The lure of electric colour: Neon light in film

The lure of electric colour: Neon light in film

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I made a long overdue visit to Mel’s Drive-in last week. Not to the real San Francisco diner you understand, but via a viewing of American Graffiti. Set in the early 1960s, many scenes of this early George Lucas coming-of-age movie take place at the famous hang-out and its neon signage sings out into the night like a beacon. It got me thinking about the power of neon lights in film and the lure of electric colour.

When a neon light hits the screen, a movie becomes instantly iconic and atmospheric. It can create a sense of urban, moody drama and a pop of colour in the dark is just so goddam visual!

Directors, cinematographers and artists have long been seduced by the glow of neon and although neon lighting was invented as far back as the early 1900’s, the mid to late 1980s saw a period of resurgence in neon production. This probably explains why neon signs can tend to feel so delightfully retro. 

 

American Graffiti

mels drive in neon american graffiti Neon lighting in film
Mel’s Drive-in in American Graffiti

Mel’s drive-in restaurant was selected as a location by George Lucas for his 1973 film American Graffiti. Signage from the Mel’s chain was frequently used in marketing for the film and even the logo for the film’s poster is created from neon-esque lettering.

The film tells the story of a group of teenagers (including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford) over the course of one night, and their adventures cruising in their cars and hanging out at Mel’s.

Mel’s actually have a few restaurants but the one used for American Graffiti was located on South Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. It serves as the setting for the opening scene of the film as well as the backdrop for the opening credits, accompanied by the sounds of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

 

Blade Runner

Although most ‘neon’ lights and signs are now made of LEDs, Ridley Scott paid homage to the old-fashioned, hand-crafted fluorescent lights of the 1930’s in his dystopian city of the future in Blade Runner (1982).

Deckard reads a newspaper whilst awaiting a seat at the noodle bar in Blade Runner Neon lighting in film
Deckard reads a newspaper whilst awaiting a seat at the noodle bar in Blade Runner

Based on Philip K. Dick’s book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘, natural light is absent in the Los Angeles cityscape of 2019 presented in Blade Runner. The multitude of neon and digital advertising hoardings pierce the dark, creating strong light and dark contrasts characteristic of film-noir.

Many of the logos and neon signs in this Sci-Fi classic, such as the lights we see behind Rick Deckard as he reads a newspaper whilst awaiting a seat at the noodle bar, were designed for Blade Runner by art department illustrator Tom Southwell. 

I designed all the neon behind Deckard in that shot” he said in an interview with Off World News “but it was Ridley who chose to put it all there behind Deckard”. It turns out that Production Designer Lawrence G Paull had planned them for another scene but Scott saw the neon signs and asked for them to be moved to this window scene. These neon colours did something magical to the set at night. Coloured light blends in a strange way and Ridley and the cinematographer captured something special here…” said Southwell.
 
Other notable neon signs in Blade Runner include the White Dragon noodle bar sign (below) and the circular “origin” sign. The latter represents the earth with horizontal lines which relate to the TVs seen in the window (above).
 
the White Dragon noodle bar neon sign in Blade Runner
The White Dragon noodle bar neon sign in Blade Runner

Interestingly, Southwell explained that he listened to the electronic music of Vangelis when designing these very signs, but that was well before Vangelis had been asked to score the movie! It’s hard now to look at these epic visuals without hearing Vangelis in your head.

 

The Neon Demon

Neon lighting in film neon demon elle fanning
Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

Many of the scenes in Nicolas Winding Refn’s horror film The Neon Demon are (unsurprisingly) bathed in neon and layered with colour symbolism. These rich and dynamic scenes are interspersed with lighter muted tones to create pace and contrast.

In the opening scene we find 16 year old aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) in one of her first photoshoots lying on an ornate, french style, silver chaise/sofa alongside tall free-standing white neon lights against a backdrop of metallic floral wallpaper and mirrored flooring.

The catwalk scene in The Neon Demon
The catwalk scene in The Neon Demon

The trippy catwalk scene provides a series of neon abstracts influenced by lighting artist James Turrell. The music here too serves brilliantly to heighten the action.

 

Suspiria

Jessica Harper in Suspiria neon in film
Jessica Harper in Suspiria

The Neon Demon must surely have taken some influence from Italian horror movie Suspiria (1977) which follows the story of Suzy Banyon an American ballerina student (Jessica Harper). After enrolling in a German dance school, she quickly realises that the school is a front for some very dark goings on. It’s a gory, visual, colourful and stylistic masterpiece.

The lighting and film sets use of vivid, saturated colours are both alluring and unsettling. Argento’s trademark use of set-piece structures allowed the camera to linger on pronounced visual elements: Geometric patterned walls and floors, multicoloured stained glass, Art Nouveau style doors and windows, M.C. Escher reproductions, Aubrey Beardsley illustrated panels, and psychedelic furniture all sit side by side.

 

Cinema Paradiso

Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, the wonderful 1988 Italian film Cinema Paradiso is a love letter to cinema.

The neon signage of Cinema Paradiso
The neon signage of Cinema Paradiso

The mischievous, intelligent eight-year-old Salvatore discovers a love for films whilst growing up in the village of Giancaldo, Sicily and spends every free moment at the movie theatre named Cinema Paradiso. This theatre, and the relationship he forms with the projectionist Alfredo, has a profound effect on his later life and career as a filmmaker.

The sign of the “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso” which adorns a newer version of the cinema built after a fire, shines brightly across the village square, beckoning film lovers inside to be transported to other worlds.

 

Batman Returns

Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns presents a very memorable use of neon.

The pink neon sign in Selena Kyle’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) bedroom reads “Hello There”. When she transforms into Catwoman she goes through a rampage in her apartment, smashing the letters O and T. The resulting words (work it out!) are a poignant moment in film.

Batman Returns Hello There neon sign
Batman Returns ‘Hello There’ neon sign

Create your own neon sign!

You can’t deny the power of a pop of neon, so we were thrilled when the lovely people at Yellowpop offered to make us our very own LED neon sign!

Film and Furniture logo in neon by Yellowpop
Film and Furniture logo in neon by Yellowpop. (Logo design by Form)

Our Film and Furniture logo looks very at home at F&F HQ and it was super easy to hang on the wall with the 3M command strips which came in the box, although there is also the option to hang with the free screw kit that comes with all their neon signs too. The dimmer enables you to dim the brightness exactly to your liking.

You can bring your own walls to life with their standard collection of LED neon signs and artist designed pieces, and what’s more it easy as pie to get your own custom LED neon light made to your own design. There are a wide selection of colours and fonts available through the custom app and it only takes five minutes or less with their easy sign builder.

A unique neon sign lights up a room with a warming glow, a fun pop of colour, and a dose of good vibes. Get 10% OFF your own neon sign with the code FILMFURNITURE10 (excluding artist collaborations) on the Yellowpop website and they have bases in London, New York and Paris. 

 

If you could have a neon sign made in homage to one of your favourite films, what would it be?

 

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