I wrote this some time back as a term paper for a College Film Class. The reference pics have been removed to save space
A Technical Investigation of Citizen Kane
It’s Not All Black and White
📷 Citizen Kane is considered perhaps the best film ever produced. What does it contain that so many of others missed? I believe it is the imagination and technical expertise of Orson Welles and Greg Toland’s talent cocktail that forged this memorable work. To the right, notice both men on the floor setting up a low angle shot. Welles did very little alone, he was intelligent enough to use “OPB” other people’s brains. The screenplay alone does not stand up well against many other “Great Films,” it is the audio/visual experience created by the use of great techniques in lighting, photography and sound recording which make this film a masterpiece.
Over a period of twenty-five years, I have acquired a great deal of knowledge and experience in the Visual Arts. During this time I worked professionally in film, sound, and video while also enjoying the wonderful art of amateur black and white photography. My resume’ qualifies me to present a case for my thesis and in doing so I will cite technical information which is a part of my knowledge base. This combined with my research, meld into a comprehensive report on the behind the scenes wizardry of an ultra talented group of filmmakers.
📷Like most humans, I experience film through my eyes and ears, always looking deeper, beyond the dialog alone, into the complete experience. Although I hear the famous word “Rosebud” spoken by Kane, it is the atmosphere of the room, and the close up of his mouth, which amplifies the moment.
📷 Orson Welles wrote, directed, and acted in many productions of which Citizen Kane, being his best known, is the film he’ll be remembered. The following is a sampling of other productions Welles wrote, directed and more, except for this first two, written by William Shakespeare. MACBETH
, described by Welles as "a violently sketched charcoal drawing of a great play," The magnificent photography by John L. Russel (Psycho) Directed by Orson Welles, and acted by Welles, Jeanette Nolan, DanO'Herlihy, Roddy McDowall, 1948. OTHELLO
(production spanned three years) it won the Grand Prize at Cannes. Directed by Orson Welles, With: Welles, Suzanne Cloutier, Micheàl MacLiammoir, Robert Coote, 1952, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI,
Rita Hayworth plays a sultry wife, and includes the legendary hall-of-mirrors shootout finale. Directed and written by Orson Welles, 1947. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS,
Directed and written by Orson Welles, 1942. TOUCH OF EVIL,
Directed and written by Orson Welles, With: Heston, Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Weaver, 1958 (Starlight News).
After reading the above, it is impossible to overlook Welles as the original film multi-tasker. This man did it all. As a fine actor, writer, and director, it can be argued Welles has a bit of a control issue, but perhaps when you’re as talented as he, it’s not to unusual to not want to place your work or self in another’s hands.
The conductor of light, director of photography Greg Toland was hired from Samuel Goldwym Studios at $700.00 per week (Carringer 69). While at Goldwyn Studios Toland became regarded as one of the most creative cinematographer of the 1930.
His ‘acknowledged brilliance,’ as “American Cinematographer” magazine argued in 1942, placed him in the most nearly ideal position any Director of Photography has since the halcyon days when D.W. Griffith and Billy Blitzer were between them creating the basic techniques of the screen (American Cinematographer).
These accolades and of course the films themselves placed Toland in a position of power when negotiating with producers. Here are some items he requested and received from the producers of Citizen Kane. “RKO was obliged to employ Toland’s regular crew and rent his camera equipment from Goldwyn” (Carringer 69). He demanded these guarantees as an artist, for he had personalized his equipment, his brush, so to speak, to accommodate the style in which he shot. The crew consisting of grips, camera assistants, and gaffes were all a part of Toland’s creative bag of tricks that worked together as a one organism to accomplish the monumental task of producing a film of this caliber. Above all Toland insisted on creative control. This he had become accustomed to at Goldwyn Studios. After much success in his early career, Toland remarked, "I want to work with someone who's never made a movie. That's the only way to learn anything from someone who doesn't known anything”(Walling). He got his chance in 1941 with Citizen Kane
on Orson Welles first movie. This team of Toland, and Welles became a creative partnership unsurpassed in movie making history.
There is light and the absence of light, there is shadow, created by infringing on the path of a light. These elements are the two ends of the visual spectrum. White (light), Black (shadow) and by the expected use of them, every lighting situation (in B/W) can be resolved. Mind pictures like these become possible in the right hands. Powerful light driven through small spaces cut like knives on the floor and walls. Soft light pushed through a window or down a hall washes the area like a softly driven snow. The power of this technique is obvious in the shot captured of the Walter Thatcher Library. (right) Nothing is resolved here (can be seen clearly), but it’s not the dialog or the face of the actors the filmmakers are interested in, but the mood set by the absence of light and the rod of
light coming from above. Reminiscent of a spiritual setting, the beam of light representing the entrance of the Almighty into the room.
