Gregg Toland dies
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is known for many things — its astute reading of the natural of American celebrity, the mysteries of character, and, of course, as the debut of one of cinema’s most gifted directors. But it’s also a crowning achievement of one of the artform’s most illustrious cinematographers, Gregg Toland, who died September 26, 1948. Much of Citizen Kane is shot deep focus, with the camera catching multiple planes of action and seeing deeply into the sets. This was counter to Hollywood convention at the time and required special lighting and lenses. In addition, Toland worked with the film’s production designer and Welles to design positions for the camera within sets, enabling ultra high and low angles, producing images like the famous still of Charles Foster Kane campaigning for governor in front of a giant billboard with his face on it. In 1967 Welles said, “I’ve only known one great cameraman: Gregg Toland.” And, indeed, while Toland is known for other works, such as The Long Voyage Home and Wuthering Heights, for which he won an Oscar, his work on Citizen Kane stands out due to the boldness of its ambition. It’s now agreed that working with first-time director Welles enabled Toland to push the envelope with his work, and in a 1941 essay he spoke to the power of the cinematographer on set. He wrote, “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.” So, with digital cinematography, in which an on-set monitor can show the director just what a scene can look like immediately after shooting, now the rage, let’s take a moment to honor the innovations that can occur when no one else is watching.