In my Cinematography class, 15% of our grade is based on a short paper which analyzes the cinematography and lighting of a film of our choice. I chose to focus on the iconic snow scene of the young Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941):
Citizen Kane: An Analysis of Cinematography of a Scene
For this paper, I have chosen to explore the cinematography of one of the most iconic and revolutionary scenes in American cinema: the snow scene of the young Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
The cinematic style of Citizen Kane, especially its use of extreme deep-focus photography, was groundbreaking and innovative as the film’s narrative technique. At the time, the prevailing Hollywood style was characterized by diffuse lighting and shots with a very shallow depth of field. It was Welles’ cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who pioneered this use of deep-focus. Despite Hollywood’s standard of using apertures of between f2.3 and f3.2 for interior shots, nearly all of the film was shot at f8 or smaller.
Shots 1-2 (0:00-0:09)
The first two shots of the scene last about nine seconds and they consist of the young Charles Foster Kane playing outside in the snow. The mood is very upbeat (as reinforced by the playful soundtrack), showing a young boy throwing snowballs and riding his sled on a snowy day in Colorado (though shot on a sound stage).
From the perspective of lighting, the set-up is not very subtle. As Welles and Toland wanted to shoot this scene (as well as the others in the film) in extreme deep-focus, the key lighting on the boy is very pronounced as the entire frame must soon be visible from more than 100 feet. In shot 1, the camera angle is slightly above and in front of the boy, with the falling snow front lit. The lighting is fairly uniform, with no discernable key light direction. As the boy throws a snowball, and the shot cuts to it hitting boarding house’s sign, we look upwards, almost a POV shot from the boy’s perspective.
Shot 3 (0:09-1:55)
Shot 3 is the most remarkable of the entire scene and lasts one minute and 46 seconds. It begins with young Charles continuing to throw snowballs from the same vantage point as Shot 1. Though, now we can conclude that the key light is coming from his left, as evidenced by the reflection off the left side of the snowman beside him.
Within a second or two, the mother appears between us and the boy, revealing that shots 1 and 3 were filmed from the inside and through one of the windows in the house. Moreover, the side of the mother’s face, as she leans out of the window, is lit by the exterior (outside) light. As she leans back into the house, the face quickly shifts into a shadow (as it moves away from outside light), and then lit again as the interior key light comes from her left side. On the other side of the window is Mr. Thatcher (the boy’s soon-to-be guardian) who appears only lit by the light behind him (evidenced by the bright back of his neck as he begins to turn around) with minimal light coming from the left side of the screen.
Immediately, the camera begins to track backwards as the mother, Mr. Thatcher, and the father come into frame and walk towards the camera, through the living room, and eventually stopping at the kitchen table. At all times, the boy remains in full focus in the background, placed in the middle of the frame as he plays, and in between the three adults. While the camera began the shot below the mother as she leaned out the window, it quickly shifts to a little above eye level as it dollies backwards.
As the three adults walk through the living room, only the left side of their faces are lit. This changes at the moment when they cross into the kitchen, as the new key light shifts to the left side of the screen, illuminating their entire faces. This is necessitated by the movement to the kitchen table where the mother sits and faces the left side of the screen and is fully illuminated. The father, who pauses between the two rooms, is now lit on his right side by the new key while his left side is shifting to shadow as it clings to what is left of the key from the front of the room, the effect presenting him as a more suspicious, and distant, figure.
The camera tracking shot from the window to the kitchen table is quite spectacular. Apparently, the kitchen table was split into two to allow the camera and dolly to move through it, requiring stage hands to snap it back together before it appeared in the frame. You can see Thatcher’s hat – which was left on the table – shaking when it is first seen in the frame as a result of the table movement. Then the mother and Thatcher sits at the table as they finalize the guardianship papers. Across from them, the father remains standing at a distance, while young Charles remains sharply in focus at least 100 feet away, as does Thatcher’s hat which is no more than a foot or two from the lens.
The camera angle is at its lowest position of the scene – shoulder-height of those sitting. At this moment, all three vectors of filmic space are fully engaged and in focus: the horizontal x-axis is bordered by the hat and the mother; the vertical y-axis from the base of the hat to the ceiling above the father; and the z-axis from the front of the hat (and the mother) all the way back to the boy outside.
