Citizen Kane: Innovation Through Ignorance

There is a great gift ignorance has to bring to anything, that was the gift I brought to Kane. Ignorance.

For decades, Citizen Kane (1941) has been touted as “The Greatest Film of All Time,” a claim which has been verified by a multitude of credible sources. Celebrated author Ray Bradbury once said, “The whole film should be admired as a gem you hold in your hand.” In an interview with AFI, Martin Scorsese claimed, “Citizen Kane will always be something that demands attention, and respect, and admiration for another way of looking at the world through the cinematic eye.” The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine holds an opinion poll every ten years for the “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time,” and for 50 consecutive years Citizen Kane held the number one spot, only recently being dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in 2012. Hitchcock, though, had 44 films under his belt already when he made Vertigo, whereas Citizen Kane was the debut feature for Orson Welles, at a mere 25 years old. Welles had a prolific career in theater and radio before coming to Hollywood; he made big splashes with radical renditions of various Shakespeare plays, and an infamous Halloween broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which had many Americans convinced the broadcast was a real invasion. These events quickly propelled Welles to stardom, prompting George Schaefer, head of RKO Pictures, to offer him an exclusive contract to make whatever film he wanted, with complete control over the production; the offer was unprecedented, even for Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors, let alone a novice like Welles. The film he made was Citizen Kane, and with the absolute authority his contract provided him, Welles took the opportunity to create an innovative film that shook the industry to its core.

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Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

It would be blasphemous to try and insinuate that Welles did this alone, though. When Welles agreed to make a film for RKO he didn’t know anything about movies and spent every night of pre-production for a month watching Stagecoach (1939), studying the technique of filmmaking. He relied heavily on his more experienced crew to teach him along the way. Co-writing the screenplay with Herman J. Mankiewicz, Welles worked in tandem to craft the unique story structure of Citizen Kane that has become so influential. The chaotic conception of telling a story through pieced-together, interconnected flashbacks from a variety of sources would require someone who had the ability, and the willingness, to be technically accommodating to this vision. Fortunately for Welles, Hollywood’s premier cinematographer, Gregg Toland, had heard of Welles’ ambitious undertaking, and sought him out personally to offer his services. Welles recalled the initial meeting as such:

One day in the office they said “there’s a man named Toland waiting to see you.” He was, of course the leading cameraman. He said, “I want to make your picture,” and I said, “Well that’s wonderful. Why? I don’t know anything about movies.” And he said, “That’s why I want to do it. I think if you’re left as alone as much as possible we’re going to have a movie that looks different. I’m tired of working with people who know too much about it.”

The result was Citizen Kane: a film that was just as inventive in its technical aspects as it is in the complex structure of its narrative. In a 1960 interview, Welles was asked how these innovations were achieved, to which he answered: “It was partly the great spirit of Toland, the fact that he was the greatest cameraman who ever lived, and the fastest, and had that wonderful spirit, and partly my own ignorance. I didn’t know what you couldn’t do. I didn’t deliberately set to out invent anything, it just seemed to me ‘why not?’ There is a great gift ignorance has to bring to anything, that was the gift I brought to Kane. Ignorance.” Welles and Toland’s effort to make the film as seamless as possible utilized every trick in the book. Dissolve transitions, deep-focus photography, and the integration of various models, matte paintings, and other practical special effects were the revolutionary tools they used to convey the fractured life story of the larger-than-life newspaper magnate, Charles Foster Kane.

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“What the newsreel does right at the beginning is give us the entire story so we know where he came from, what happened to him, how he ended up, we know it before the story even begins.” – Roger Ebert.

The first of the series of unconventional methods used for Citizen Kane is the conceit of its narrative. The film begins at the end of Kane’s life, as his age catches up with him and he dies uttering the most famous of final words in cinema: “Rosebud.” From there, a montage of news footage regarding Kane’s life begins. The “News on the March” segment is intended to emulate the “Time Marches On” newsreels that would play in theaters at the time Citizen Kane was made. The ten-minute segment covers Kane’s entire life, acting as a microcosm of the whole narrative to come. Every character and major event in the film is established here, which helps the viewer keep up with the constantly shifting timeline of the film’s narrative.

