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How to Create a Film Noir–Inspired Typography Still in Photoshop and Illustrator

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Read Time: 12 min
Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

Shadowy villains, tough detectives, mysterious women—this is the stuff of film noir, the movie genre that serves as inspiration for this tutorial. Film noir, most associated with mystery and crime dramas produced in the 1940s, usually features high-contrast, black-and-white, dramatically shadowed cinematography.

A distinct style of typography also came out of this genre, visible on the title cards, or the frames that display the film’s title at the beginning of a movie. These titles were hand-painted, often in a three-dimensional style, and crafted in such a way that they often reflected the style of lighting and shadow used in the movie itself. You can see some examples in the Film Noir category of the Movie Title Stills Collection

As Jonathan Howells at Graphic Definer explains: 

“The largely uncredited studio staff artists who created these typographic compositions were true graphic design renaissance men, who not only painted the scenic backgrounds [and] created portraits of the stars, but in their own anonymous way, gave birth to a new, pictoral typography style forever associated with noir.” 

For this tutorial, we’ll be creating our own film noir–inspired title card in Photoshop and Illustrator, combining authentic vintage photography, textures, and digital fonts to replicate the shadowy, grainy look of typography from the classic noir era.

I’ll be creating a card for an actual film, And Then There Were None (1945), based on the Agatha Christie mystery novel of the same name. Feel free to follow along, create typography for your favorite classic (or modern) film, or make up a title of your own. 

Before we get started, make sure to check out the selection of retro fonts and texture packs on GraphicRiver for your own vintage-style projects.

What You'll Need

You’ll want to download and/or save these resources before getting started so you can work through the tutorial steps more easily:

1. How to Set Up Your Document in Photoshop

Open a new document and set the dimensions to 1000 px by 750 px.

new Photoshop documentnew Photoshop documentnew Photoshop document

2. How to Combine Photos Into a Single Scene

A dark, ominous atmosphere is key to the film noir look, so it helps to choose photos that will help you achieve that mood. In And Then There Were None, the action takes place on an isolated island estate where eight people (none of whom know each other) are invited by a rich acquaintance to spend the weekend. When they arrive, not only is their host missing, but other mysterious events start happening. So we'll be working with photos that set a stormy island scene.

Step 1

Go to File > Place and locate photo 1. Drag the corner handles of the photo to make its width the same width as your canvas (making sure to hold down Shift as you do so to maintain the dimensions of the photo).

placing photo 1placing photo 1placing photo 1

Step 2

First we need to convert this photo from color to black & white. Choose Adjustments from your panels or go to Window > Adjustments to pull it up. Select Black & White (make sure the Tint checkbox at the top is not checked) and adjust the color sliders to your liking.

converting photo to black and whiteconverting photo to black and whiteconverting photo to black and white

Step 3

Place photo 2 and align it to the cliffs in the first photo. We’ll be removing the sky and the water in this image next.

placing photo 2placing photo 2placing photo 2

With photo 2 still selected, go to Layer > Rasterize > Smart Object to make it fully editable.

Step 4

Zoom in to 100% to better see your work, then choose the Quick Selection Tool (accessed with a click-hold on the Magic Wand Tool). In the toolbar that appears at the top of the screen, make sure Sample All Layers is not checked. 

Then, with a fairly small brush size (mine is set at 8), click and drag the tool along the house and cliffs until just that area is surrounded by a flashing dashed line.

quick selection toolquick selection toolquick selection tool

Go to Select > Inverse (which will select everything outside that outlined area) and hit Delete—you should be left with only the house and cliffs. Deselect everything by hitting Control/Command-D.

Step 5

Select the Eraser Tool; we’ll use this to soften and blend the edges of the second photo. Choose one of Photoshop’s default Soft Mechanical brushes (I’m using the 45 pixel size) and change the Opacity to 50%. Drag the brush along the bottom and sides of the cropped photo to make it look like part of the first background image. You should end up with something like this:

blending with eraser toolblending with eraser toolblending with eraser tool

Step 6

Our last few steps for combining photos are to add some dramatic clouds to the scene. For that, place photo 3 and enlarge it so the borders are no longer visible on your canvas. Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to select the top portion of the photo, down to the horizon line, and delete the rest (Select > Inverse > Delete).