Film is the medium that followed and in some ways took the place of paint, brush, and canvas, first with the snapshot, followed by moving pictures. In 1940 film had its limitations, even today it’s requires an informed photographer to photograph in a variety of settings with equally satisfactory results. Much of what makes an artist great is the length to which they are able to stretch the medium in which they work. This is where Welles and Toland excelled; they stretched the ability of the camera and film to lengths never before attained.
The tone of Citizen Kane
is created with light, shadow, and darkness. Photography and light go hand in hand, in fact photography, as we know it, cannot exist without a light source. The way a scene is lit directly affects the resulting print. Film stocks of the late thirties, early forties were “slow” meaning the amount of exposure time (to light) with respect to the quality and resolution of the resulting print is high (long). A “fast” film with a speed of 800ASA or higher can capture an image indoors without a flash or extra lighting in a normally lit room. In 1940 a 100ASA film was considered fast, this film used in daylight would be capable of good exposure, but anything less than daylight would require lights, for a stills, a flash, for moving pictures, stage/motion picture lighting …Big, Hot, sometime noisy lights.
The film used to shoot Citizen Kane
was Kodak Super XX, 100ASA which was an “off the shelf” product, that fortunately for Toland had just recently been released. Double X was “Four Times Faster” than its immediate predecessor. Without this timely release Citizen Kane
may never have been made. The other variable is the amount of light needed and available, and how much one chooses to expose the film. Exposure time and aperture settings are two variables that determine, to a great extent, whether a scene will appear as bright as a 📷sunny day or full of shadows with the blackest blacks, but only grayish whites. Proper contrast presents itself as balanced if upon examination the black & white negative it exhibits the two extremes represented on the gray scale, black and white. This bias manifests in a photo that is too dark or too light and lacks contrast.
The manipulation of exposure can be seen and studied early in this film. In the scene shot in the projection room, Toland under exposed the film by not using an “average” light setting, (balanced) instead he resolved the streams of light pouring from the projection windows and placed the actors in the shadows. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, it is exactly what they wanted. The average person taking snapshots of their children would not appreciate their photos turning out in this fashion, but the professional is an artist, and artists create moods and settings with the tools of their art. In film, what we don’t see sometimes makes the shot
📷 “Camera derives from the Latin word for room or chamber. The camera pre-dates film. The Camera Obscura or “Dark Room,” occasionally seen at scenic locations was, in its original form, a pinhole camera.
The “pinhole’ in the roof could scan the countryside by means of a rotating mirror. The image was focused on a white table in the center if the room and viewed by observers inside the “camera” (Di Guilio).
📷”The Mitchell Camera Corporation began in 1919 as a camera repair and modification shop in Hollywood, as The National Motion Picture Repair Company (Roberts 141). The film was shot with Mitchell BNC cameras (BNC stands for Blimped News reel Camera). The BNC was introduced in 1934 and the first two cameras were sold to Goldwyn Studios in 1934 and 1935. "The first important picture on which they were used was Citizen Kane" (Roberts148) In 1934, this camera made the recording of sound for film feasible. At around 35 dB, the NC was quiet enough for unblimped use in exterior sound filming, as long as the microphone was not near the camera. Later that year the BNC was introduced, the B stood for Blimped. The Blimp is a sound proof housing which surrounded the camera bringing the sound level to a very quiet 21dB! To the average person these numbers mean nothing, even with an explanation of these levels may continue to seem irrelevant. But, take it from a man who spent years on sound stages, in recordings and television studios, the difference is huge; 35dB “decibels” is the sound level in an average home, 21dB is the sound level of a whisper, or rustling leaves. These are logarithmic numbers and the difference is demonstrated by taking the next step up. 70dB is the sound level of freeway traffic and of a vacuum cleaner. The change the “blimped” camera had on motion pictures is immense! (Noise)
The camera’s angle and length of lens create perspective. A long lens creates a voyeuristic feel as if looking in from afar a good example being Hitchock’s Rear Window
. A short or wide lens brings the viewer into the scene. Angles are simple to understand.