By mid shot, the mother and Thatcher stand-up and pause for a few seconds to allow the table to be split apart again out of the shot. The camera then follows the three adults back to the living room, in the same direction as they left it. The scene ends with a match cut of the mother closing the window.
Shot 4 (1:55-3:50)
Shot 4 begins with the mother again looking at the boy through the window, but this time in the direction of the camera which is a little below eye level. Here the key light appears to be coming from their left (right side of the frame). Soon, the three adults walk outside towards the boy and we see a reversal of Shot 3 in that the camera was shooting through the window, but this time from the outside looking in. During this shot, Welles keeps the camera anchored to the boy, as the three adults hover around him, metaphorically cutting off his escape as he is about to be told of his fate.
Once outside, the key light appears to be coming from above the camera on the left, with a kicker or cross key coming from the right. The camera angle is between the eye levels of the boy and the mother and again everything in the background is in deep focus.
Shots 5-6 (3:50-4:10)
The scene ends with an extreme close-up of the mother and boy and then a shot of the now abandoned sled in the snow. The scene ends with a lap dissolve that is executed literally according to Toland – as the lights on the set were dimmed in two stages: first dimming the background and then the actors. In the next scene, the lights were turned on in two steps to match.
The marvel of Citizen Kane’s cinematography is much less an artistic application of light than it was the use of large quantities of light which permitted the film’s unprecedented use of extreme deep-focus. Welles’ discards the usual cinematic approach of shot/reverse-shot during this scene, instead using a mobile camera with deep focus that keeps us continually aware of everyone. This technique, couples with Welles’ use of long takes, permits that “our eyes have the same freedom to wander around the screen image as we have in the theater. We can focus on the actor who is speaking or instead watch the actor who is listening. Our eyes can move around the frame, focusing on whatever we choose.” Moreover, as Toland notes:
The normal human eye sees everything before it (within reasonable distance) clearly and sharply. There is no special or single center of visual sharpness in real life. But the Hollywood cameras focus on a center of interest, and allow the other components of a scene to “fuzz out” in those regions before and beyond the focal point. The attainment of an approximate human eye focus was one of our fundamental aims in Citizen Kane.
Additionally, Welles’ ever-changing camera angles, and his constant use of hard light and strong shadows, have a strong effect on our emotional approach to characters and scenes. According to film critic Andre Bazin, this stretching of the image in depth, along with its pronounced camera angles, “produces throughout the film an impression of tension and conflict, as if the image might be torn apart.” Certainly, one gets this very feeling after watching this scene.
 Fabe, Marilyn. Closely watched films: an introduction to the art of narrative film technique. University of California Press, 2004. Print, p. 84.
 Toland, Gregg. “How I Broke the Rules in Citizen Kane.” Popular Photography 8 (June 1941): 55. Print.
Said Toland: “The tendency in Hollywood has been to stop down to f3.5 occasionally in filming interiors. More often the working aperture is between f2.3 and f3.2. The use of the f3.5 aperture is still uncommon enough to be cause for conversation in the film capital. 
“But we wanted to stop down considerably further. By experimenting with high-speed films we discovered that lens aperture could be reduced appreciably, but that we still weren’t able to stop down enough for our purposes. This meant that an increased illumination level had to be obtained.
“The Yard “Opticoating” system developed at the California Institute of Technology, proved to be one factor in the eventual solution of our lighting problem. Being essentially a method of treating lens surfaces, Opticoating eliminates refraction, permits light to penetrate instead of scattering, and thus increases lens speed by as much as a full stop. Our coated lenses also permitted us to shoot directly into lights without anything like the dire results usually encountered.
“Another aid in solving our small-aperture problem was the twin-arc broadside lamp, developed for Technicolor work. We began to employ these lamps before we hit upon the use of the high-speed film which we eventually chose. The combination of coated lenses, arc broadside lamps, and the fastest available film made it possible to photograph nearly all interior scenes at an aperture of f8 or even smaller. I shot several scenes at f11 and fl6. That’s a big jump from f2.3 and it’s certainly unconventional in Hollywood filming.”
 Fabe, pp. 84-85.
 Bazin, Andre. “The Great Diptych: Geology and Relief.” Orson Welles: A Critical View. Acrobat Books. 1972, pp. 74-75.