“Ignorance, Sheer Ignorance”: The Audacity and Innovation of the Citizen Kane Experiment

gregg and orson

Note: before reading this post, I want to make an apology.  This post is designed to prove the optic innovation and aesthetic quality of Citizen KaneTo help you—the reader—see first-hand some of the innovations at hand, I have included clips from the movie.  Unfortunately, these clips are hosted through YouTube and other online sources that are subject to the fickleness of Internet connections and the variance of upload quality.  Because of this, the complete visual experience of Citizen Kane is not available in these clips alone, because they may be more blurry or slow than they would be watching a well-restored Blu-Ray or DVD release. 

In my last post, I attempted to make one point quite clear: the greatness of Citizen Kane lies in its duality.  It is part-drama, part-comedy.  It is based on truth, but shrouded in lies.  It’s a mystery with no resolution.  It is light.  It is dark.  It is black.  It is white.

Most people will say that the immortality that Kane enjoys is due to its innovative approach to cinematography.  I feel like have proven that wrong in the last few posts.  However, I think that those things that make it a great film (its duality, its comedic script, its introspective look at human nature, and its boldness as a historical/political satire) necessitated a visual experience to match.  If it was essentially two-faced in nature it would have to be full of visual starkness and opposition with blacks and whites, close-ups and deep shots.  If it is was to be comedic, it needed to be well-paced, with montages to match the quick dialogue.  If it was to be dramatic, it needed to be able to touch the darker parts of humanity through lighting and symbols.  If it was to be bold, it would have to incorporate imagery and techniques never seen before.  Like the sensationalist journalism Charles Foster Kane brought to America, Citizen Kane would bring a flamboyant—and even superfluous—visual flare to the entire world.

This essay will document the visual experiment that was Citizen Kane, and will prove that the experiment was a spectacular success.  It will document some key filmic innovations and explain why these innovations are important to telling the story.  It will also attempt to show the role that these innovations played to influence future movies.   As we go on this journey into Kane’s mastery of the camera and the filmstrip, there is one thing that needs to be kept in mind: every shot in Citizen Kane has a purpose.  These innovations were not thrown in for no reason.  They all had a role to play.  Ultimately, Gregg Toland’s cinematography and skill (along with Orson Welles’ artistic vision) worked as the mortar that glued all the elements of Kane‘s greatness together.  After all, Kane is not a radio program, a play, or a book.  It is a movie.  It is a visual experience.  It would need to be a properly executed visual experience to do justice to all the ideas that it was putting forward.  And the final product is, in my mind, undeniably the greatest movie ever made.

Black & White, and Indicative Lighting

This should be obvious, but it’s not necessarily as obvious as one would think.  Color had been integrated into film in some form or another for decades leading up to Kane, and it became well-known that if one was to make a big-budget picture (Kane was a big-budget picture) it was likely to be a color picture.  Consider the biggest cinematic successes leading up to 1941, Gone With the Wind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Wizard of Oz; these were all made in full color.  But, color could not do the task required by Welles’ cinematic vision.

Orson Welles and Gregg Toland saw a world in Mankiewicz’s screenplay that was based on starkness and opposition.  Consider the following image from the library sequence in Citizen Kane:

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Or, consider this picture, from the opening sequence in the projector room:

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These scenes deal with the absence of color, and the penetrating capabilities of light.  They deal with the ability of the camera to hit a beam of light at a certain angle to invoke shadows which point us to places on the screen and focus us on the important details.  This cannot be recreated with color.  Color would stretch the focal points of on the screen to a discombobulated degree.  Color does great things when it comes to invoking a beautiful scene (like that sunset in Gone With the Wind) or bringing life to a costume drama (like that archery contest in The Adventures of Robin Hood), but it does not work to point us towards focal points like black and white does.  It does not stretch or collapse an image, showing through lighting its importance.  Nothing does more to channel light than black and white.

The notion of channeling light is an important part of cinema, since the whole nature of a photograph involves light and exposure.  Hence, to utilize concepts of light and dark is to embrace the nature of the film.  And this was Orson Welles’ ultimate goal: this was his first ever motion picture, and, all his ambition and arrogance pushed him to do everything he possibly could to embrace every aspect of this new medium.  For most ambitious first-timers, this leads to an over-the-top approach to art that ultimately fails to deliver.  But, fortunately for Welles, he had a cinematographer that could coach him through and make his visions become a reality.  Gregg Toland was a master of black and white manipulation, particularly when it came to lighting.

Look again at the first picture.  Where does the light point our eyes?  Toward the center of the screen, where lies the vast table upon which Thompson (the reporter researching Kane’s life) will read the account of Mr. Thatcher, the banker who took over guardianship of his protege, Charles Foster Kane, when Kane was just a boy.  Where does the light come from?  From above, as if Thatcher himself is delivering the message posthumously.  What surrounds the light?  A dark, mysterious void, stylistically accentuating the library around it and begging an important question: Is there anything else—anything at all—in this building? This notion of veiled emptiness is an important theme in the movie.

