Kane enabled

Last night I saw Citizen Kane again. Like many film lovers of my generation, it has a special place in the heart, a dream of perfect cinema. The thrill is always a little different and last night it was the electrifying originality, the daring, the showmanship that struck me. It’s a film of shocks: you are constantly surprised by each new transition and the rush of ideas.

Like all films it was made from a collaboration of talents. Welles was right when he shared the main credit with his cinematographer, Gregg Toland. Kane is a film for photographers.

Toland achieved unusually deep images, rare at that time and often commented upon in Citizen Kane. Depth-of-Field is the degree of sharpness in a photograph, near and far from the camera. To achieve this he needed a small lens aperture, down to f16, very difficult in the relative dimness of a studio set. How he managed that was due to a number of unique factors:

1. Using the highest speed film available, the new Eastman Super XX, rated by today’s standards as 250 ISO.

2. Use of the 35mm focal length lens instead of the more usual 50mm lens. A wide angle lens gives greater depth of field.

3. Having coated lenses, a new invention which cut down flare and gave much better light transmission, as much as one f stop.

4. Shooting with the new Mitchell BNC 35mm camera. Its internal sound dampening – instead of the external blimp which required shooting through a sheet of glass – meant the image was sharper and had 10% more light transmission.

5. The use of arc lights which, because of their near-Daylight colour temperature, exploited the full sensitivity of the film. The sets were lit very brightly, much brighter than normal, to get more light through the small aperture.

You can see from this the technological sophistication of film making in Hollywood and how innovations in the science of cinematography could enable a new aesthetic. Citizen Kane’s artistic innovations were enabled by technical ones.

These details were sourced from an excellent paper by Patrick Ogle, ‘Technological and Aesthetic Influences on the Development of Deep-Focus Cinematography in the United States’. It gives a lot of information about film-making in Hollywood at the time of Kane. You can read it by clicking here: Movies and Methods: an anthology.

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