The Film Noir Hallway

Creating an image using a variety of tools

The Story of the Hallway

[blank walls]

Two years I worked for a company in downtown Corvallis. Being a quickly growing company, they had a chronic problem of not having enough space. They occupied parts of two buildings and needed more. With some effort, they were able to convince a local building owner to renovate some long-vacant second floor offices across the street. After several months, people started moving in.

The offices were nothing particularly interesting, although the layout was nicer than you'd usually find. I worked in a big corner room, big enough for eight people, that had plenty of windows and light. The decor was off-white walls, simple carpeting, utilitarian black computer desks, simple fixtures, and no other ornamentation to speak of. It had a very late 80s feel.

No, the real treasure of the building was hidden. I discovered it one day by chance.

That day, I walked down one of the corridors to another office. At the end of the corridor was a set of doors that looked like painted plywood. They had a simple lock. What was different that day was that the doors were unlocked, and one was slightly ajar.

[added doors, skylight]

Now, I should know better than to stick my nose into places like that, but a simple look couldn't hurt, could it? So I looked. I wasn't prepared for what was in there.

To the left stretched a corridor that ended about thirty feet away. It was black linoleum with white diamonds. The walls had peeling wallpaper with a now-indistinguishable pattern. The far end of the corridor was illuminated by a dingy skylight. Stacked along the corridor were some boxes and an artificial Christmas tree. The space immediately in front held a plastic wading pool.

Ah, but the doors! There was a door directly in front of me. It was painted black, and had a frosted glass panel with the name of a company stenciled on the glass. On either side of the door were narrow strips of frosted glass running vertically. It looked like something out of a film noir movie. In fact, the whole place looked like it hadn't been touched since the late 1940s or early 1950s. The other offices down the corridor had the same stenciled frosted glass panels in the doors. One was an insurance business, another a tailor. Combine that with the peeling wallpaper, the black and white diamond linoleum, and the light filtering through the dirty skylight, and it was a Chandler novel come to life. I half expected to hear the muffled ring of an old rotary phone.

Needless to say, it impressed me. It stuck in my head. That's the kind of office in which I want to work! I'd pick up a fedora and second hand trenchcoat, buy a bottle of rye for the desk's bottom drawer, and be prepared for trouble.

The door to the corridor was locked a few days later. I'd shown some people what was in there, but I needed some way of capturing that image. Since I'm not an artist, that's where computer graphics came in.

Rendering the Hallway

[added textures]

On this one I was working from memory. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do, so I sat down and made some sketches. Eventually the image was strong enough to allow me to do some real planning.

The most tedious part of modeling was getting the dimensions right. The application I used for the 3D modeling was Ray Dream Studio 5.0. I wanted to be able to accurately align and fit pieces of the scene together, so I had to thoroughly learn to navigate the modeling world. Some objects were thirty feet long, and some under an inch. It was a challenge fitting them into the same scale, but it worked. For a month my whiteboard had drawings of walls and doors with a dozen point-to-point measurements on each. The work started slowly but picked up speed as I became more familiar with Studio's tools.

One oddity of Studio was that it incorrectly rendered the left wall, which extended out of the modeling window. This made modeling a bit more difficult.

[more texture and lighting]

After the modeling was mostly done, the next job was lighting and textures. Doing the linoleum in Photoshop held a surprise. Initially, I thought of just creating a simple 1-unit tile which Studio could repeat thirty times. In the end, I created a 30-unit image and then added some noise and scuff marks so that it wouldn't look like a repeated tile.

The walls were done similarly. It's overkill, since the final image is so dark that the details can't be seen. But it was worth doing right. Who knows? Someday I might re-use this corridor.

Lighting was the most difficult part. My original idea was to use only ambient light coming in through the skylight. That was scrapped early on in favor of light coming through the glass door panes. It took me several days of wondering why that didn't work before I found a Studio setting that turned "light through transparency" on. Duh.

Even after fixing that problem, it was still a challenge to balance the lighting correctly. What came out isn't that close to what I'd planned, but I'm not a Studio expert. It captures the spirit of the hallway.

[final lighting]

Here's the final lighting. Note that the overhead bulb near the far door is gone. Instead, all light is coming through the glass of the three doors. Also, the doors now have logos of different businesses. It was fun creating them. The logo of the detective agency is a tribute to two of my favorite fictional detectives, Nick and Ida Nobel. They appear in ZBS Media's offbeat film noir musical The Maltese Goddess.

At this point all that was left was post-processing. After rendering a large version, Photoshop was used with the image's distance channel to create a depth of field affect. Studio's own depth of field filter couldn't handle the thirty foot long hallway properly.

After that Painter 5 was used to add texture to the (rather flat) image. The Auto Van Gogh filter did the trick; more texture, but not enough to distract.

...well, on a PC anyway. Another unsuspecting artist wanna-be foiled by gamma! On Macs and Amiga (at least), too much detail is visible. If you can suggest a solution, please do.

So, after all that, here's a thumbnail of the final image. It's a link to the full 68K image.

[finished image thumbnail]

For a first attempt at serious rendering it didn't turn out too badly. It captured what I was seeking: the dark, somewhat seedy look of a 1940s office building at 12:45 AM. It probably helped that I was reading Raymond Chandler while working on this.

Last updated 28 January 2003
All contents ©1998-2003 Mark L. Irons