Now, consider, the second picture.  This is the closest you get to seeing the face of one of the reporters in the projection room.  For the most part, you don’t see a single face in detail during the entire scene.  As a matter of fact, the character who is introduced in this scene, the reporter by the name of Thompson who is given the task of discovering the meaning behind Charles Foster Kane’s final utterance (“Rosebud”), is known by most viewers as “that guy whose face you never see.”  Sure, every now and again you get a quick glance of his face, but never in the vivid detail.  We never know what he looks like.  He is a narrator, and the fact that we even see him in outline gives him more substance than the typical narrator.  But, he is a decidedly human narrator, not the omniscient observer who speaks between dialogue in a novel.  He, like us, is learning as the movie progresses.  He is us.  We don’t see our own faces (mirrors aside), so why should we see his?

The movie, using this technique of lighting, suddenly turns the tables back to the audience, asking us to determine the truth behind “Rosebud.”  We are the reporters, and that is why, I think, you’ll get so many different responses to the meaning of the word.  Welles thought the word was just a gimmick that meant very little.  The great Pauline Kael agreed with him.  But the equally-great Roger Ebert saw real depth in the word, saying, “Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain…It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress.”  The unnamed female reporter at the end of the movie thought that “Rosebud” would explain everything.  Thompson, though, was skeptical, saying that it would probably explain nothing.  What does “Rosebud” mean to you?  It’s an important question to ask, and that is the question that Mankiewicz, Toland, and Welles hoped you’d ask.  They pushed for it through this appeal to lighting.  By diverting the attention from the truth-seeker, they made us focus on the evidence.  We become the detectives looking for the answers.  And the ultimate solution to the mystery is relative.

Isn’t that the whole gist of the movie?  Isn’t the entire crux of the picture that perspective is relative, particularly when it comes to judging others?  I think that’s a fair way to look at it.  It’s a simple statement, and that’s what Kane is focused on.  Yet, there is a stirring capability that proper lighting and shadow-work have in black and white pictures that helps to point us in the right directions with our judgments.  It is the light, not the characters, that tells us the truth.  The idea of using light and shadow to prove a point was no where near revolutionary at the time of Kane’s release, but Gregg Toland took it to new heights.  Today, the concept of “indicative lighting” is most closely associated with the cinematography of Citizen Kane, and with good reason.  Perhaps the best example of which I am aware of this indicative lighting technique can be seen in the following clip.

Before you watch this clip, let me turn your attention to the way the light strikes Orson Welles’ face.  At what point is his face almost completely veiled by shadow?  What is going on?  What is the lighting here trying to tell you?

You likely would not have noticed upon first viewing the segment, but there is a period in the scene when Welles is facing the camera, and yet his entire face covered by darkness.  You’ll notice that it occurs right when his character, Charles Foster Kane, is about to read his “declaration of principles.”  It goes on until he calls for it to be printed.  Then, his face is illuminated again.  You’ll likely say that maybe it’s just because the lighting was bad, but that can’t be it.  Look at all the lighting sources on set alone, let alone the lighting sources behind the camera.  And, look at Bernstein and Leland’s faces.  They are perfectly lit.  Clearly, Toland and Welles were trying to tell us something here.  What that something is, I’ll leave for you to figure out.  But, may I add, it’s ironic that this period of darkness takes place at the one time that you’d think Welles’ face would light up.  Kane, to steal the words of Roger Ebert, “likes playful paradoxes like that.”

Surely, light plays an important role in Kane.  The lights on set usually carry a meeting, particularly the light cast by flame.  Consider the scenes with Susan Alexander, his second wife, in the vast halls of Xanadu by the giant fireplace.  Think about the fire that surrounds the scene wherein “Rosebud’s” true meaning is finally revealed.  Think about the candle-light from Kane’s window as he lay dying, or just before he reads his declaration of principles.  The refiner’s fire, as it were, at least in the case of this film, reveals the truest part of people.

That is why color was never an option when Kane was in its creative stages.  To make a color Kane would be to destroy it.  People today have lost understanding as to the magic of black and white cinematography.  Fortunately, Welles’ ambition did not pull him away from that important tradition.  Because of black and white photography, he and Toland were able to create optics that have survived well to this day.

Maybe you might be thinking that I am reading too deep into all this, giving Kane way too much credit.  It can’t be true that Welles’ really had all this mind.  It just worked out that way.  Well, in response to that, I provide for you a couple pictures.  These pictures are the lighting designs for Welles’ 1937 stage adaptation of Julius Caesar:

photo 1   photo 2

It is undeniable that Gregg Toland was the ultimate genius behind the visual spectacle of Kane, but to deny Orson Welles his credit—as some have tried to do—is wrong.  He had a vision, and Gregg Toland made it happen.

