GREGG TOLAND on working with Orson Welles shooting CITIZEN KANE
I've known only one great cameraman: Gregg Toland, who photographed Citizen Kane.
—Orson Welles, 1967
Photographing Citizen Kane was indeed the most exciting professional adventure of my career.
Given the fact that Citizen Kane has long been considered the greatest film ever made, here is a wonderful piece about the cinematography for Kane, written only a few months after it premiered by Gregg Toland, for the September, 1941 issue of Theater Arts magazine.
In this piece, Toland predicts the upcoming fad for 3-D photography (which wouldn't become wide spread until five years after Toland had died, in 1948). He also predicts, incorrectly, that color photography would never replace black and white cinematography. However, in retrospect, I wonder if Toland's thoughts might not have influenced Welles, who only embraced color shooting very late in his career. Welles first finished color film was not until 1968 for The Immortal Story. And during his lifetime, Welles would only see one other of his films released in color, F For Fake. Which is yet another reason why The Other Side of The Wind needs to be completed and shown. It's not only a very rare example of Welles using his mastery of the art of color cinematography, but also the first time he was able to use erotic scenes in a film. And having just looked at the some of the erotic scenes from The Other Side of the Wind, and then watched Bertolucci's The Last Tango in Paris for the first time since 1975, I wonder what Pauline Kael would have said about OSOTW? Would she think it altered the face of an art form? Probably not, but if The Other Side of the Wind had been released in 1974, it seems likely that it would have been X-rated and certainly seen as far more inovative today than Last Tango in Paris.
In his article, Toland also notes that a cameraman is the only one on a set who is never at rest, and also must be very quick about his his duties, a fact that Welles would later lament when he had "the criminally slow Stanley Cortez" as his cameraman on his next RKO picture, The Magnificent Ambersons.
In retrospect, it's too bad Welles didn't get Floyd Crosby, who at the time was actually working for him indirectly, under the direction of Norman Foster in Mexico, for It's All True. If Floyd Crosby had shot Ambersons it certainly wouldn't have been delayed by the time-consuming lighting set-ups that Cortez seems to have caused.
Floyd Crosby was also extremely left-wing, to the point of being blacklisted during the McCarthy era in Hollywood, so there seems to be no doubt that Crosby and Welles would have gotten along famously if they had actually worked together on a movie.
Floyd Crosby had worked in documentaries under Pare Lorentz and Robert Flaherty, winning an Academy Award for Flaherty and Murnau's Tabu in 1931. Crosby was not only very fast, but extremely good at lighting, so he ended up becoming Roger Corman's chief cameraman from 1955 onwards, when he couldn't get any work at the major studios. Crosby came into his own when he had the chance to show his beautifully stylish color cinematography on Corman's Freudian widescreen Poe movies made in the sixties, starting with The House of Usher in 1960 and ending with The Haunted Palace in 1963. Amazingly, all of the Crosby, Corman-Poe movies were shot in only three weeks.
Here is what Roger Corman had to say about using Floyd Crosby when he began his career in 1955:
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Floyd Crosby was having trouble getting jobs when you hired him, because he had been a liberal New Deal Democrat, who suddenly became suspect during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties.
ROGER CORMAN: Well, Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army air core command during World War II as a Captain, working with Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentlemen and a brilliant cameraman. I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work. It's not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It's not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he's ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual.
The Motion Picture Cameraman
By GREGG TOLAND
I enjoy being a motion picture cameraman. Of all the people who make up a movie production unit, the cameraman is the only one who can call himself a free soul. He is certainly the least inhibited. The producer, director, film editor, the players, all act as checks upon the creative impulses of one another. But the cameraman may do exactly what he wants to do, for the simple reason that while the work of the others is visually obvious at the time it is being performed, the work of the cameraman is not revealed until twenty-four hours later when the film which has passed through his camera is flashed upon the screen in a projection room.
While he is actually making a scene, no one can rightfully say, 'I don't like the way you are doing that; suppose we try it this way.'No, the cameraman is perfectly at liberty to carry out his own ideas, even to introduce an occasional revolutionary departure—within the bounds of reason, of course. This freedom of idea expression is to any human being a precious privilege. A cameraman's function is basic. He is fundamental in the scheme of things. Of all the personnel in the complex production system, he is the one and the only one who actually “makes pictures.” Inside the highly sensitive mechanism under his control a miracle occurs. Then out of it emerge small strips of celluloid upon which visual realities have been transmuted into the imagery of the storyteller.Regarded from this viewpoint, his responsibility is considerable, for these strips of celluloid comprise the sole asset of the producer, represent a huge outlay of money, time and the talents of authors, scenarists, producers, players and artisans. Exposed film is the only tangible thing the industry has to show for its investment.