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Everett Sloane and William Alland in Citizen Kane.

The story is pieced together through five flashbacks during interviews conducted by the faceless character of Thompson, a newspaper reporter tasked with learning what the meaning of Kane’s last word is. The various flashbacks skip forward drastically in time depending on who is telling the story and oftentimes events overlap and provide a different perspective of Kane when someone else recalls their side of the story. The complex narrative structure of Citizen Kane demanded an equally creative manner of conveying the story to the audience from a technical level. Welles’ insistence that scenes flow together imperceptibly was a major factor in translating the story to the screen. To more effortlessly move the story from scene to scene, Welles and Toland planned many creative transitions that allowed for time to pass in the story without a noticeably jarring shift. In a 1941 article for Popular Photography magazine, Toland wrote about how they executed these intricate scene changes: 

“Our constant efforts toward increasing realism and making mechanical details imperceptible led eventually to the solution of all the problems we had created for ourselves. As we avoided direct cuts, so we steered clear of traditional transitions. Most of the transitions in Citizen Kane are lap-dissolves from one scene to the next shortly before the players in the foreground are dissolved. This was accomplished rather simply with two light-dimming outfits, one for the actors and one for the set. The dissolve is begun by dimming the lights on the background, eventually fading it out entirely. Then the lights on the people are dimmed to produce a fade-out on them. The fade-in is made the same way, fading in the set lights first, then the lights for the people.”

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

These kinds of lighting fades are more common in theater then they are in film. Unlike in film, the director of a play is also in charge of designing the lighting for the show. As this was the practice Welles was used to, he spent the majority of the first week of shooting Citizen Kane setting up all the lights. Toland would follow behind him and make whatever adjustments he needed for it to work on camera while still keeping Welles’ intent with the shot. These theatrical fade-ins and fade-outs are prevalent throughout the film and noticeable from the very beginning. In the establishing shots of Kane’s palace, Xanadu, a single light shines from within. When the light fades down, the scene turns black. When fading in again the scene has transitioned into the interior of the castle. These transitions bookend each testimonial of the film as well, but the one that best exemplifies the artistry of it is during the flashbacks of Joseph Cotten’s character, Jed Leland.

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

As Leland begins to recount the ill-fated relationship between Kane and his first wife, Emily, his image stays in the frame far longer than any other character in the previous scenes. By the time the flashback begins to play, Leland is only just beginning to fade out. The effect is truly remarkable, as the composite of the two shots makes for an immersive transition that is both practical to the story and beautiful to watch. Not every transition in the film involves the complicated lighting arrangement used primarily for the various interviews, though. There are a number of dissolves executed so they appear invisible to the audience. One of the more cleverly disguised transitions appears early on in the film, when we first see the establishing shot of Susan Alexander’s nightclub.

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

The camera tracks in, moving through the “El Rancho” sign on the top of the nightclub in order to reach the skylight and peer inwards. In order to achieve this part of the shot, the sign was built to split apart into two pieces. As soon as the lens passed the sign, it could be pulled away so the rest of the rig could continue forward. When the camera reaches the skylight, it pushes up against the glass. The rain pouring down obscures the view, and with a flash of lightning the scene dissolves to the other side of the glass, making it appear as if the camera had just continued moving forward and passed through the window. Alternatively, there are a series of decidedly less invisible transitions that are meant to be a more flashy way of showing the passage of time. One of the better recognized examples is when Kane and his cohorts travel to rival newspaper, the Chronicle, to evaluate their competition.

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

In the window of the Chronicle is a framed picture of their staff. The camera moves towards this photo and after the frame perfectly aligns, the men in the picture come to life. Six years have passed with this transition, and Kane has persuaded the staff of the Chronicle to change sides and now work for him at the Inquirer. It is a rather simple trick, but an effective one nonetheless. The numerous transitions, big and small, that pervade Citizen Kane help to keep the pieces of Kane’s story aligned and easily understood. Without them, the film would be a mess of confusingly contradicting stories that jump from time and place seemingly at random, rendering the film entirely incoherent. Welles and Toland’s idea to rely on constant dissolve transitions instead of cutting from scene to scene gives the film a consistent flow, which remains a crucial attribute for a film as convoluted as Citizen Kane.