A Match Made in Heaven…or Hollywood

The dynamic between Welles and Toland is one of the most interesting aspects of the behind-the-scenes story of Citizen Kane.  Welles wasn’t just a first-time director, he was a complete rookie to every aspect of the industry.  Toland was a seasoned pro.  They were each good at different things, and these different strengths acted as perfect complements.  Welles, for example, was a man who’s artistic career had been born in two media: theater and radio.  In theater, a set piece is far more wide than the 1.375:1 or 1.33:1 aspect ratio of contemporaneous films.  It is even wider, really, than the 2.4:1 ratios of modern movie-theater releases.  There is not only a vastness of linear space, but also a vastness of depth to theatrical productions, where people can be layered not only from side-to-side, but also behind and in-front-of one another.  There is also a vertical construct involved.  Think about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera: that chandelier can be recreated in a long-shot on camera, but not in the intimate confines of the space provided.  It especially could not be included at the time of Kane.  We’ll get to that later.

Welles’ vision was limited to the very restrictive languages of pure cinema.  While there were things that he wanted to do, he would never have been able to do it.  Not on camera.  Few things are more terrible to watch than filmed theater.  That is what Kane would have been without Toland.  In preparation for this transition to a new medium, with a new language, and new parameters, Welles watched John Ford’s Stagecoach upwards of 40 times, every night.  The movie was a masterpiece at the time, made one year previous to Kane’s production.

Why did he watch Stagecoach1939—the year in question—had a lot of great pieces of cinema, and it could very well be considered the greatest year in the history of American movies.  There was William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, Ernst Lubistch’s Ninotchka, the first of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes pictures (The Hound of the Baskervilles), Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and two quaint, little pictures from Victor Fleming: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  Even RKO pictures, who had signed Welles’ check, had come out with a couple big ones: The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton and Gunga Din starring Cary Grant.  So why Stagecoach?

Because Stagecoach was in black and white.  Because Stagecoach used long-, medium-, and close-shots with dexterity.  Because Stagecoach used lighting to evoke emotion.  Because Stagecoach featured one of the great montages of American cinema (a montage that I documented quite thoroughly in the second part of my two-part examination of montage theory).  That montage with the Indian attack was a montage that had little respect for space: direction from camera left or camera right and movement of such was cast aside to create a chaotic smattering of action images that defy the rules of space.  Montage, by its nature, cuts the action of a scene.  Theater cannot work in montage.  So, in his attempts to transition, Welles tried to learn montage.

It was Gregg Toland who helped Welles to recognize the need for continuity, that Citizen Kane was not a movie with shoot-outs and stagecoach raids, and respect for space was of paramount importance.  Action needed to exist within a frame, and cuts to another angle required a consistency of action.  The creation of that frame was where Welles and Toland reconciled; it was their middle ground.  Welles knew what needed to be included within the frame.  He knew what he wanted.  The problem was, he didn’t know how to film it.

One of the chief examples of this was Welles’ desire to include ceilings in his filming.  This seems like a small thing, and I personally think it is a relatively small thing in comparison to everything else, but this was actually a pretty big deal.  No film in the Academy ratio (as far as I’m aware) had incorporated ceilings into its frames.  Welles wanted ceilings, because they helped to provide contrast, and he wanted the camera to look up at its characters in a lot of the scenes.  The problem with ceilings, though, was that they blocked the boom mikes and upper lighting.  Toland (and the sound and production design team) was able to help Welles realize that to fully satisfy his vision, he would need to create ceilings that were lower out of a thin cloth through which light and sound could still project.  The result was first movie to include ceilings in its set pieces.  This enabled the camera to film at far more angles, which, in turn, allowed for such significant sequences as the following:

The use of framing, the knowledge of stage direction, and the innovation of using ceilings highlights the contributions of both Orson Welles and Gregg Toland as a team to create what I consider to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing movies ever committed to film.  Welles was the visionary, the man who was not limited by reality because he did not know reality.  Toland was the willing expert, the mentor who knew reality and wanted to change it.  Welles said the following when it came to Kane’s unique approach to cinematography:” ignorance … sheer ignorance. There is no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you are timid or careful.”

It is a tribute to Gregg Toland to see how he enabled a young man whose self-proclaimed ignorance was hurtling not only himself, but all those associated with him, into a project of unparalleled and unprecedented complexity.  Most of us, I think, would try to “wake the kid up”, as it were, and tell him his head was in the clouds.  But not Toland.  He could see that Welles was on to something.  And he knew that he had to let Welles do his thing.  He also knew that he, himself, could make it happen.  He was, after all, the best in the business.  Years after the fact, Welles himself admitted that “Toland was advising him on camera placement and lighting effects secretly so the young director would not be embarrassed in front of the highly experienced crew”.