Of equal importance is the cameraman's responsibility to the vast multitudes of people who attend the movies. A simple definition of a motion picture cameraman should necessarily be preceded by a definition of his camera, for that is his medium. The camera, when you get right down to cases, is the eyes of the audience. Thus the cameraman is the censor (I dislike the word but it is applicable here) over the most important of the five physical senses of millions of entertainment seekers. Great is his crime, artistically speaking, if he violates this trust by failing to present in the most telling manner the dramatic content of the plot. The cameraman's further responsibilities are both artistic and economic, inasmuch as he is a factor in an art-industry. From the art side of the picture, there are three things he must know:
1. The mechanics of the camera.
2. Where to place the camera, and,
3. How to light the scene to be photographed. The first is purely routine. The second and third functions involve the creative ingredient. The placement of the camera determines the angle from which the action is to be viewed by audiences. The importance of this angle to dramatic effect cannot be overemphasized. The lighting of the scene is an equally potent factor in the determination of dramatic effect, in addition to its basic function—visibility. To the eye of an expert cameraman, the manner in which a set is lighted is an infallible key to the mood to be established. He can step onto a lighted set which he has never seen before and predict with astonishing accuracy what kind of scene is about to be photographed.
On the industrial side, it is within his power to save or waste a lot of money. A fine cameraman begins his work long before the actual start of his photographic duties. In the case of The Little Foxes, for Samuel Goldwyn, my work began six weeks before we shot the first scene. There were long conferences with the producer, with William Wyler, the director, with the architect who designed the sets, with the property man and other artisans.
Discussions with the director involved a complete breakdown of the script, scene by scene, with an eye to the photographic approach, considering the various dramatic effects desired. While this advance discussion pertained to the art ingredient, it was also of economic benefit because it meant the saving of much time and money once actual photography began.
We built knock-down miniature models of the most important sets and juggled the walls about for the purpose of fixing upon the best angles, the best places to set up the camera. We took into consideration color values, types of wallpaper or background finishes, the color and styles of costumes to be worn by the principals, the furnishings and investiture. We set the photographic key for various sequences — the light or gay ones, dramatically speaking, in a high key of light, the more somber or moody scenes in a low and more 'contrasty' key.
We determined that Bette Davis, the star, should wear a pure white make-up. This is revolutionary, but it is a potent device in suggesting the kind of character she portrays in the story—a woman waging the eternal conflict with age, trying to cling to her fading beauty. But because of the contrast between her make-up and that of the other principals, we had to discover exactly the balance of light which would illuminate both to advantage. Ascertaining this light balance required extensive make-up tests.
Other conferences had to do purely with the economic phase. It was discovered that certain sets could be entirely eliminated because their importance to the dramatic whole did not justify their cost. Time being the costliest item in movie making, a cameraman must consider it his duty to save all the time he can. If he can set up in fifteen minutes instead of a half hour, so much the better.
It is obvious that the relationship of the cameraman to his director must be one of complete coordination. The director will have his own ideas about camera angles, but in the final analysis it is the cameraman who must determine whether those ideas are workable and what the results will be. It has been my pleasure to be associated with some of the foremost directors in the industry—Leo McCarey, Mervyn LeRoy, King Vidor, Rouben Mamoulian, Richard Boleslawsky, Sidney Franklin, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Ford and Orson Welles.
Directors such as these are a cameraman's delight. They are open to suggestions which take the camera off the beaten track of photographic conservatism.
In the production of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles functioned in a fourfold capacity—as producer, writer, director and star. His authority to make decisions was virtually unlimited. To cap it all he proved one of the most cooperative artists with whom it has been my privilege to work. He let down all bars on originality of photographic effects and angles and I believe the results have fully justified that policy. Photographing Citizen Kane was indeed the most exciting professional adventure of my career.
