Rodriguez’s direct collaboration with Miller meant that everything from the art to storyline titles would make the transition into film. As a result, Miller’s classic semantic elements common in many older film noirs were now a part of the fabric of Sin City. One obvious example of this is the use of text boxes to reveal the unspoken thoughts of the character in the comics. These character insights transitioned intact to the movie in the form of voice overs. In addition, the noir-esque black and white pages of the Sin City graphic novels were copied almost perfectly to the big screen; outfits and costumes, including the trench coats, guns, and cars, were transplanted during production.
These visual cues can be attributed to the iconography of film noir. In Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology, Barry Keith Grant says that iconography, as defined by art historian Erwin Panofsky, encompasses “themes or concepts… expressed by symbolically charged objects and events.” Therefore, objects and characters like the reluctant male protagonist with his long trench coat, cigarette smoking, and seductive love interest are all part of the clues that help the audience understand the genre of, or at the very least the influences on, a given movie; in this case, these stylistic choices echo the hardboiled detective stories of writers like Raymond Chandler and their subsequent iterations on film.
The black and white aesthetic of Sin City is strongly reminiscent of the high contrast look of older film noir, bringing what early filmmakers did entirely with lighting and camera tricks into the twenty-first century with high-tech computer generated imagery. Like those older films, the black and white look offered Rodriguez the opportunity to utilize thematic, recurring color schemes that evoke those noirs. Sin City is the very definition of a seedy underworld. As such, the morality of the city and its citizens can be represented within the context of light and shadow; darker characters with darker intentions are often veiled in black, while good characters are largely portrayed in the light.
Color is used to accentuate this noir-themed iconography, much as it does in the medium of comics. For example, the black-to-white ratio throughout the film changed depending on the relative morality of the characters onscreen. Toward the end of “The Big Fat Kill,” Clive Owen’s character Dwight is turned into a pure white silhouette as he struggles to prevent a war between Old Town and the cops. This helps show that his character is genuinely noble; he is looking to do the right thing in spite of his dire circumstances, represented by the black backdrop behind his silhouette.
Furthermore, due to the starkness of the almost entirely colorless landscapes, in Sin City, any primary color can be used to highlight objects of importance. This is immediately apparent in the opening scene of the movie, where an entirely colorless male figure stands against a black and white city skyline and talks to a girl with a red dress. The bright red of her outfit evokes association with lipstick, love, and blood, giving her a distinct air of danger and sensuality. When the unnamed male figure comments on the brilliance of the woman’s eyes, they change suddenly from grayscale to fluorescent green, perhaps to imply jealousy or greed. This is a significant change from the older film noirs, where technology did not permit such finite color editing. Now, a film like Sin City can more closely represent its comic heritage.
By using such heavy digital art to help retain the noir-esque look of the graphic novel, Rodriguez was also able to lower the budget of the film. Because almost all of the movie is digital – only three physical sets were made for the film – complex backgrounds and detailed sound stages and locations were largely unnecessary. This is very reminiscent of early film noir, where the lighting was used to cover up cheap sets and reduce overall production costs, and as a consequence, that shadow-based aesthetic became iconic of the genre.
Another interesting byproduct of using so many virtual effects in Sin City is that it blurs the line between animation and live-action film. Not only are backdrops of the city digitized, but interactive objects like cars, weapons, and other major elements of the world of Sin City are entirely rendered three-dimensional images. In fact, many of the actors filmed their parts separately during production and were added digitally to the movie in post. And, as mentioned above, characters like Dwight will turn into animated silhouetted versions of themselves for effect at certain points in the story. By examining the overall balance of live-action to animated sequences in Sin City, questions can be raised about what medium the film really falls into.