Deep Focus

Of all the innovations of Kane that owes to Welles and Toland, one stands supreme.  To understand why this innovation was necessary, one must go back to the discussion of Welles and Toland’s partnership.  Gregg Toland worked in Hollywood; his medium was film.  Welles, on the other hand, was in New York; his medium was theater.  The real world, no matter how many frames per second Peter Jackson can squeeze into The Hobbit, no matter how high resolution Terrence Malick can film his flora and his fauna, and no matter how much 3D is thrown in to J.J. Abrams’ latest flick, has never been captured in a camera.  There are distortions, however small, of reality with every click of the record button.  Just try to take a picture at a football game.  You can see just how obvious the relative distance between objects can be distorted.  The vagueness of relationships between objects in a frame is something that you do not lose in real time.  Peter Jackson utilized this concept to make the hobbits seem short in his Lord of the Rings movies.  Anyway, the angle and aspect of the lens, the spacing between objects, and the resolution on certain items in focus versus others all distort the reality of the actual image in its translation to the screen.  This is not a bad thing, it is a very good thing.  This is what makes cinema a manipulative medium wherein artists can work, and this is what makes good cinema a true “slice of cake.”

However, this disconnect from the human eye could have been problematic for Orson Welles, had Gregg Toland not been there.  Remember what I said earlier about the dimensions of a stage production?  Theatre not only provides a greater linear plane for a mise-en-scène, but it also has a plane that is far deeper in the third dimension.  This is because its a real -world art form, the human eye is interpreting the images without an interfering medium (like film).  Stage blocking, therefore, can have far more significant roles to play.  Had Welles attempted to translate his understanding of stage productions to his new movie without Toland’s help, he likely would have produced two hours of film where the majority of the frames were blurred and jumbled.  But Welles was able to translate his use of blocking, because Gregg Toland innovated a new way of filming called “deep focus.”

When discussing the innovations of the cinematography in Kane, the first thing anyone ever brings up is this concept of “deep focus.”  It is likely the main reason why the look of Kane is so unique: to this day, deep focus remains unique.  While our modern cameras are certainly capable of it, and many films today utilize it, you’ll notice that a lot of movies don’t necessarily need it, and so they don’t use it.

What is it, exactly?  Well, it is as its name implies: the camera is able to focus on both fore-ground and background shots with equal focus.  Where most of the time, focus to the back or front of an image causes the rest of the image to take on a fuzzy look, deep focus works to keep every piece of the miseen-scène in perfect detail.

Okay, then why is it important?  First off, it allows the director to stack objects in a screen, causing the workable space on the screen to grow infinitely backward.  In an era when the length of a single shot is lucky if it lasts longer than 3 seconds, we have come to not appreciate the quality of a well constructed set-piece.  But, in older movies, there are far less cuts and far more sequences where a single camera rests on the objects in the frame and allows them to interact.  The longer a camera sits in one place, the more time our eyes have to wander.  The more images that the camera can keep in focus, then, the better.

This is the guiding philosophy behind Kane‘s incorporation of deep focus.  While the average cut-rate in Kane is likely shorter than the average rate between cuts in other films of the era, its appeal to the theatrical concept stage blocking is enabled by the ability the camera has to stack its images deep into the screen.  Not only can you fit more into the frame (shortening the film and giving the imagery a more concise element) it also allows you to play with the perceptions of your viewers.  In order to understand fully how Kane accomplishes these tasks, I’ll explain them an element at a time.

Stage Blocking

There are several instances of great stage blocking in Citizen Kane, so great they can feel like we’re watching a stage production.  The first example can be seen below.  Pay particular attention to the location of the objects in the frame (people count as objects).  Pay equal attention to how this would be impossible without deep focus.  This particular clip was posted by a YouTube subscriber “Mind on Film” as part of a series of videos called “Scene Analysis” and will have subtitles highlighting the exact elements that I hope you can come to understand.

This second example of stage blocking is from the party sequence in the middle of the film.

Did you notice the way that Welles was able to stack the elements in his miseen-scène in both of these examples?  By doing so, he was able to keep the most important things in the front (such as the action going on in the cabin) while allowing those elements about which he didn’t want you to forget in the background (like young Charles and his sled in the snow).  He was able to show the preeminence of certain elements (Kane is usually in a foreground shot), and he was able to scatter about contributory details that you might not notice the first time around.

Without deep focus, these details and elements would be lost as the camera focuses on other sections of the frame.  What results is a cinematic experience that is new every time you see it, and a frame full of life that doesn’t thrive in other movies.