Welles and Toland setting up a low-angle shot on Citizen Kane.

Toland brought along with him a myriad of other experimental techniques that he had been refining while working with John Ford. On both The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Long Voyage Home (1940), Toland was able to compose shots with a greater depth of field by playing with different lenses and adjusting the aperture. Given ample time during pre-production for Citizen Kane, Toland was able to explore his theories further, and perfect this practice and later remarked on it: “The attainment of an approximate human-eye focus was one of our fundamental aims in Citizen Kane… We built our system of ‘visual reality’ on the well-known fact that lenses of shorter focal length are characterized by comparatively greater depth, and that stopping a lens increases the depth even further.” Toland also used a combination of lens coatings, specialized arc-lamps, and high-speed film to further increase depth of field for some of the trickier interior scenes. The culmination of all this effort is that every shot in Citizen Kane remains entirely in focus. This effect is best demonstrated in two particular scenes from Mr. Thatcher’s flashbacks early on in the film.

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

First, when the young Kane’s life is being signed over to Mr. Thatcher by his mother, we see him framed in the window with his mother looking out at him playing in the snow. The camera follows as she makes her way towards the table with the boy remaining perfectly in focus as he grows smaller and smaller in the shot. The shot never loses focus on her, nor Kane, nor any of the other parts of the frame, no matter how far apart they are in terms of focal depth. This continues as the camera again follows Mrs. Kane away from the table back to the window where Kane is still playing, and still in focus. The whole sequence is an extended one-take shot that lasts a minute and 46 seconds before cutting, never once losing focus on any of the subjects in the frame.

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

The second scene that exemplifies Toland’s deep-focus technique sees Kane selling off his newspaper empire after making poor investments and running out of funding. Mr. Bernstein is positioned mere inches away from the lens in the bottom right corner of the frame; Thatcher is on the left, more in the middle ground; and Kane begins the scene pacing about in the background before joining the two men at the table. What’s incredible about this shot is how the depth of field warps your perception of the background. Wide-angle lenses have a tendency to flatten an image by bringing the foreground and background closer together, and because of this Thatcher’s office building appears smaller at first when Kane begins his walk towards the windows. As he gets closer to them, it becomes more apparent that the windows, which appeared to be of average size, are much larger than expected. The effect lends the scene a layer of symbolism as well. Kane’s stature is diminished both literally and figuratively in the scene: the seizure of his company strips him of his power, while the towering windows dwarf him as he sullenly walks towards them and back. Shots like these permeate every scene in Citizen Kane, and the complete focus they provide creates a sense of actuality to the events of the film.

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Establishing shots of Kane’s expansive home, Xanadu, open the film.

The least remarked upon technical accomplishments of Citizen Kane are the decidedly less noticeable ones. Despite all the buzz about the film during production, and the prestigious contract Welles was provided for the film, the actual budget was fairly modest for the time. He was first allotted $500,000 to make any film he wanted without any kind of studio interference; they wouldn’t even be allowed to see the daily rushes. At first, Welles’ ambitions proved far greater than what RKO would allow. His initial idea, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was scrapped because there was no conceivable way to make the film within the budget the studio gave him. When Welles finally landed on the concept that evolved into Citizen Kane, he found the extravagant life of the film’s main character would still require a great deal of practical trickery to convincingly conceal the film’s meager budget. Like most films of the time, Citizen Kane was shot exclusively on a soundstage. There was, of course, no real Floridian pleasure palace built on a mountainside they could send a crew out to film exteriors for. The shots of the lonely castle seen in the opening and closing shots of the film are darkly shaded matte paintings. Many of the larger establishing shots in Citizen Kane were all achieved with matte paintings, including the building for the Inquirer, the hospital under the bridge where Leland is located, and even the massive doorways and windows inside Xanadu.