cropping photo with marquee toolcropping photo with marquee toolcropping photo with marquee tool

Step 7

Hit Control/Command-D to deselect everything. Now that you can see a portion of the underlying photos, use that as a reference to adjust the tone of the third image. Repeat the process of Step 2 to adjust the color.

black and white photo adjustmentblack and white photo adjustmentblack and white photo adjustment

Step 8

Right-click the layer name in the Layers panel and select Rasterize Layer, and then use the Eraser Tool again to blend and soften the bottom edge of the cloud photo. Start by completely erasing any cliffs left in the photo (with your brush at 100% opacity), and then switch over to 50% opacity to soften the edges. 

For further blending and a darker, more ominous look, finish it off by going to Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options and selecting Multiply from the Blend Mode drop-down menu. 

blending optionsblending optionsblending options

Your finished photo collage should resemble this one:

photo collagephoto collagephoto collage

3. How to Add Texture to Your Background Image

Now that we’ve compiled a background image to set the scene for our typography, we’re going to add some texture and shadowing so the type will stand out even more.

Step 1

Hit Command-Option-Shift-E on a Mac or Control­-Alt-Shift-E on a PC to merge all your existing layers into one new layer. This preserves all your layered work so you can go back and change it if you want, but also merges all our photos into one so we can work on it as a single image. 

Now, with that new layer selected, go to Filter > Texture > Grain and select Vertical from the Grain Type drop-down menu. Set the Intensity to 3 and the Contrast to 5, or experiment and adjust to your liking.

applying grain filterapplying grain filterapplying grain filter

Step 2

Place the texture image and drag the top and bottom handles so it fills the whole canvas; it will cover up the background photo for now. 

Use the Blur Tool at a large size, around 300 px with a Strength of 50%, to smooth out and de-emphasize the middle, lighter portion of the texture image. 

Then switch to the Burn Tool, with a brush size of about 150, setting the Range to Midtones and the Exposure to 40% (Protect Tones should be selected). Brush around the edges of the image toward the center to extend the vignetting (or the shadowed, darker areas around the edges) in a little further. You should end up with something like this:

using blur tool and burn toolusing blur tool and burn toolusing blur tool and burn tool

Step 3

The purpose of this texture is to darken up the whole photograph a bit and add a more shadowed look. This will help our white typography stand out more. So as a final touch, we’re going to reduce the brightness and contrast before we overlay it on our photo with blending options. 

Go to the Adjustment panel and select Brightness/Contrast. Reduce the Brightness to about -60 and the Contrast to about -50. As you can see, this evens out and darkens the whole texture, which is just what we want.

adjusting texture brightness and contrastadjusting texture brightness and contrastadjusting texture brightness and contrast

Step 4

Finally, go to Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options. Select Hard Light as the Blend Mode.

texture blending optionstexture blending optionstexture blending options

And there you have it: a dark and mysterious backdrop for your film noir title card. Now, on to the typography!

4. How to Create Vintage-Style Typography

When designing to reference a particular era, one of the best ways to visually establish a time period is through your typeface choices. The ones I’ve chosen for this tutorial are all based on or copied from styles used in the early- to mid-1900s.

Some good places to look for free retro or vintage fonts are Font Squirrel’s Retro and Historical categories (free for any use), 1001 Fonts’ Decade and Yesteryear categories (free for either personal or commercial use), and Lost Type Co-Op (free/pay-what-you-want for personal use).

Step 1

First, we need to place our text before applying a 3D effect. There are two ways you can approach this part: 

  1. If you’re using Photoshop CS6 or CC, you can place your text straight in Photoshop and use the 3D Extrusion functionality. 
  2. If you’re using an earlier version of Photoshop or just prefer to work with type in Illustrator as I do, Illustrator has its own set of easy-to-use 3D tools.

I’ll be demonstrating the Illustrator method so anyone can follow along. To start, open a new document in Illustrator the same size as your Photoshop document (1000 x 750 px). Take a screenshot of your background in Photoshop or save it as a file and place it in your Illustrator document—this will just be for reference in placing the typography.