Perception Tricks

This is the fun part of Kane.  But, I think there is real reason why these are incorporated into the movie.  The visual tricks made possible by deep focus and stage blocking are not merely there for gimmick’s sake: they help to prove an important theme in the movie.  Take, for example, this important scene.  The camera does not move in this scene at all.  Now, you’re a competent movie-connoisseur, so you know what to do when the camera doesn’t move: you take in the miseen-scène.  Look at the placement of the characters, and look where the light points your eyes.  After you let the lighting direct you, look closely at the other details.  Familiarize yourself with the room.  It seems obvious, but when a camera doesn’t move, nothing on the screen changes unless one of the objects in the frame moves.  In this case, a person will move.  And, when that person moves, the entire miseen-scène seems to change.  But it doesn’t actually change.  Your perception of the miseen-scène changes.  This is probably the most famous visual trick in the movie.

Notice how the whole purpose of this scene is to mess with your perception, but while it messes with your perception, it helps to teach an important lesson.  Remember, you are the detective (or reporter) in this mystery, and you are looking for clues to decipher the character of Kane.  An entire film has been dedicated to gathering facts about Kane the Man, but all the facts are delivered by biased observers.  The one perspective we wish to have more is the perspective of Kane himself, but he only offers us a single word: Rosebud.  This is a word that means everything and nothing.  “Yes, Mr. FilmSage,” you’re saying.  “We’ve heard this already.”

That’s okay.  It all leads to the point of this section.  It all comes down to perspective.  I find it one of the great ironies of the cinema that the movie we often consider the “greatest movie ever made” is based on the idea that our perspectives can be perverted merely by nature of our individuality.  Our perceptions of a lot of things (political and public figures, works of art, historical events, etc.) are informed by relatively small samples of interested parties and facts.  And often, just as this scene tells us, these perceptions are skewed.  Roger Ebert said the following of this important sequence: “A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him.”  The winds of change and the forces of progression give life flavor, and we cannot pigeonhole people into singular categories.  In life, this is seen in those intangible elements that make a person’s soul.  In film, it is the medium itself, the ability to project an image, that gives characters and the world in which they live their flavor.

There are more instances of this in the film: take, for example, the scene in Xanadu fortress where we see just how large the great fireplace in the hall actually is.  Actually, we can see that every sequence in the film, when considering the pioneering impact of deep focus, manifests a special effect in its own right.

More on Deep Focus

Because of these innovations, which culminates ultimately in deep focus, Citizen Kane provides for its viewers what is likely to be the most important visual experience in movies.  Because every frame gives you a set in perfect detail and because the camera lingers on its compositions giving you time to take it in, the movie really does play out as a visual experience.  A lot of the greatness of Kane involves its script and its characters, but all of that can be put in a book or a short story—or, better yet, a play.  Why make it a movie?  Because movies have a special role in the artistic world; cinema is the seventh art, a medium unto itself that has its own conventions, its own purpose, its own language.  For a movie to succeed, it must succeed as a visual experience, giving us something that takes advantage of cinema’s intrinsic nature.  Like 2001: A Space Odyssey or 8 1/2 or Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Citizen Kane does more than tell us a story, it provides us an aesthetic creation.  We are sucked in to the aesthetics.  We are given a visual opportunity that we never really get again.  Even in Kane’s follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, we are not exposed to such iconic imagery and cinematography as that to which we were exposed in this movie.

Look at the following scenes.  Think about how deep focus gives this movie a unique look.  The objects are very defined: the lines they create are distinct, and there is little to no blurriness on any part of the screen.  These high-focus lines distinguish objects one from the other, and give the necessary layering to the 2D image, giving it an almost 3D impression.

The first scene cannot be embedded, so you’ll have to watch it through this hyperlink.

How did Welles and Toland do this scene?  They combined deep focus photography with a cinematic device called the split screen.  This is a technique that has been utilized in a lot of movies since to create the illusion of a single actor playing two actors (usually twins) in a single frame.  In 1961, Hayley Mills would do dialogue scenes on the right side of the frame then move to the left side of the frame to reply to the dialogue.  The negative of one filmed line of dialogue was then copied onto a second negative that acted as the composite.  The process was repeated with the other line of dialogue by masking the first so that it was not copied twice and was, therefore, not subject to double exposure.  The resulting “split” in the frame was then disguised by hard lines in the set itself, using things like window panes, vegetation, and wall panels.  The result: The Parent Trap.