Welles is unique in his zeal to get exactly what he wants. We spent four days perfecting one very difficult shot. It was a complex mixture of art and mechanics. A table and chairs on rollers were to behave with clock-like precision as a three-ton camera boom moved over them. In proper timing lay the difficulty. When the props behaved on schedule, a child actor would blow up his line. When those two items coordinated, the operation of the camera crane by nine men would be slightly out of synchronization. To bring all this action, dialogue and mechanics into perfect time was the problem. But it was eventually solved. Sidelight: every setting in Citizen Kane was provided with a complete ceiling, an unheard-of procedure in set construction but one which opened up entirely new possibilities in camera angles.
The cameraman's responsibility does not end with the recording of the final scene of the picture. Personally, I have conformed to the policy of following through until the picture is ready for release. In addition to dissolves and other added camera work, there is the duty of inspecting all laboratory work, checking the first and succeeding answer prints, recommending changes to the laboratory for general improvement in quality, then double-checking on the changes after they have been made. I saw Citizen Kane a total of twenty-seven times in the projection room. But at the end of that twenty-seventh look I was satisfied that the laboratory work was as nearly perfect as possible. I considered it a good investment of time to protect the quality of the work I had put into the photography.
There are many interesting expedients which a cameraman may employ to good advantage in the saving of time. In Citizen Kane we made fifteen takes of a particular scene without obtaining one that was completely perfect. When the dialogue was right, the mechanics were off. Or it was the other way around. I suggested that we try to match the perfect sound track of one take with the flawless photographic mechanics of another. Orson Welles agreed. The experiment was a success.
Such miracles of matching are not unusual. Even the film can be stretched, in a manner of speaking. Frequently we have been able to re-pace the words of a speech on sound track by adding or cutting out tiny segments of blank film between those words.
Among the qualifications of a good cameraman, I think serious application is of first importance. A cameraman is the hardest worker in a picture set-up. The actors have days off; the director can relax while each scene is being lighted. But the cameraman lines up each and every shot, shoots it when ready, follows through the laboratory processes. He is among the first to arrive on the set every morning, the last to leave the studio at night. Watch him at work and you will find him the one person who is never idle. Others can be seen sitting around at times but never the cameraman. Throughout all preparation for a scene, the entire stage staff is at his disposal. It is not unusual for him to have a crew of forty to fifty various technicians.
Here are other qualifications. Not only should he know all about the science and mechanics of photography but he should be a student of drama. I found it to my advantage to take a course in playwriting. Also a course in hairdressing and another in screen make-up. I continually observe and study new styles in women's clothes, from the viewpoint of their values in enhancing certain dramatic moods.
The cameraman should possess an aptitude for things mechanical, plus a sensitivity to the artistic. Although I was schooled to be an electrical engineer, I knew the moment I had my first look at a movie camera that I'd found my chosen profession. I was just fifteen at the time, had landed a job as an office boy at the old Fox studio to fill in my summer vacation. Soon I managed to get a job packing a camera. After five years I joined the Samuel Goldwyn organization as an assistant cameraman and seven years later was given my first assignment as a full-fledged cameraman—Eddie Cantor's Palmy Days. I'd had to wait and work twelve years before achieving my goal. But it was well worth it. Although I have been loaned out to many other companies, the Goldwyn lot is still my professional home. I have been there seventeen years.
Of the thirty-eight pictures I have photographed since Palmy Days, I believe Citizen Kane is the best example of camera possibilities in securing dramatic effect. Several others, however, particularly The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath, Intermezzo, Wuthering Heights, Dead End, Dark Angel and These Three, proved sources of infinite satisfaction in that regard.
There is one controversy which will always rage in Hollywood. It concerns the star system. As a cameraman, I have been unable to sidestep that issue. The question has too often been asked, point-blank: What do you think of the star system?
This is my answer. Although it is of undeniable economic importance and practically speaking, a virtual necessity, I cannot help but regard it as a dramatic deterrent. Such a system is doomed always to be in conflict with the ideal of perfect realistic effect. The star system predisposes to the theory that the star is the thing, in opposition to the truth that the play's the thing. It often becomes necessary to please the star, to the detriment of the general effect. This is understandable, from the cameraman's viewpoint, when you consider the importance of lighting and angles in securing that effect. The best angle, the most appropriate lighting for the scene, may have to be discarded in favor of the particular angle or light value most flattering to a star or principal. Such photo-flattery often means the subjugation of realism to personality.