Considered how you appear to a small child from its playpen? Put yourself in the it’s place, think of its perspective “low” looking up, “wide” larger than life, and somewhat distorted view. This is not a pleasant picture. The baby looking up sees a huge, distorted thing; fortunately babies are innocent and cannot put the ominous nature of their vulnerable scene in perspective. Conversely, the perspective of an adult looking down at a child is like a king from his throne, a feeling of power, not vulnerability. Perspective makes the difference. Even in a situation where those involved are adults as in a courtroom setting, perspective plays a role. In a courtroom, the judge sits up high upon their judgement seat, which forces the defendant to look up. The judge appears large and powerful, while the defendant feels small, powerless, and vulnerable. Above, strong and in control, below, weak and suppliant. Orson, digs holes (right) in floors, through walls, and flies his cameras in the air shooting from different angles, creating different perspectives. A film shot at one level is flat, without flavor and as bland as an unseasoned potato.
📷 Next we explore the topic of “depth of field” (the distance from the object nearest to the camera and the farthest that are in continuous focus) also know as “Deep Focus” The first notable example is from the footage shot in the parlor of Mrs. Kane’s boarding house. In the foreground, mother, father, and Mr.Thatcher
discuss the boy’s future while in the background young Kane is seen through the window, all in perfect focus. Another example is the scene where Kane and his wife are sitting at either end of a long dining table in the huge Xanadu, big headed Kane intimidating and distorted (not out of focus) in the foreground, his bored wife, small and insignificant in the distance, both presented in sharp detail.
📷This next frame combines two techniques, “tight composition,” and “deep focus.” Tight composition meaning a quantity of images in a relatively small frame, and deep focus, all the images in frame are in focus. The scene is when Kane walks in on Susan’s singing lesson only to hear “the Maestro,” frustrated and disgusted with Susan’s ineptness, screaming a laundry list of insults at her. Bad timing. Kane in anger reprimands “the Maestro.”
After a few critical viewings, and a quick look at my camera’s dept of field indicator, I estimate the field covered in “the Maestro” frame was approximately 18 inches to 30 feet. Probably an 18mm or 25mm lens was used which has great depth of field when stopped down to F/11 or F/16, these two numbers are aperture setting or f-stops, indicate the size of the hole the camera looks through. The larger the number the smaller the hole, and the great dept of field.
A standard photographers table supplies the following values: for an 18.5mm lens at F/8: 1' 6" to Infinity and for 25mm: 2’ 9" to Infinity. To shoot at these apertures, a 100 ASA film requires 1280-foot candles of light, which is quite high by today’s standards. (A foot-candle is equal to the light ‘one candle’ would illuminate a surface at the distance of one foot.)
The definition of Deep Focus is applicable as a frame of reference in defining Shallow Focus, in which one part of the screen is in focus and the rest blurred, thus directing the viewer's attention to the key element of the action. This was a useful technique, but not an innovation in the1930s, having been used since the early days of film, although much of it’s use was dictated by the limitations of the cameras and films of the time.
An unknown Internet author describes a fancy focus technique.
📷Toland found that extra means were needed to maintain sharpness in certain extremely deep shots. Split-focus lenses
and carefully controlled double exposures
sometimes turned the trick, but were difficult to set up. One example is in the sequence in which Kane's wife attempts suicide: a glass, spoon and medicine bottle in sharp focus dominate the foreground; the bed is in the middle ground; and figures enter the door in the background. Here the foreground was lighted and photographed first, with the rest of the scene in darkness. Then the foreground was silhouetted and the background was lighted and shot in focus on the same film. (Sharp Practice)
Film is the medium that in some ways followed and took the place of paint, brush, and canvas. First came the snapshot, followed by moving pictures. To this day film has limitations, but in 1940, they were manifold. Much of what makes an artist great is the length to which they stretch the medium in which they work. This is where Welles and Toland excelled; they stretched the ability of camera, film, and light to lengths never before attained.
📷Before the making of Citizen Kane
sound stages and film sets were open ceiling. A lot went on just above the frame, all of it unseemly, and needed to be hid, things such as; microphones, (big ugly microphones on booms with cables hanging) and other equipment that hung from the usually high ceiling sets. This open ceiling arrangement prohibited the camera from tilting (a vertical pan) any higher than the top of a room’s wall. Toland and Welles had no desire to repeat the same old shots seen hundreds of times before. They figured a way to work around this problem. They created ceilings with muslin, now microphones and the like were hidden above this “new ceiling.” This permitted Toland to shoot from the floor, (right) actually from a hole in the floor without thought of running out of wall. Note all that ceiling showing.
📷This took the bit from Toland’s mouth, freeing him to point the camera wherever his heart desired. The frame pictured to the left is an extraordinary example for three innovations are demonstrated in one shot: covered ceilings, a low angled perspective and deep focus. Fantastic!