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

In order to incorporate these matte paintings with the live-action elements of the film, an optical printer was required to put the two pieces together. Optical printers had only recently been invented when they were being used on Citizen Kane, but many of the most important shots from the film would have been nigh impossible to achieve without them. One of the most iconic and impressive shots of the film utilized the optical printer in a particularly skillful manner. The sweeping shot of Kane giving his campaign speech is composed of a matte painting of the audience and footage of the stage taken from the following shot. A series of holes were poked through the painting so that a light could be shined through the back of it to simulate movement from the audience. The shot is from far enough away that the effect works perfectly, giving the impression of a full audience without the production having to actually recreate such an event. Optical printers were also used to create smaller, but equally important shots, like the announcement of Kane’s death in Times Square, the empty medicine bottle in the foreground of Susan’s suicide attempt, and the shot of Jim Gettys watching Kane’s campaign speech from the balcony, which also utilizes stage footage from the previously mentioned example.

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The shot is composed of three separate pieces: Footage of Ray Collins as Jim Gettys, footage of Welles and the people on the stage, and the rest of the frame done as a matte painting.

The masterful wizardry that binds Citizen Kane together is even more invisible than the techniques already described. As discussed, the reliance on transitions to seamlessly connect each scene together was integral to maintaining the flow of the film, but they were also implemented in ways that bridged certain pieces of live-action with models and matte-paintings in order to increase the perceived size of the film’s settings. Early on, when Thompson first arrives at the Thatcher estate to seek out information about Rosebud, there is a large statue that looms over the entrance. It is, in fact, a miniature made from paper-mâché. There is a cleverly hidden wipe that masks the change from the model to the full-sized base that is seen in the shot with the actors. The same technique was used to create the famous sequence of Susan’s first performance at the newly constructed opera house.

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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles.

The camera begins on a close-up of Susan on stage, making her final preparations before the curtain goes up. Everyone is running frantically around her, making all the last-minute adjustments while the camera begins to pull back further and further. By the time the shot encompasses the whole stage, the curtain and the camera both begin to rise. The camera continues to rise above the stage as the performance begins, moving through the rafters to reveal two light technicians watching from above. One of the men turns to the other and clamps his fingers over his nose, clearly expressing his disdain for Susan’s singing capabilities. What looks like an impressive one-take crane shot is actually composed of three separate pieces. The shot of the stage is live-action all the way through when the camera reaches the curtain, where it then wipes to a matte of the rafters as the shot continues moving upwards. The rafters then transition back into live-action using one of the beams as the dividing line between the matte and the footage that contains the two men. The blending of the live-action scenes and special effect elements helps expand the visuals of Citizen Kane to a scale it could not hope to have reached through any other means.

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“The Citizen Kane sets have ceilings because we wanted reality, and we felt that it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceilings could be seen in the picture.” – Gregg Toland

The technical bounds achieved in making the film have labeled it as an ambitious cornerstone of Hollywood filmmaking. The strides made to attain the unprecedented techniques for the film remain a testament to the brilliance of Welles and Toland’s combined efforts to bring something wholly original to the screen. Welles, endlessly appreciative of Toland’s imperative contributions, opted to share his credit for the film on the same title card as Toland. Even today, such a thing is unheard of. Welles praised Toland throughout his life, never forgetting how crucial he was to the legacy of Citizen Kane. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles said:He was the greatest gift a director could ever, ever have had because, as I say, anything was possible. And he never tried to impress me with the fact that he was doing impossible things, and he was! I was calling for things which only an ignorant person could call for and he was doing them in a way that only a genius could.”

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“I thought he deserved it. Nobody had ever given a cameraman credit except in a list of about eight names until then in an American picture.” -Orson Welles.

Despite its reputation, Citizen Kane is not necessarily the greatest film ever made. That title can never truly belong to a single film. As Sight and Sound’s critics poll demonstrates, our perception of art changes with time and we constantly re-evaluate the quality and meaning of a piece. What is true, however, is that Citizen Kane will always be an important film. It will always be significant for the way it went against the grain of typical Hollywood filmmaking. Citizen Kane is the product of Welles’ artistic vision, which could not have been created without the skillful assistance of his seasoned crew and Toland in particular. Citizen Kane will forever stand as a pillar of superlative filmmaking, continually inspiring and entertaining new breeds of filmmakers and audiences alike. As director William Friedkin once said:

In a changing world some things just get mellower and better with time, like good wine. Citizen Kane is like a great wine. It just gets mellower and better as we see it in relation to what came after.

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