Step 2

In Illustrator, lock the layer your background image is in and create a new layer. In the new layer, type out your movie title in the blank space where the sky is. If you’re following along with this design:

Each portion of text is staggered across the page to better fill up the length of the artboard.

placing title in Illustratorplacing title in Illustratorplacing title in Illustrator

Step 3

If you like, add a few finishing touches, like quotation marks around the title. You can find a font that comes with chunky marks (I used Anchor Jack) or draw your own with the Pen Tool

You can also add some text at the bottom to balance out the composition. Some common features for title cards were an author name if the film was based on a book or short story, the name of the movie studio or producer (e.g. A Paramount Pictures Production), or a copyright statement.

typesetting in Illustratortypesetting in Illustratortypesetting in Illustrator

5. How to Add a 3D Effect to Your Text in Illustrator

Step 1

Select all the parts of your title, including quotation marks if you have them. Ignore any secondary text for now. Go to Effects > 3D > Extrude & Bevel. In the window that pops up, select the Preview checkbox on the right. By clicking and dragging the cube in the middle of the window, you can manipulate the tilt and rotation of your title. You can see the settings I ended up with below:

3D extrude effect3D extrude effect3D extrude effect

You can also experiment with the Extrude Depth, which has the biggest effect on how 3D your letters look: the bigger the number, the farther your letters will stretch back into space. I settled on a depth of 38.

Step 2

For even more control over the appearance of your title, click the More Options button on the right. There, you’ll find options for adjusting the lighting on your 3D objects, which will help them look more dramatic and realistic. 

You can add more light sources by clicking the New Light button (the middle option beneath the sphere) and change their locations by dragging around the white dots on the sphere, which represent the light sources. As long as Preview is selected, you’ll be able to observe the effects of these settings on your work.

3D text effect3D text effect3D text effect

Have fun experimenting until you get a result you like. You can always just close out of the window and start over if things get out of hand.

Step 3

Use the same Extrude & Bevel options to give any secondary text a subtler 3D effect, more like a shadow than full-on 3D.

3D text shadow3D text shadow3D text shadow

Before leaving Illustrator, copy all your text by dragging your cursor to surround the artboard and hitting Command/Control-C.

6. How to Texturize Your Typography in Photoshop

Step 1

Switch over to your existing Photoshop document. Hit Command/Control-V to paste your typography, and in the Paste As window that pops up, select Smart Object and hit OK. Resize and reposition if needed.

Step 2

First we want to soften the typography a bit, making it a little less sharp-edged and digital-looking. With your new Vector Smart Object layer that has your text in it selected, hit Command/Control-J to make a copy of it. Click over to that copied layer and drag it below your original text layer.

Go to Filter > Blur > Radial Blur and set the Amount to 30 and the Blur Method to Zoom; hit OK. 

applying radial blurapplying radial blurapplying radial blur

Step 3

Go back to the Layers panel and reduce the Opacity of the blurred layer to 40%. This process adds a little blur and an almost glowing effect, similar to the quality you see in old films.

reducing layer opacityreducing layer opacityreducing layer opacity

Step 4

As a final touch, we’ll add some texture to the typography. Place the film grain texture file and size it to fill your whole canvas. Now go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask. This will clip the texture to the layer below it (our typography layer). It will look a little funny until we apply blending options in the next step.

applying clipping mask to textureapplying clipping mask to textureapplying clipping mask to texture

Step 5

Go to Layer > Layer Styles > Blending Options. Select Overlay as the Blend Mode and reduce the Opacity to 45%. You’ll see the gray edges of the letters now have a nice, grainy texture.

texture blending optionstexture blending optionstexture blending options

Step 6

With the film grain texture layer still selected, go to Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast and click the button at the bottom of the window that looks like two overlapping circles. This will apply the adjustments to only your selected layer rather than the whole document. Change the Brightness to -15 and the Contrast to 35 to give the texture more contrast.

adjusting texture contrastadjusting texture contrastadjusting texture contrast

Good work! Here's our finished title card:

film noir title cardfilm noir title cardfilm noir title card

And an up-close view of the typography:

film noir typography final film noir typography final film noir typography final

And That's a Wrap

I hope you’ve had fun exploring the classic typographic style of film noir—and have picked up some good techniques for doing some basic photo manipulation, texturing, and 3D typography. As always, feel free to share how your project turned out or ask questions in the comments section. Happy designing!

film noir title card displayfilm noir title card displayfilm noir title card display
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