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Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond

COW Library : Cinematography : Tim Wilson : Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
CreativeCOW presents Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond -- Cinematography Editorial


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Whenever somebody equates "shallow depth of field" and "cinematic," it's time to talk about cinematographer Gregg Toland, the first master of "deep" depth of field.

He is most known today for 1942's Citizen Kane, but it's hard to overstate his impact on the language of cinema. Only 44 when he passed away in 1948, he had already lensed 67 features, and in the 7 years of 1935-1941, he was nominated for an Oscar 6 times.

One year to note was 1940, when he was both nominated for an Oscar (Intermezzo: A Love Story) and WON for Wuthering Heights, both in the "Cinematography: Black and White" category! This was also the year that he lensed Grapes of Wrath for John Ford.

However, Toland's work on Citizen Kane put him in a new kind of spotlight: Orson Welles shared his own card in the credits with Toland.





It was entirely deserved. His work in Citizen Kane was every bit as daring as anything else in this daring picture. Depth of field is only one part of it, but a really, really big part, and redefined what was possible for humans to do with movie cameras.

When you see them on a proper screen in Blu-ray, or heck, VHS on an improper one, you can see all of this more clearly than in these skanky web pictures, but here's one of the pivotal scenes from Citizen Kane. There are the three people in the foreground, with young Charles Foster Kane playing outside the window, but there's much more to this than just foreground and background. Look at the extra layers provided by the sheet of paper, the doorway, each the beams of the ceiling, and the chair - before we even get to young Kane in the window!





This is another of my favorites shots, which is also an example of the use of ceilings in the movie. That's a discussion of its own (largely because movie studios didn't, and still often don't, have ceilings at all) but look again at depth. There's the rail, the speakers, and, perhaps most dramatic to me, the ceiling lamps. I'm trying to sound calm, but I remember nearly falling out of my chair the first time I saw this one:




(This is one of the examples that illustrates, if we're going to talk about Toland's cinematography, we have to talk about lighting - and you do, but I'm not. This got started with a talk about depth of focus, not the way to achieve it.)

I have some other great examples from Citizen Kane, but I wanted to jump to Grapes of Wrath. I first SAW Toland's work in Citizen Kane, but I truly fell head over heels in love with it in Grapes of Wrath. I guarantee that it's been too long since you watched this movie, and I guarantee you'll be floored by it.

It's still stupefying to me that with 10 nominations for Best Cinematography, Black and White that year (!!! plus another SIX for Color cinematography) that they couldn't spare one for Toland, but we should be grateful enough that there was ever a year with 16 nominations for best cinematography.

Not an iconic frame like the ones from Kane, or others from Grapes, but a bizarrely effective example of deep focus. Even in a shot as simple as this one first appears, start peeling back the layers and see how many individual focal points he could have chosen.





(If this was school, I'd ask you which one you think he chose as THE focal point, and then I would ask you if you think I just asked the right question.)

When we're talking about layers, though, this shot from William Wyler's Best Years of Our Lives (1946) may be the best example. Check the guy in the phone booth all the way in the back. On your way back there, try to isolate each layer as you think about throwing away the idea of foreground and background altogether. There's not just one of each.




Now remember that every one of these frames was in motion.

Here's the thing. Toland played with this all the time. He was never bound by his own rules.

This is another image from Kane that made me gasp the first time I saw it. It's hard to say what's in focus and what's not, because it's mostly just light and shadows. That said, the guy in the background is mooostly in focus...but seen through the smoke, it's hard to say, and ultimately beside the point. The point is that all journalism is smoke and mirrors.

This movie did a lot of that kind of thing, another reason it's remembered as one of the all time greats: shot after shot both SHOWS the story and COMMENTS on the story. So yeah, smoke and mirrors, both the newspaper mogul CF Kane, and these guys "documenting" him. (Kane was also the first picture to use a faux documentary as a narrative device.)





Another shot that made me gasp, the opening shot of Grapes. The trick is almost how much Toland was able to taper off focus without shortening the depth of the frame.





Now, as much as his work is most identified with those super-deep shots, some of Toland's images that moved me most are the ones that play with reflections. The question again is, where's the focus? Which depth of which field are we talking about?