A similar process was followed in making this sequence.  The issue at hand was something that we’ve seen in other movies, like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Notorious.  There are famous shots in both of these films involving the use of cups in the foreground and an actor in the background.  The issue is that perception can alter the respective sizes of the objects in the frame.  To cause the images to work properly, Hitchcock fashioned props that were two or three times the scale of a regular cup and then placed them at an appropriate distance from the actor in the frame to highlight the significance of the prop itself and its relationship with the character.  In filming the aforementioned scene where Kane fires Leland, the same issue was cropping up: since the two were in different vertical planes they couldn’t get the perception right.  So, the scene you just watched is actually two separate scenes, filmed on different occasions and then spliced together through a similar process as that which was followed in The Parent Trap twenty years later.  Except, this time it was far more dexterous, the use of deep focus makes it far less likely to disguise the split, and so the split itself is jagged, following the contours of Orson Welles’ face and shoulder.  To better understand this, I’ll provide the following image that I found online:


This ability to manipulate the negative of the images was a central aspect of deep focus.  It also shows the sincere respect for the language of cinema that Toland and Welles exhibited in making Kane.  This use of optical printing to splice images was yet another way that Toland dabbled in what Clement Greenwald termed “medium specificity.”  Medium specificity theory states that each of the main art mediums have certain unique characteristics that distinguish them from other forms, and success in that medium depends on the ability to manipulate those unique characteristics.  To manipulate the filmstrip itself is part of the technical prowess that helps a movie become a true success.  Granted, filmstrips aren’t used to the same extent anymore, but that’s okay.  That can apply to digital film as well.

The use of double exposure and optic printing was not new to film, Victor Sjöström used it frequently in his film The Phantom Carriage and briefly in his other masterpiece from 1918, The Outlaw and His Wife.  However, the use of such exposure was idealistically different in the case of Citizen Kane.  In Kane, the goal was not to blend images or create “special-effects”, the goal was to create a composite mise-en-scène wherein deep focus could thrive.

Despite this, Toland was not a fan of using split screens to create deep focus.  He called it “duping”, and felt it was an adulterated version of deep focus.  This process was only utilized in a handful of scenes, though.  Most of the scenes in the movie used the actual camera to create the deep focus.  By closing down the aperture of the camera (that hole through which light travels), Toland could use external lighting to focus on aspects of the frame that normally would have been out-of-focus.  This returns us to what I discussed at the beginning of this essay: lighting.  The role of light in the movie not only helped to accomplish the principles of duality and indication that were discussed earlier, it also enabled deep focus to become a reality.  I hope you’re starting to see now the special symbol of light in this movie: it brings everything into focus.  It is the story-teller, the truth-teller, the master of our perception.

However, closing the aperture and increasing on-set lighting was not enough.  After all, the camera only works if light comes in.  With a closed aperture, light into the camera itself was limited, so Toland coated his lens with Vard Opticoat, a coating that dramatically reduced glare off of the glass lens, and, as a result, allowed that extra light that was usually refracted to transmit to an increased degree.

A third element needed to be incorporated in order to make deep focus a reality.  That involved speed of recording.  When a frame rate is slow, more happens between frames, causing images to jump a little.  This is what makes the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton seem so fast, the characters jump from one point to the other because the frame rate is a slower.  However, it also creates a slight blur between images.  This blur is actually the movement of one frame to another, like when you pause a video on an old camcorder.  The image is usually slightly out of focus.  In order to ensure that such blurs didn’t exist, and, therefore, bring the picture into greater focus, Toland also had to incorporate higher frame rates.  To do this, Toland used the Kodak Super XX film stock, the fastest film stock available.

Because of these innovations, Toland did not have to use split-screens and optical printers to accomplish deep focus for most of his scenes.  Look at the following scene:

This scene was accomplished through the cinematographic innovations of Toland, and is made better because of these innovations.  Through deep focus, Toland created order.  He created images where all objects had a place, all characters had a role, and all shadows and lights told a story.  This room is a compilation of images pulled in from all the other corners of the movie’s synopsis.  It is made alive, at the beginning of the scene, by this order.  Because of deep focus, Kane’s destruction of the room did far more than show his rage and frustration, it showed the very fabric of his life moving to disorder.  This entropy is central to the story: we watch a man put all the pieces together as he wants them.  Then, we watch as they get away from him.  The true entropy does not start merely at the end though.  I believe that, in putting all the pieces together in the fashioning of his empire, he was already creating disorder.  The only true order is held in “Rosebud,” the one thing that he couldn’t ever get.

And, just in case you were curious, the mirror scene (a scene which I consider to be among the most significant scenes in the entire movie, a scene which I discussed in detail in my post “Kane the Man”) was accomplished through a series of split screens.

Invisible Wipes

Kane, made on sound stages, needed to be able to create vast locations.  To do so, they innovated use of the split screen: they caused the splice to not just be stationary, they made the split move.  This allowed Toland to film miniatures and then “wipe” to other images.  Perhaps the most famous of these wipes involves the opera performance of Welles’ protégé and wife, Susan Alexander:

In this scene, the camera “wipes” upward to a miniature set of curtains and stage gear and then upward again to a set-piece of the two people on the catwalk.  Wipes like this permeate the film.  Another famous example includes the image of the great statue of Mr. Thatcher in the library sequence: the statue is a drawing.  The image then wipes downward to the set of library itself.  These wipes came to revolutionize cinematic conventions.  One way they are often utilized in modern film is in transitions from one scene to another.  The next time you watch Star Wars, look at the way that Lucas “wipes” from one scene to the other.


