the film to feel like a documentary that had been filmed in a real world, with naturalistic lighting.

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Even from the opening scene, the lighting in the room we’re greeted with is simply that of a swinging light in the middle of the room. With this swinging light, we see our character wake up in confusion from a bathtub and are never quite greeted with his face entirely lit up. The shot above, for example, completely brightens up one side of his face and body, while the other is left in complete darkness to create a huge sense of both contrast and mystery. This, along with the rest of the shot being relatively dim lit brings extra attention to the character.

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This main protagonist, John Murdoch, is actually unsure of who he is upon this waking up. And he’s unsure of why the world is acting so strangely. He’s been framed for murder and is being chased, while also on a search for truth about himself – meanwhile every other main character believes they know who they are, and are instead influenced by his strange and confused impression on them. The lighting reflects this as, while most characters in Noir are generally darkened on one side of their face (as well as most throughout this film), John has been done so with more contrast as he is the most uncertain of himself as a person, whilst also the closest to uncovering the mystery of Dark City.

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The antagonists of the film, Monster Skinned Humanoids with telekinetic powers, often go out of their way to stay hidden from the public eye of Dark City, and the lighting of each shot that contains them in this world are usually surrounded with darkness to give them a much more evil and clear, antagonistic tone.

Lighting is not all about contrast though, especially in neo-noir where colour is now a relevant and important aspect to the storytelling, and Dark City’s lighting takes advantage of this.

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The “underworld” of Dark City where the antagonists live and use their telekinetic powers are lit up with various blue and green lights upon their otherwise whitened faces. This creates a greater contrast in colour between the rest of the film and scenes within their world, and so the lighting has made a difference to the way viewers will watch the film in the way that as soon as the scene switches to this location, the audience immediately knows that they’re somewhere different and unnatural – making the humanoids to be much more alien-like too.

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The only scene that is brightly lit is the final scene, in which John and the rest of the characters are finally freed and can now see the outside world, and there is now day-time and sun. While it doesn’t require much setting up, having a shot that’s truly lit naturally and bright compared to the bleak darkness of the rest of the film is finally, another good example of using lighting for storytelling. After all, finally seeing some colour and light adds a better sense of conclusion and ‘closure’ to the film Dark City.

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