From Ball of Fire (1941). Shallow DoF on the layers at the front and back (the hands and the woman), and actually quite deep from the top of the matchbox to the one match that seems to be floating in space. I say that THAT part of the frame is deep DoF even though the entire physical context is only a few inches deep, because as close to the table as he clearly is, you'd never expect the DoF to go even THAT far. Try it some time if you don't believe me.

How would you describe it then? It's two shallow layers sandwiching a layer that's physically only a few inches deep, but taking the reflections into account, shot as if it's much deeper.





Reflections, eh? The same trick in reverse, from Kane - another of that movie's shots that made me gasp.




Now he's just messing with us. The depth is coming from the two mirrors reflecting on themselves, so it's just one guy and one flat surface -- the mirror, right?

But part of the story is that Kane is all alone in this huge house that he built to indulge his own ego, his footsteps echoing through the emptiness of his own vanity. But to actually get that shot, think about where Toland needed to be relative to Kane (close enough to not have his feet in the frame), and how far the two of them needed to be from the mirror on the opposite wall: far enough to keep THOSE feet IN the frame.

And notice that the ONLY feet in the frame are the ones reflected in the mirror. Roger Ebert felt that this is the key shot in the whole movie. Discuss!

Those shots made me gasp. This one broke my heart.

Think back to the early 70s. There was no HBO. (It was still "The Green Channel," with a few thousand subscribers in lower Manhattan.) Cable as we know it was still years away. Art house theaters were playing A Clockwork Orange, Jules et Jim, La Dolce Vita, Last Tango in Paris - modern stuff. Old movies? What? Why play those when you have the New Wave?

Which is how I came to see Grapes of Wrath in EIGHT mm, projected on a WALL in my junior high classroom. THE WALL. Dude, the THERMOSTAT was in the MIDDLE OF THE PICTURE.

And yet, my heart was breaking.

This is by no means the most dramatic single frame from the entire sequence, just one I happened to find, where once again, you really need to see the whole shot in motion. John Ford was obsessed with the American west, and he emphasized its immensity wherever he could. Toland hit this one out of the park for him.

After losing their Oklahoma farm, the Joad family has driven through the desert to California - to them, quite literally the Promised Land. In this scene, it's almost dawn after an emotionally devastating night. Most of the family is still asleep, so we're in tight on the men of the family. But as the sky starts to lighten, they start to see what's in front of them: lush, green hope, as far as they eye can see. The exceptionally shallow depth of field - pretty much just the windshield -- plays precisely opposed to the massive landscape opening up before their eyes.

The point of the scene isn't EITHER the faces OR the landscape, but their RELATIONSHIP, and the windshield is where that's focused.





So, it turns out that the guy who opened up the depth of the frame more than anyone before or since wasn't afraid to flatten it completely.


CINEMATIC COMPOSITION

Okay, so what's that mean about cinematic values? For me, it means "composition." Everything in its place.

In the first Kane image, there's a chair between the old man and the back wall. Maybe the one and only reason that the chair is there is to provide one more layer -- but you can tell it's not there by accident.

The Kane shot that's mostly just shadows and light -- everything in its place.

The shot from Best Years of Our Lives would have taken a day to set up as a STILL photo shoot. In motion, you just don't know how they pulled off, but EVERYTHING is in its place, and composed so finely that it all stays where it belongs through the entire shot.

That's "cinematic" for me. Everything with a unified intent. Depth of field, blocking, everything that goes into the nature of composition. The frame is composed. The scene is composed. Even in the context of 24-year old Orson Welles, his filmmaking flamboyance is rooted in Kane's self-aggrandizement....oh all right, and the hotshot radio kid showing off to his sedentary cinematic elders, but to pull it off, everything was in its place. Flamboyant, yes, but the kid had discipline. That's "cinematic composition."

The biggest problem with focusing (haha) on depth of field is that it reduces the whole question to some combination of foreground and background. Look at any one of Toland's shots above: the fewest number of layers is three, and even the sharpest and deepest of them (to my eye, that's the one from Best Years) has a dozen layers, easily discerned even if they're almost exactly in the same amount of focus.

And yet, you also still know exactly where to look, and you know that the room has a specific depth, and where everything is placed in that depth.

