Gregg Toland & CITIZEN KANE (1941) (Week 1 Lecture Notes)

Hero? Or heel?
Image by Kevin via Flickr

By John Budde

Many consider it the greatest film ever. Some question the logic in telling the same story twice (as simulated newsreel and as narrative)…but one thing is certain. It is, without question, one of the most innovative films of its time and, for most, a milestone in the course of modern cinema technique. It remains, nearly seventy years later, one of the most talked about films of all time, and a significant point of inspiration for most cinematographers.

There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is the stunning departure in cinematography and lighting from the more conventional approaches of its time. As Director of Photography, Gregg Toland experienced a truly collaborative relationship with Director Orson Welles. Welles gave Toland his complete support and encouragement, with both realizing a mutual goal to create a film that would be unique not only in form and structure, but also in look and feel.

To that end, Toland and Welles employed many innovative techniques and approaches to create a new visual approach in support of a new approach to storytelling. Low angle shots, including ceilings (unheard of in its day), give Kane an intimidating and dominating sense of superiority and free the scenes from the artificiality of lighting from an overhead grid, allowing stand-mounted lighting to simulate a more natural look, as though light is motivated by windows, lamps and fireplaces. Wide-angle lenses with high speed film stocks and twin carbon-arc lighting allowed for significant luminance and small lens iris settings, creating great depth of field so that shots could be in focus from just forward of the lens to an impressive depth of distance in the backgrounds.

Long, “mise-en-scene” inspired shots, with character movements front-to-back (close-up to wide shot, all in a single take)
allowed for breaking free of the conventional basic sequence, thus creating a sense of the absence of the camera, pulling the audience, psychologically, into the frame. Imaginative transitions between scenes and brilliantly simple effects serve to connect different shots in seamless continuum, or to separate them with meaning and purpose. The reporters, who serve to drive the story forward, but who are individually unimportant, are presented as ghostly shadow figures, black silhouettes in the otherwise visible environments, who search relentlessly to unravel the mystery of Kane’s final words.

With its many departures from tradition, CITIZEN KANE stands as the visual textbook for thousands of cinematographers around the world, and Gregg Toland’s contribution remains widely discussed and emulated within the film industry and continually studied within the broader scope of global academic communities.

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