Who says you have to be high tech to be innovative? Artists dislike restraints, when set free, they fly high. Freedom brought us this wonderful film.
The sound on Citizen Kane
encompasses dialog, sound effects, and the musical score. In reverse order, Bernard Herrman scored the film, and later went on to compose the music for other great movies, including Psycho
and Taxi Driver
(who can forget that sax?).
Welles brought with him from radio a keen ear and an understanding of sound effects. These effects augmented the film, but were not overpowering as in some films today. One example of his subtle usage is noted by Robert Carringer. “. . . such as the typewriter heard in extreme close-up when Kane is finishing the opera review and the musical accompaniment to the light bulb that dims to signal the faltering of Susan’s singing career”(100). I’ve recorded many sound tracks for video and television and I don’t envy the task assigned to the engineers in charge of this film. Even when recording a simple spot, I used more and better equipment than the entire sound crew of Citizen Kane.
In their process . .
. . . there are two separate and distinct sound operations, each presided over by a different sound engineer. One engineer is in charge of the sound recorded during the production. His chief assistant is the operator of the boom – a microphone slung from a long metal rod and suspended above the actors’ heads (Carringer 102).
Considering the task of a “boom operator” under ordinary circumstances was difficult, on Welles’ set there were times it must have been close to impossible. Because of the muslin ceilings the operator had a much more difficult time properly placing the microphones above the actors.
Once recorded, then it went into post production, and into the hands of James G. Stewart, a sound contractor who work on some of the most famous theaters in America, including Radio City Music Hall, before moving to California and joining RKO. He was in charge of post production, in those days called “rerecording,” today mixing and overdubs.
📷In the late thirties one could not go to a local sound store and buy whatever your budget allowed, these sound engineers, were just that, “engineers,” and if they needed something they’d design and build it. The crude two-man mixing console shown here is a “one off,” built for RKO under Stewart’s direction. Prior to this point in the process, the audio is dry (no effects, or processing) it’s during the “re-recording” process that echo, reverb, effects, and overdubs are inserted and mixed. Sound persons rarely get much glory, but without them, the public might still be watching silent films (Carringer 102-3).
In closing, Citizen Kane
is a technical milestone in movie making, although I find the screenplay depressing. This tale of a boy removed from his family, given an education and all the money he could ever need (so one would think). Who grows into an idealistic, generous, and kind man, who had plans to change the world, but instead the world changed him, and for that, he hates the world and himself in return. The final scene, reveals his true heart, one, once so soft, now, hardened and broke. Calling to the heavens, spoke his final word “Rosebud” the name of a sleigh he once owned, so long ago, before fate stepped in and killed the boy. When Kane spoke, “Rosebud” he was not only calling out the name of a child’s toy, no, he was calling out to the life he left behind which contained that sleigh. The life he never had the chance to live.
📷📷📷📷📷”Rosebud” “Rosebud” “Rosebud” “Rosebud” “Rosebud”
American Cinematographer, “Greg Toland.” 1942. http://www.cinematographer.com
Carringer, Robert. The Making of Citizen Kane. University of California Press, Berkeley
- 69, 100, 103-04.
Di Giulo, Edmund. “An Historical Survey of the Professional Motion-Picture Camera.” SMPTE
Journal, NY, 1967
Forzano’s Studio Stock “Gray Scale Chart” NY, 1979.
Noise Levels In Decibels. “The Sound Level Chart” http://www.temple.edu/CEPT/temp/dcblevel.html
Roberts, Laurence. “The Mitchell Camera: The Machine and Its Makers” SMPTE
Journal, NY. Oct. 1981: 141, 147, 148.
Star Light News. “Orson Wells.” http://starlightnews.cjb.net/orson.htm
The British Film Institute “Gregg Toland -Sharp Practice” http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/archive/innovators/toland.html
Time Life “Citizen Kane Cinematography Notes” http://www.pathfinder.com/photo/essay/kane/toland.htm
Images: Peter Stackpole, LIFE, Welles and Toland on floor, 1.
RKO Radio Picture**:** Projection Room, 4. Mother in the Boarding House, Kane outside, 7. Tight Composition, 8. Low Ceilings, 10. Low Angle, 10.
Walling, Christopher “Cinematographer Gregg Toland” http://www.christopherwalling.com/Pages/S&L~GreggToland.html
Wilgus, Jack and Beverly. “A Search for Camera Obscura.” The Magic Mirror of Life. http://brightbytes.com/cosite/what.html