The way that wipes are often used in modern cinema is to aid in creating smooth transitions from one scene to another, in essence, they are used to help in editing.  If you are a familiar reader of my blog, you’ll know what “editing” means: it’s montage.  While manipulating the film in his use of optic printing, invisible wipes and split-screens, Welles was already practicing well in medium specificity, but his use of montage took the film to new heights.  Sergei Eisenstein, the father of Soviet montage theory, said that the answer to the problem of cinema—the problem of cinema being the issue of manipulating the unique characteristics of the medium itself—was montage, or the juxtaposition of images to create impressions.

Some of the greatest montage sequences in film history are included in Citizen Kane.  I refer you, again, to the second chapter in my two-part series on montage theory.  While this is a significant aspect of Citizen Kane‘s filmic contributions, I feel like this essay is already running long and I did a great job documenting these contributions already in this blog.  What is important is to see how these innovations are all associated with one another, they work together to create a great picture.  These innovations (even the use of ceilings) are not just gimmicky novelties thrown together to make Kane a gee-wiz picture.  They work together.  Split-screens and invisible wipes (which are, ultimately, moving split-screens) allowed for a thoroughness and smoothness of montage and a detail of deep focus.  This allowed for imagery that could not be made otherwise.  Deep focus, in turn, not only necessitated additional lighting and shadow-work, but also enabled such lights and shadows to play significant narrative roles in the black and white scheme.  Characters were able to work in virtually unlimited space on the y- and z-axes.

Welles’ and Herrmann’s Radio Contributions

While I feel like Welles’ theatrical contributions and how they acted to as guide posts for Toland’s genius have been well-documented, I have not quite dabbled in the his radio background and the role that it played.  This is okay.  So far, I have dealt solely with the visual, but the audio is also rather revolutionary, and people often don’t notice this.  And Radio is, after all, purely sound.

First of all, Bernard Herrmann’s score for the movie has been long considered a watershed in cinematic score history.  This is for a few reasons.  One of those reasons was the simple fact that it was the score that introduced Herrmann to Hollywood.  This is actually quite significant, as he would go on to stand alongside such greats as Alfred Newman, Ennio Morriconne, Max Steiner, and John Williams in the pantheon of great composers of movie music.  It was also significant because of the way it was played.

Previous to the inception of Kane, the common practice was to create music that played, for the most part, as peripheral noise.  It set the mood, certainly, and it was often quite good, but it was usually less-than-contributory.  This is because it played non-stop over the movie, and was, consequentially, usually quite quiet in comparison to the rest of the soundtrack.  This makes sense: if it plays the entire time, you don’t want it playing loud.  The makers of Kane, though, including Welles and Herrmann, came from a radio background.  In radio, long periods of time are spent with the narrator or characters speaking, and these are interlaced with bursts of mood-indicative music.  The score is set as a series of cues that indicate the movement of the unseen characters.  The music in Kane, therefore, is frequently heard in ten-second bursts, and usually between scenes.  This would come to influence cinema for years and years to come.

Oh yeah, another reason why it is considered a watershed: it’s one of the best scores you’ll ever hear.  The music is good.

While the score was important, it was only a piece to the complex puzzle of Kane’s sound.  François Truffaut wrote, “Before Kane, nobody in Hollywood knew how to set music properly in movies.  Kane was the first, in fact the only, great film that uses radio techniques.”   Like radio, these techniques were used primarily to move us from one scene to another or to evoke a certain mood to a certain segment of a scene.  This is why I chose to write about montage last before moving to the sound aspect.  (There are methods to my madness).  The role of sound in Kane‘s montages is quite evident when you watch the movie.  Perhaps the most famous jump in scenes in movies is at the beginning of the movie, and uses sound instead of image.  This occurs when Thatcher says “Merry Christmas”, and then, twenty years later, we jump to hearing him say “…and a happy New Year.”

Another aspect of radio that can be found in the soundtrack is Welles’ use of background sounds, contributory noises that help set the stage even if you can’t see what’s going on.  I’ve never watched Kane with my eyes closed, and probably never will, but I did watch it once while working on a big research project.  Actually, it was my capstone paper for my bachelor’s degree, which I wrote on, of course, William Randolph Hearst.  I couldn’t look at the screen very often because I was quite busy, but I still enjoyed the movie.  I think that part of that was obviously that I’d seen the movie before and knew what was going on in each scene, but I think another part was that the use of contributory sound on the soundtrack was so profound.