The shot is COMPOSED. Everything is there by INTENT. Intent and composition are merged, and set at the service of larger storytelling priorities.

And yes, this applies to a spot or a show open every bit as much. Composition, intent, priority.

Whatever you do, do it for a reason that stretches past any single frame to unify the shot, and to unify the shots into a larger whole.



Comments

Re: Article: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Joseph Ray
Great insight... Citizen Kane was a masterpiece and should not be overlooked. There is always so much more to learn in the cinema field, more than you think.
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Steve Connor
Great article Tim and a great reminder to DOPs today that EVERY shot doesn't have to be shallow focus!
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Kent Beeson
goof article - the cinematic composition you refer to is called mise en scene isn't it? What goes in to the picture/stage or composition with props, blocking etc.
@Kent Beeson
by Kent Beeson
I meant GOOD article, not goof - (spell checker)
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Rich Rubasch
Genius Tim. Thanks for the observations! Love it.

Rich Rubasch
Tilt Media Inc.
Video Production, Post, Studio Sound Stage
Founder/President/Editor/Designer/Animator
http://www.tiltmedia.com
+1
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Paul Provost
Breakfast table scene in the leaky cauldron early in prisoner of azkaban is great use of this as well. Really some amazing camera work on that film. Article on the time lapse sequence available somewhere, ASC mag I think, is mind blowing. What they had to do with light...
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by TImothy Auld
I've heard that it is fashionable to not like Citizen Kane but I am consistently amazed by it. Great article by the way. Thanks. If you like the use of deep focus take a look at "The Hustler," Ashamed to say I don't know who photographed it but there is a shot from one end of the pool table to the other in perfect focus (courtesy of a split field diopter) and used to stunning effect.

Tim
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Alex Hawkins
Tim,

Thanks for this. It warmed my heart on a very cold Canberra winter morning.

It's been years since I read something so lovingly written about something that I love so much. I just don't seem to get the time any more.

I need to make it.

And it saddens my heart and fills me with pangs of despair when I click on my movie link to see what's playing all across our capital city.

Alex Hawkins
Canberra, Australia
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Tim Wilson
Todd, I'm actually a fan of shooting shallow too. Other folks here are right that shooting video max-depth often looks camcorder-y. No matter how well you compose everything else, it never actually LOOKS composed.

The lighting in Kane really is a story of its own. They had to really think this through because they couldn't always hang fixtures overhead: the ceilings were in so many important shots!

I have the clip that goes with the first movie still here. The background of Welles and the actors in live theater lends itself to actors being in exactly the right place all the time, to create a series of individual frames. But it's amazing to watch the actors and the camera move through this scene -- everything in focus, deep contrast, actors perfectly placed. Amazing.



And Clint, I LOVE Jack Cardiff! The two he shot for Powell and Pressburger are breathtaking - The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, which I think I like better. A kind of wacky video, with a bunch of Black Narcissus clips and a Florence & The Machine song -- but the best images from the movie I've found online.



There's a wonderful documentary on him, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. I can't recommend it highly enough. It covers his work from the silent era, up through his work on African Queen, Rambo (!!!) and beyond. Sorry to keep loading you up with YouTube clips, but here's the trailer:



Tim Wilson
Associate Publisher, Editor-in-Chief
Creative COW Magazine
Twitter: timdoubleyou

Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Jim Giberti
Great stuff Tim,
I'm on location shooting two campaigns right now and struggling over the composition of the establishing shot for one as I take a break.

Look forward to reading the GT article.
FWIW one of these is a mix of deep and shallow field, with several layers of lighting which is what I'm trying to suss out now...location isn't deep enough for what I'm seeing.

Either we can grow it in the next hour or I have to find a new location.
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Tim Wilson
I can't believe I just now stumbled across this, but here's a 1941 article BY Gregg Toland, called The Motion Picture Cameraman. It begins with the sentence, "I enjoy being a motion picture cameraman," but picks up steam very quickly from there.

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.


I think you'll get a real kick out of this.

Tim Wilson
Associate Publisher, Editor-in-Chief
Creative COW Magazine
Twitter: timdoubleyou

Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Clint Wardlow
I think my favorite color cinematographer may be Jack Cardiff. The work he did on the Powell/Pressberger films (especially Black Narcissus) is breathtaking.