The perfect vehicle, to the cameraman's way of thinking, is the picture in which story and dramatic values are uppermost and the players are regarded in their true category, i.e., as characters in the play rather than motion picture personalities. It was this theory, so astutely adhered to in some of the continental importations such as Pepe le Moko, The Baker's Wife and others of that ilk, which made those pictures classic examples of the potentialities of camera effectiveness.
New developments in the science of motion picture photography are not abundant at this advanced stage of the game but periodically one is perfected to make this a greater art. Of these I am in an excellent position to discuss what is termed “Pan-focus”, as I have been active for two years in its development and used it for the first time in Citizen Kane. Through its use, it is possible to photograph action from a range of eighteen inches from the camera lens to over two hundred feet away, with extreme foreground and background figures and action both recorded in sharp relief. Hitherto, the camera had to be focused either for a close or a distant shot, all efforts to encompass both at the same time resulting in one or the other being out of focus. This handicap necessitated the breaking up of a scene into long and short angles, with much consequent loss of realism. With pan-focus, the camera, like the human eye, sees an entire panorama at once, with everything clear and lifelike.
Pan-focus was only possible after the development of speedy new film, enabling the cameraman to stop down his lens to the small aperture required for sharp focus. With the slow sensitivity characteristic of the film of a few years ago, this would have been impossible as not enough light could have gotten through such a small aperture to expose the film properly. Today, we get as much value out of fifty candlepower light as we once would have obtained from two hundred candlepower, so sensitive is the modern speed film.
Any list of the most important photographic developments since the beginning of the industry should include the following items:
1. High speed film.
2. More efficient lighting units made possible by the more sensitive film, which requires less light.
3. The light meter, an amazingly efficient little instrument which, held to the light, indicates by gauge the exact amount of light on a set. The use of this meter eliminates all guesswork, enabling the cameraman to set his basic light key and maintain that key throughout a sequence, thus doing away with light jumps in the assembled picture.
4. Mechanization of equipment. The perfection of booms, dollies and other devices which allow perfect flexibility of movement to the camera. These contrivances, so delicately balanced they can be moved with the pressure of a finger, are marvels of efficiency and virtually give wings to the previously earthbound camera.
And what of the future?
I freely predict some form of third dimension photography within five years. A number of systems are now in experimental stages.
Television is arriving but I believe it will not come into general use for some time. When it does, it will not prove a menace to the motion picture industry for the simple reason that motion picture film is the best medium for televising.
Color will continue to be improved but will never be a hundred per cent successful. Nor will it ever entirely replace black and white film because of the inflexibility of light in color photography and the consequent sacrifice of dramatic contrasts. Anything done in the gay, high-key light which color photography necessitates for its existence (such as musical comedies) will continue to be suitable as a subject for color film. But the low-key, more dramatic use of light seems to me automatically to rule color out in pictures of another type.
Paradoxically enough, realism suffers in the color medium. The sky, as reproduced, is many shades deeper than its natural blue. The faces of the characters are usually a straw shade. Three prime colors are now utilized but not enough shades are possible with those three. More basic colors would involve too complex a problem to be economically practicable. In the black and white picture, color is automatically supplied by the imagination of the spectator and the imagination is infallible, always supplying exactly the right shade. That is something physical science will continue to find tough competition.
One thing more—the camera itself. Its value, fully equipped, is about $15,000. It has seven lenses of varying focal lengths. In its operation, I use an average of a million feet of film a year. And with sixteen pictures to each foot — that's a lot of pictures!
WILLIAM ALLAND (Thompson, the reporter) on Gregg Toland:
I remember sitting in a production meeting with Orson and a few others before the start of Citizen Kane. The time had arrived to select a cameraman, and Orson said, “If I could only get Gregg Toland–that’s the man I want.”
Orson had never even met Gregg, but he had admired Gregg’s work in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home. Someone at the meeting spoke up: “There’s no chance of getting Toland. He’s under contract to Sam Goldwyn.” “I know that,” said Orson. “But I’d still like to have him photograph the picture.”
Just then the telephone rang, and Orson answered. A voice on the other end of the line said: “This is Gregg Toland. I understand that you’re making a picture at RKO. I’d like to work with you on it.”
Thus began one of the most successful artistic relationships I’ve ever seen. Orson and Gregg respected each other, and they got along beautifully. No matter what Orson wanted, Gregg would try to get it for him. Gregg had a tremendous responsibility because Orson was in almost every scene. But Gregg kept an eye on everything.