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6 Ways to “Citizen Kane” Your Film

David Goodman

The filmmaking techniques on display in Citizen Kane continue to influence generations of artists. Here are six takeaways for your next film or video project.

Citizen Kane images and clips via Warner

Citizen Kane is still considered one of the greatest films ever made. Despite the fact that the film was released 75 years ago, it continues to be a source of inspiration for modern filmmakers like Star Wars Episode VIII director Rian Johnson. Let’s consider Kane’s legacy and discover some practical filmmaking techniques that you can put to use in your own projects.

1. Deep Focus

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: Deep Focus

One of the key collaborations during the production of Citizen Kane was between the director/producer Orson Welles and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland. The beautifully-lit film is masterfully composed and makes use of deep focus. The deep focus is defined by a wide depth of field and was not a common technique at the time of production.

Deep focus allows subjects close and far away from the camera to remain in focus and is achieved by using a wide-angle lens and a smaller aperture. Deep focus means deep staging of characters along the z-axis. An early scene in Citizen Kane (below) is a great example of the deep focus found in the film.

Roger Ebert pointed out the importance of mise-en-scène, or placing on stage, when using deep focus. When everything in the composition is in focus, the filmmaker must be conscious of guiding the attention of the viewers. Ebert pinpointed how the movement of the subjects within the frame and camera movement can become ways to draw the eye and the attention of the viewer.

2. Long Takes

Extended takes, or “oners,” were around long before Birdman. Even before the production of Citizen Kane, directors such as F.W. Murnau used the technique to beautiful effect and likely influenced Welles and Toland. Murnau’s film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans makes use of long takes and a variety of other cinematic innovations.

The previously mentioned Citizen Kane clip (seen above) is known for both its deep focus and the long tracking shot from the window to the table. Keep in mind that the film was made before the days of the Steadicam and other portable stabilizers. Because of this, furniture and props had to be moved around the camera as it tracked forward or backward. Roger Ebert pointed out an interesting clue to the moving table in the clip above. Watch the hat on the table (around :44) for a noticeable shake after being slid into position.

3. Expressionistic Lighting

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: Expressionistic Lighting

The lighting style in Citizen Kane is decidedly chiaroscuro and owes a debt to German expressionism while also prefiguring the visual style of American film noir. Noir in the United States was just getting started in 1941 with the release of The Maltese Falcon.

The lighting reflects the plot, which seeks to understand the man behind the legendary public figure, Charles Foster Kane. The expressionistic lighting is fitting for a film that ends on a note of continued mystery. The true Charles Foster Kane remains in the shadows, making the lighting style a direct comment on the nature of identity in the film.

4. Low Angles and Ceilings

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: Low Angles and Ceilings
Stagecoach via Twentieth Century Fox

The many low-angle shots in Citizen Kane meant that the sets needed ceilings. Director John Ford used ceilings in some of his films (for example, Stagecoach, as seen above) but the technique was not commonplace in 1941 because of lighting and audio needs.

Fun fact: According to Ebert, the ceilings in Citizen Kane were constructed of cloth to allow microphones to be placed above the heads of the actors.

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: Ceilings

Ceilings are quite commonplace in film productions these days. In fact, the use of ceilings can work to one’s advantage in low-budget genre films produced without the luxury of an expansive set. For example, consider the use of low-angle ceiling shots in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: Low Angle View of CeilingBeyond the Black Rainbow via Magnet

When it comes to cinematography techniques, there are too many to list. Gregg Toland was absolutely essential to the film.

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: End Credits

Toland was so essential, in fact, that Welles showed his appreciation to his cinematographer by sharing an end title card, as you can see above.

5. Editing & Structure

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: Editing and Structure
Vagabond via Criterion

The non-linear plot structure of Citizen Kane has a lot in common with a detective film. After the death of the main character, we as viewers follow a faceless investigator as he interviews the important figures in the life of Charles Foster Kane. The stated objective is to understand Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud.” However, it’s hard to pin down a precise genre or classification for Citizen Kane because it’s such a broad mix of different genre elements.

The biopic, interview-style reconstruction of a Kane’s life contributes to the narrative complexity in Citizen Kane. This non-linear structural technique crops up consistently in modern cinema. One notable must-see example is Agnes Varda’s Vagabond.

Welles was certainly fond of long takes but he also made great use of rapid-fire montage to dispense with time in an efficient and artful way. Consider the twenty-year ellipsis cut (seen below) between Thatcher’s well wishes on Christmas and New Year’s. This cut is also an example of what Welles called a “lightning mix,” which is considered in the section on sound below.

Perhaps more well-known is the breakfast-scene montage (below) between Kane and his wife. In it, we get to watch a rapid-fire transition from happy newlyweds to a disenchanted married couple. Also worth noting in this sequence is the theatrical lighting cue at the beginning. You can see the background light dim during the dissolve to help transition from Jedediah Leland’s interview to the breakfast scene.

It’s important to remember that Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane. Wise would later make a name for himself directing a number of major movie classics, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

6. Complex Sound

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film: Complex Sound

Orson Welles made a name for himself in radio with the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, so he certainly had an ear for audio innovation.

Welles made use of overlapping dialogue, which means that characters talk over one another’s lines. Overlapping dialogue is a technique Robert Altman used famously throughout his films. Welles used the technique throughout Citizen Kane, but one of the more obvious moments is during the screening room sequence (pictured above).

In addition to the overlapping dialogue, Welles used what he called a “lightning mix.” This is a way of rapidly transitioning between scenes by using a continuation of a sound effect or a line of dialogue. The previously mentioned scene with Thatcher on Christmas and New Year’s is an example. Another example is the following sequence.

Kane’s clapping transitions to the applause of a small group supporters listening to Jedediah Leland give a speech about Kane. Leland’s speech is then used to transition to Kane’s famous speech in front of what appears to be a huge crowd.

In Conclusion

6 Ways to "Citizen Kane" Your Film

Citizen Kane remains a rich textbook of seemingly endless production techniques for every filmmaker. From deep focus to overlapping dialogue, there are too many takeaways to list. Citizen Kane should be on every filmmaker’s must-see list. The impressive filmmaking techniques and themes continue to remain relevant today.

What is your favorite, or least favorite, aspect of Citizen Kane? Please share below.