The American Society of Cinematographers

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Welles, Toland and Citizen Kane

AC presents an excerpt from Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey, a new book by Harlan Lebo, that focuses on wunderkind writer-director-producer-star Orson Welles’ relationship with ace cinematographer Gregg Toland, ASC.

Text courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books. Photos from the ASC Archives.

Orson Welles knew whom he wanted to shoot his film: Gregg Toland, celebrated in Hollywood for such pictures as Dead End and The Grapes of Wrath, was known as an artist who brought innovation and imagination to the usually predictable business of motion picture photography. Although Toland worked successfully within the confines of the studio system, he was an outspoken dissenter against predictable Hollywood filmmaking. As a result, he was respected and in demand by the most visionary directors in Holly wood, including William Wyler, Howard Hawks, and John Ford.

Toland was young by cinematographer standards — only thirty-six in the spring of 1940 — but he had the aura and authority of a much older artist.

“Toland carries himself with a slight stoop which makes him seem smaller and older than he really is, and probably indicates something of the tremendous burden of responsibility that rests on his shoulders,” said Walter Blanchard of American Cinematographer magazine. “He gives the impression of being physically tired — until you get him started talking about his work. Then he brightens up, flashes a disarmingly youthful smile, and speaks with almost boyish enthusiasm about this idea or that he is working with.”

Welles knew about Toland before the director came to Hollywood.

“Toland was the best director of photography who ever existed,” Welles said. “There has never been anyone else in his class.”

However, in February 1940 Toland appeared out of reach to Welles. Toland had just won the Academy Award for his cinematography for Wuthering Heights, and was under contract to independent producer Sam Goldwyn. But Goldwyn, who made only one or two films a year, kept his principal talent occupied (and profit producing) by lending them — leasing them, actually — to other studios; Toland, in between Goldwyn assignments, was available.

Like everyone else in Hollywood, Toland had heard about Welles and his nonconforming ways. He contacted the Mercury office at RKO and met Welles; it was clear from the start that the creative chemistry was right.

Alexander Kahle, the RKO still photographer who shot almost daily on the Citizen Kane set, was a constant observer of the Welles-Toland professional relationship. “The two,” said Kahle, “saw eye to eye from the first.”

So Goldwyn loaned out Toland to RKO for the film for $700 per week, with the requirement that RKO also hire Toland’s team, most of whom had been together for more than a decade: camera operator Bert Shipman, assistant cameraman Edward Garvin, grip Ralph Hoge, and gaffer (lighting supervisor) William J. McClellan. Goldwyn also required RKO to rent Toland’s camera and other equipment that was already modified to his personal specifications.

During preproduction, Welles emphasized to Toland that perfecting the cinematography was the critical element in realizing his vision for Citizen Kane.

“I thought you could do anything with the camera that the eye can do, that the imagination can do,” said Welles. “In the film business you’re taught all the things the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt for fear he will be criticized for having failed. In this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know there were things you couldn’t do. So anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.” 

Welles served up an endless stream of ideas about the camera angles and shots he wanted, and Toland developed the visual plan to bring the director’s ideas to the screen. The vision for Citizen Kane may have originated with Welles, but Toland made Welles’ ideas possible and practical.

From Toland’s perspective as a cinematographer in 1940 Hollywood, Citizen Kane was well timed, not only artistically but technically as well. Recent developments in both lighting and film — in particular the release of Kodak’s Super XX black-and-white film in 1938 — opened vast new horizons for cinematographers, allowing them to shoot with less light and to achieve greater contrast and depth to the image without an additional grainy look to the film. And when production was completed, copies of the motion picture could be printed on recently developed fine-grain film stock.

Toland preferred a crisp focus to the look of his films, at the time a rarity in Hollywood. As Welles scholar Robert Carringer pointed out, the 1930s cinematographic style, which emphasized soft visual tones and diffused light, had been forced upon the studios in part by the arrival of sound films ten years before: the powerful but noisy arc lights of the silent era were replaced with quieter but less powerful incandescent lamps to accommodate sound recording. However, in the late 1930s the growing use of Technicolor photography, with its voracious appetite for light, had inspired the development of a large selection of new lighting techniques that could also be applied to the black-and-white photography for Citizen Kane.

In sum, thanks to better film and new lights, Toland could deepen his focus, create distinctive lighting for his sets, and still deliver a razor-sharp final product — all advancements that were ideal for Welles’ visual plan for Citizen Kane.

Welles and Toland did not deliberately intend for Citizen Kane to be a showcase of filmmaking techniques simply for technique’s sake. Instead, they developed their goals for the production, and then — unlike most Hollywood production teams — sought answers to storytelling problems through inventive photographic methods.

“From the moment the production began to take shape in script form,” Toland recalled, “everything was planned with reference to what the camera could bring to the eyes of the audience.”

Toland recognized Welles’ visual understanding of moviemaking even though the director’s creative energies had been devoted to theater and radio.

 “Welles had a full realization of the great power of the camera in conveying dramatic ideas without words,” Toland said.

“Welles was insistent that the story be told most effectively, letting the Hollywood conventions of movie-making go hang if need be,” said Toland. “With such whole-hearted backing, I was able to test and prove several ideas generally accepted as being radical in Hollywood circles.”

Welles and Toland created a two-part goal for their filming plan.

“Its keynote,” said Toland, “is realism. As we worked together over the script and the final preproduction planning, both Welles and I felt this, and felt it was possible that the picture should be brought to the screen in such a way that the audience would feel it was looking at reality, rather than merely looking at a movie.”

As important as realism was the second mission for the cinematography: to create a visual flow for the entire film — the seamless blending from one scene to the next.

“Welles instinctively grasped a point which many other far more experienced directors and producers never comprehend: that the scenes and sequences should flow together so smoothly that the audience should not be conscious of the mechanics of picture-making,” Toland said.


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