How GCI's Education Is Influenced By Gregg Toland, ASC's Article "How I Broke the Rules in Citizen Kane"
by Yuri Neyman, ASC
The specifics of GCI's education are based on a non-standard approach to teaching and training. We make a special emphasis on the training of our students - practically and theoretically - in a few but very necessary qualities for the contemporary cinematographer. These important qualities are:
1. Desire and ability to learn and re-learn
2. Acquire, expand and improve elements of Visual Literacy
3. Understand and appreciate the values of innovation and originality in art and technology
4. Developing qualities of the Artist as Entrepreneur
5. Perfection of problem solving skill
6. Non-Stop reading books and watching your peers work
7. Creation of your Personal Brand
Many people, films, books and notes were inspiration for creating the Global Cinematography Institute(TM) and "Expanded Cinematography"® Program, but one influence, one article occupies a very special place in the list of our sources of guidance, inspiration, and encouragement.
It is the article "How I broke the rules in Citizen Kane" by the most legendary cinematographer in the history of cinema and cinematography the greatest DP of all time Gregg Toland, ASC. Originally published in Popular Photography Magazine on
June 8, 1941, this article is a prime sample of an innovative approach to art in general and to the art and craft of cinematography in particular!
Accused by many in Hollywood then that he "violated all the photographic commandments and conventions in shooting the picture". Toland used "deep-focus" camera techniques, including special film, lenses, and lighting developed specifically for Citizen Kane, that made everything on screen appear in focus at the same time, an unheard-of practice in Hollywood.
Hollywood in 1941 was in a different time zone than Welles and Toland - aesthetically and otherwise. Nobody is perfect! In 1941 the Academy did not recognize the innovation, art and mastery of "Citizen Kane" in any category except screenwriting. "The normal human eye sees everything before it clearly and sharply,"Toland wrote. "But Hollywood cameras focus on the center of interest and allow the other components of the screen 'fuzz out'...The attainment of approximately human-eye focus was one of our fundamental aims...in some cases we were able to hold sharp focus over a depth of 200 feet."
Orson Welles was the greatest inspiration for Toland. As Toland explained, Welles insisted on "letting the Hollywood conventions of movie-making go hang if need be." Welles noted, "I owe it to my ignorance. If this word seems inadequate to you, replace it with innocence. I said to myself: this is what the camera should be capable of doing, in a normal fashion. When we were on the point of shooting the first sequence, I said, 'Let's do that!' Gregg Toland answered that it was impossible. I came back with, 'We can always try: we'll soon see. Why not?' We had to have special lenses made because at that time there weren't any like those that exist today."
This spirit of innovation and originality expressed so convincingly and artfully in "How I Broke the Rules in Citizen Kane" is what we strive to install in all our students!
Toland wrote, "Right away I want to make a distinction between "commandment" and "convention." Photographically speaking, I understand a commandment to be a rule, axiom, or principle, an incontrovertible fact of photographic procedure, which is unchangeable for physical and chemical reasons. On the other hand, a convention, to me, is a usage, which has become acceptable through repetition. It is a tradition rather than a rule. With time the convention becomes a commandment, through force of habit. I feel that the limiting effect is both obvious and unfortunate."
But we also try to teach our students to be objective and knowledgeable and not to attempt, like "groupies", to create a special "no sin" pedestal, but to study impartially and fairly the success that was achieved, the history of that success and how it happened at all.
As for Citizen Kane, yes Welles and Toland perfected this method, but they did not invent it, and this case, among others, which we study at the Global Cinematography
Institute™ during the "Expanded Cinematography"® Program, emphasizes the point that all new is well-forgotten old. In order to be an innovator you need to know what happened both before you were born and even well beyond that.
If we would like to continue to look for "deep focus" origination, we have to remember experiments and achievements of the distinguished cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC in "Surrender" and "Transatlantic" (both 1931). "Surrender" was one of the first successful attempts of multi-plan (how it was called then) composition in order to achieve "screen depth", and "among many innovations in Transatlantic the most far reaching was the early use of deep focus."
In "Transatlantic" Howe used F25 lens specifically to increase the depth of field, but in the thirties the speed for black and white stocks was approximately 20 ASA. Only in late 1931 did Kodak issue a Supersensitive Negative with anti-halation backing. The speed of this stock was about 32 ASA.
So, James Wong Howe's "deep focus" was "far from being deep focus in the post-Citizen Kane sense", but Toland and Welles enjoyed the might of Kodak's Plus X and Super XX new stocks with speeds 80 and 160 ASA respectively.
Worth mentioning is also the progress in lighting technology in the period from 1931 (Transatlantic) to 1941 (Citizen Kane). In those years Fresnel-lens spotlights appeared, and it led to an appearance of "precision lighting" technology.
Obviously, those technological advantages allowed Toland to work with very small
F-stops and reach a Depth of Field, which was unavailable to Howe in 1931, and those "quantities" of DOF transformed them into new quality that is known now as the Citizen Kane style.
Howe believed that deep focus should be used selectively and sparingly. "It has its place and should be used only when necessary, not just for fad effect," and he thought that Citizen Kane "was guilty of this excess".
Certainly, the opinions of two giants in cinematography, of what is excess and what is not, deserves to be known. Because once you know the whole story, you can look objectively at the result and apply both the understanding of the innovation as well as the series leading up to that innovation to your own images.
Exposing students to different points of view, teaching them the ability to see cinematography as an innovative and ever changing "living organism" driven by originality, imagination, creativity and ingenuity of visual and technical ideas, is helping us to open their eyes to the world around them and give them the opportunity to express this world innovatively and powerfully to others.
And in conclusion, here are words of Toland, which can be applied to our current times no matter what we are shooting, whether film or digital, television or feature, virtual reality or iPhone: "Style too often becomes deadly sameness. In my opinion, the day of highly stylized cinematography is passing, and is being superseded by a candid, realistic technique and an individual approach to each new film subject.
You will accomplish much more by fitting your photography to the story instead of limiting the story to the narrow confines of conventional photographic practice. And as you do so you'll learn that the movie camera is a flexible instrument, with many of its possibilities still unexplored. New realms remain to be discovered by amateurs and professionals who are willing to think about it and take the necessary time to make the thought a reality."
Citizen Kane: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033467/
courses page: www.globalcinematography.com/courses
newsletter to stay up to date with upcoming classes and articles: http://globalcinematography.com/form_signup