At the same time I am really wondering where the new video technology is taking us. I am excited to see the types of image that can be captured as the cameras get better and better (and I ain't meaning CGI)and cinematographers move beyond the "film-look" realm into areas only possible with video.
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Todd Terry
Good finds, Tim... that Citizen Kane trailer ranks right up there with one of the more bizarre things I've seen. You'd certainly never know what the movie was about (or any of its mood or flavor) judging from that.

As for deep focus... well, while I am usually super-shallow focus director/DP myself, I am a fan of the deep-focus shots when done really well. I think there's a factor to the really good ones (such as the many from Kane) that I've never heard anyone mention before (or maybe just missed it)... I think many of these deep shots work so well because so many of the classic better ones are in stark black and white. The viewer can absorb all the minutiae of all the sharply-focused detail, because we are not also being bombarded with all the color info. Personally, that's why I think many of the classic deep shots look so darn good. I've rarely seen a full-color one that I thought could compare with the impressiveness of a B/W one.

What's impressive about things like Kane is the lighting and DoP work that went into orchestrating those shots. Any yahoo with a camera can get a deep DoF shot on a sunny-day exterior... just stop that lens down to f/22 or beyond. For interiors though (especially with the slow-as-molasses filmstocks of 70 years ago), can you imagine the truck fulls of light they had to pour onto scenes in order to get the apertures small enough? Even with wide lenses? Especially when you consider this is well before the HMI days, that's mighty impressive indeed.

T2

__________________________________
Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
fantasticplastic.com

Re: Article: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Robert Brown
Yeah I think people need to just look at it as a choice. I have a 5D and have been playing around with Nikon and Mamiya primes. The auto iris feature no longer works with those lenses so when you put it at f/8 you see f/8. I kind of like this because even though it's darker I'm more aware of how changing the iris affects the image. I've debated this before but I feel frame rate and contrast have a lot more impact on what gives film it's look.

Robert Brown
Editor/VFX/Colorist - FCP, Smoke, Quantel Pablo, After Effects, 3DS MAX, Premiere Pro

http://vimeo.com/user3987510/videos
Re: Article: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Tim Wilson
Frame rate is going to be its own pile of worms -- is 60fps really cinematic? -- but I agree that contrast is huge. I think that's why the hottest cameras are the ones with the most latitude. THAT's the thing that's flat about most video to me. Good film shooting can be as sharp as video, but until very recently, video sensors couldn't capture as much dynamic range.

We're coming around to a place where digital cameras have MORE latitude than film. Some of the true lions like Roger Deakins and Caleb Deschanel arre shooting digital and seeing the new possibilities it can offer.

The trick is going to be training the kids coming up to use digital cameras to make images that rival Deakins and Deschanel at their film-vintage best.

Tim Wilson
Associate Publisher, Editor-in-Chief
Creative COW Magazine
Twitter: timdoubleyou

Re: Article: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Robert Brown
[Tim Wilson] "Frame rate is going to be its own pile of worms -- is 60fps really cinematic?"

Well IMO 60 isn't cinematic and it's always been my opinion frame rate is one of the biggest differences between the film and video. My favorite example is to look at the difference between footage from a feature and compare it to behind the scenes footage shot at the same time with a video camera. The video footage looks soap opera-ish. I've also noticed the when using old style film viewers where I could control the speed, if I sped it up a bit it started getting video like to me.

Of course since some big features coming up are going to be shot in 48P so it seems a lot of people don't feel the same as I do but I feel slower frame rates are better for telling a story and say "then" while faster ones say "now". Another interesting thing is that a lot of TVs now have this motion estimation feature that essentially ups the frame rate. I can't stand that. It looks like video to me. I would be pissed if I were a director and saw my movie at Best Buy looking like that - but that genie is out of the bottle.
I guess my main point is I feel there is a retinal stimulation factor due to the frame rate and to me that has big creative implications.