The sound in the background is not complex.  There are far more significant usages of sound mixing and editing in the battle sequences in The Lord of the Rings or the sinking sequences in Titanic.  The trees crashing, the feet stomping, the truck’s engine running, the sound of the wheels on the mud, the roar of the Tyrannosaurus, and the screaming of the passengers Jurassic Park certainly uses more complexity.  What makes Kane so important is that it uses radio sounds.  On the radio, it’s all about selection.  It’s all about discrimination of sound.  There is nothing in the soundtrack of the library scenes other than the voices and the echoes.  Those echoes are decidedly radio-esque.  There is the sound of the rain tapping on windows, or the fire crackling in the fireplace.  There is the sound of the lightning.  Speaking of lightning, Welles actually pioneered the technique known as the “lightning mix” to use a sound in one scene to transition into another.  One example of this is the “Merry Christmas…and a Happy New Year” transition.  Another famous example is the transition using the squawking parrot.  This is an incredibly random scene, and often startles people.  But, I think it accomplishes the important task of somehow moving smoothly to a new scene while, at the same time, telling us that there is something terribly sudden and out-of-joint about this particular scene change.

This additional innovation in the realm of sound goes to show why Citizen Kane has been so lauded by so large a critical group for so long. Regardless of bias toward genre or era, the film has constantly been at or near the top of every list, poll, and critical taste.  This is because the film provides a complete viewing experience.  Previous to the advent of sound, movies were all about the image on the screen.  Truly great filmmakers since then have been able to place cinema as the seventh art in the forefront, continually appealing to the nature of their medium and not abandoning it for other media.  However, with the advent of sound, a new wave of public sentiment toward incorporations of other media threatened to adulterate the purity of cinema as a singular medium.  However, it was able to survive because of the peculiar nature of film to maintain trueness to itself yet include other art types, thus becoming the best multimedia offering since Wagner composed his great Gesamtkuntswerks.  Kane, like few other films, was able to give homage to the films that preceded it, respect the nature of the seventh art, and yet innovate not only the visual, but also the aural aspects of the film as a Gesamtkunstwerk.  It gave a completeness to the picture that appealed to an incredible amount of people.


I have spent the last few months writing about my favorite movie: Citizen Kane.  Released in 1941 to a relatively good popular response, and a better critical one, it was nominated for nine Academy Awards: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Art-Direction–Interior Decoration (Black and White), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Music (Score of a Dramatic Picture), and Best Sound Recording.   This essay was designed to show why it received nominations for art direction, editing, cinematography, sound recording, and music.  Other essays have proven why it deserved the best picture, director, actor, and writing awards.  When it was placed before the Academy, a lot of people expected it to win at least most of the awards for which it was nominated.  However, it did not.  Robert Wise (the film editor) recalled that the movie received intense boos with every mention it garnered during the presentation.  Intense campaigns against voting for the film in the Academy had been waged by a group of people who feared the wrath of William Randolph Hearst, the very man after whom Kane was inspired.

It is a testament to the movie’s greatness and audacity that it stood up to the most powerful man in America, yet more audacious that it turned the most controversial radio broadcast in history into a blank check to make one of the most expensive films in the industry.  And, on top of it all, it was even bolder in the way it turned the entire language of film on its head, changing forever the way we make movies.  The entire project was rooted in this audacity, an audacity born of ignorance.  You know what they say about ignorance.  It’s bliss.

It happened because one man exuded a charisma that was unmatched.  He drew to himself the best in the industry.  He had an ability to make things happen.  He created a drama that was as funny as it was visually bold.  This humor was not only manifest in the movie’s virtually perfect script, but it was also manifest in the execution of the film itself.  There was a tongue-in-cheek lightness to the whole production, constantly begging to be taken seriously, yet constantly slapping us on the wrists for taking it seriously.  It was, ultimately, an experiment in sight and sound, and, like all experiments, and like all great art, it was a reflection of its makers.  Watch its trailer here.  There isn’t an ounce of footage from the film itself in the trailer.  Instead, it’s a self-aware demonstration of its players, showing the playful atmosphere of the entire production and staying true to what Welles did best: exhibition.

After writing all these words and spending all these months talking about why I think this movie deserves to be called number one, I know that I have not done the movie justice.  But, I also hope that reading all this about the movie will help you, when you watch it for yourself, to know what to look for, and to fully appreciate its greatness.  While many have tried to take the credit for the picture away from Welles and give it to Gregg Toland and Herman J. Manckiewicz (men who deserve all the credit in the world), I hope that I have been able to show you that this great, collaborative production, is one of the great auteur pictures.  Roger Ebert has said that great movies are about “the style, tone and vision of their makers”.  This movie is all about Mr. Welles.

It is one of the great acts of professional humility in the cinema that, at the end of the film, when the credits start rolling, Orson Welles did the unprecedented and shared his directorial card with another, the man to whom he was eternally indebted for making his vision a reality: Gregg Toland.



8 thoughts on ““Ignorance, Sheer Ignorance”: The Audacity and Innovation of the Citizen Kane Experiment

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