Art lesson resource: Film Noir Photos

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Here is  a recent project I have completed with Year 9 GCSE Photography students based on the theme of Film Noir imagery. Developed from a project created many years ago for the NCFE level 2 course, there are a few essentials needed but basically it is about interpretation of the visual style. The examples presented here were all produced this half term by the students working in teams of 4 or 3 (there are 27 in my class).

What you will need:

  • Ideally DSLR cameras but use what you can
  • Photo editing software, ie. Photoshop
  • Battery torches – even cheap £1 LED ones work well
  • A studio light would be great
  • Black sugar paper and masking tape
  • Costume props: police-style caps, Macintosh coats, long gloves
  • Props: plastic handguns (must be relevant style to 1940s USA), plastic Tommy guns, plastic handcuffs and/or police badges.

Inspiration

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As a starting point we looked at clips from some of the best Noir movies of the ’40s. We used collaborative team methods to identify the key elements common to each of the examples (lighting techniques, good guys, dubious gals, the femme fatale etc). We also looked out for common costume, make-up and hair as well as props. Students went from there to research contemporary artists (and movies) that employ some of the iconography of the 1940s Noir. The mood board above shows that a student has identified Noir ideas in the work of Vandervell and Carr.

Method

Usually in a photography project, I will start students with idea research to get visual prompts for the imagery they will go on to experiment with and develop in their own way. However, the Noir style is quite intuitive once you have the props. It is surprising how many members of staff had a classic Macintosh coat hiding (probably hardly worn) in a cupboard and I sourced three. The handgun props I found at Poundland and even got a Police Set that included a badge and cuffs. Tommy guns were trickier; eventually I got some made in Hong Kong in bright blue and orange that took an age to arrive in the UK; cost just £5 each including p&p. Trilby hats and police-style caps we had in school already from drama performances.

So session one included the smaller teams of 4 wearing/using props in a drama studio and basically improv acting, more accurately ‘acting up’! Cameras were gradually introduced to the teams who were starting to get it. These were photography students after all and didn’t want to be the ‘models’.

After a review of the first shoot, students identified what did or didn’t work the first time. Here we introduced lighting effects. Bringing in their own family torches (and the odd Pringle tube*), we blocked out all the natural light in the studio to get a more developed contrast in tone. Using our two studio lights too and lots of black sugar paper also helped create more abstract tone shapes.

*Empty Pringles tubes with a torch gaffer/duct taped to one end make a makeshift snoot or mini spot-light.

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Sample contact sheet

Contact sheets of the second shoot were compared to inspiration and to a checklist of creative studio techniques. What was missing? How could we develop further using adjustments to light meters, aperture, ISO etc.? What can be done in post-production to create a Noir look and feel?

An in-depth analysis of the projection room sequence from Citizen Kane (1945) helped us to understand how important a range of grey tones can be in obscuring detail. How could we do this without a smoke machine? This informed our next two studio shoots before post-production editing.

Editing

To help develop the Noir style, students used monochrome, spot colour, curve/level adjustments, fog layers and when a neutral back drop had been used, replaced backgrounds. The editing and refining aspect took a number of lessons to get right.

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Specific skills lessons were undertaken on picture planes (creating depth), cutting out around hair and rendering lighting and clouds.

Kids’ Feedback

“Best project so far; really enjoyed the studio sessions especially dressing’ up”

“Made me use my imagination”

“I can’t draw so this is my most creative piece of work as I could imagine being a character in an old film”

“I liked using the lights to make a Noir scene. Not using Photoshop all the time”

Examples

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