And back to dynamic range the thing with film is that it captures a very high DR but that doesn't necessarily print that way. In the old days when you printed to film you had to pick the shadows or the highlights as the print film wouldn't register all the information there. You really see that on "Citizen Kane" for example. I originally saw that I think on 16mm at film school and it looked awesome and God knows how many generations down that was from the neg. A number of years ago the DVD came out that was all remastered and transferred straight from the neg all that and it looked terrible. The contrast and edge were gone and things like the make-up of the actors became much more fake looking. It had an entirely different feel.

But in reality all of these things are just factors that make up the whole and different people like different styles but I tend to find the grit and organic qualities of film really appealing for story telling and find it can be hard to get digital cameras to give that because they're so f'ing clean. But people seem to be figuring it out.

Robert Brown
Editor/VFX/Colorist - FCP, Smoke, Quantel Pablo, After Effects, 3DS MAX, Premiere Pro

http://vimeo.com/user3987510/videos
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Chris Harlan
I am a sucker for Greg Toland and deep focus. He and James Wong Howe are two of my favorite cinematographic inspirations. I was very happy to see how well some of their ideas were lovingly applied in Hugo. Thanks for trip. I will always stop for Greg Toland. One small note: William Wyler is actually the directorial force behind BYoOL.
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Tim Wilson
"William Wyler is actually the directorial force behind BYoOL."

Of course he is. Says so right in the trailer! My boo-boo, and anybody who reads this next should see it already corrected. :-)
@Chris Harlan
by Nathan Walters
I completely agree. Jame Wong Howe was definitely another great cinematographer whom shouldn't be forgotten. Fantastic lighting techniques and a huge inspiration.
Re: Article: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Clint Wardlow
I always loved wonderfully-composed deep focus shots. Sergio Leone used them to great effect also. This where I think video is inferior to film. I mean the large chip cameras do approximate the shallow depth of field of film, but somehow there is a flatness to deep focus shots IMHO.

I guess you can do a lot of tweaking in AE or other graphics programs to get the look guys like Toland achieved. Still there is a sharpness to digitally-enhanced video that lacks the warmth of film.
Re: Article: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Tim Wilson
Thanks for stopping by. This isn't really as much as an article as a cleaned-up version of a long-winded post in the COW's Film History & Appreciation forum.

Here are some other Gregg Toland resources:

The amazing original trailer, a unique performance piece of its own, complete with fantastic Gregg Toland cinematography -- not just from the movie, but for this frankly bizarre trailer.



And A Viewer's Companion to Citizen Kane by Roger Ebert.

As I mention, I actually feel more strongly about The Grapes of Wrath. This trailer is also bizarre, and has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the movie. But it also has some great work of Toland's from the movie, including some shots with (gasp!) very shallow depth of field. Honestly, one of the freakiest trailers I've ever seen.



And the not quite as bizarre trailer for Best Years of Our Lives. You get a quick glimpse of the frame I reference above, which actually features Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano. Embedding disabled by request, but



.

Tim Wilson
Associate Publisher, Editor-in-Chief
Creative COW Magazine
Twitter: timdoubleyou
Re: Article: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Herb Sevush
[Tim Wilson] " I actually feel more strongly about The Grapes of Wrath. This trailer is also bizarre, and has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the movie. But it also has some great work of Toland's from the movie, including some shots with (gasp!) very shallow depth of field. Honestly, one of the freakiest trailers I've ever seen."

One of the reasons the trailer seems so strange today is the notion that a book, let alone a novel, could have such a large social impact that the story of it's acquisition is more important for the potential audience than explaining the nature of the story - since it was assumed that by 1940 every living American over the age of 6 already knew what the story was about. The trailer was an outgrowth of the politics of the depression - a time now fading from memory, with unfortunate results.

Herb Sevush
Zebra Productions
---------------------------
nothin' attached to nothin'
"Deciding the spine is the process of editing" F. Bieberkopf
Re: Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
by Mark Suszko
What Toland did for Orson, in one sense, with deep focus was let Orson work in a familiar mode, as if his movie was a theatrical stage play, where instead of only driving the viewpoint with the lens and the cutting alone, additionally you direct the audience's eye thru multiple techniques, of lighting and motion and physical positioning, but you leave additional material there to look at over multiple viewings.

One of the reasons Kane stands up to repeated viewings, IMO, is that with this technique you keep finding new things to see in it, seeing new interrelationships.


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