Looking back at the earliest attempts to tell stories with moving pictures modern viewers are most struck by the static nature of the shots; long shots which took in an entire scene much like what one would see sitting in a theater watching a play. Contemporary viewers were more impressed. To most of them it was like watching a dog walk on its hind legs. It wasn’t how well it was done but that it was done at all. By the time of the Great Train Robbery in 1903 however, the director Edwin Porter had begun to use more sophisticated approaches in the creation of narrative film. His editing style, combining long shots with closeups, cutaways from one location to another and varied camera angles begins the development of a form of film language or grammar that is still used and recognized today. Even the most radical forms of non-linear, quick-cut, MTV style editing owes a debt to innovators like Porter.
A poster advertising the Great Train Robbery (1903) reputedly based on an actual holdup of a Union Pacific train by a gentleman by the name of Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy. A still from the film. TGTR was important in a number of ways. In addition to his groundbreaking editing choices, Edwin Porter, the director and photographer, shot on location and incorporated some simple camera moves.
But as with any art form as materials and tools evolved, so did applications and approaches to the form. Montage editing, the creation of scenes by intercutting long shots, close-ups, and changing of camera placement and angles to tell a story, became dominant by the mid 1930s. Long tracking shots that did not rely on cuts to show a scene were rare. For one thing it was difficult to achieve. Some silent film directors were able pull it off because there were no microphones to pick up the noise surrounding a crew moving a bulky camera on tracks laid on the set. F.W. Murnau, best known today as the director of Nosferatu one of the greatest vampire films ever made, used a long tracking shot to great advantage in his masterpiece
The Mitchell Standard (left), state of the art for cinematographers just before the sound era. Compare it to the blimped camera set-up demonstrated (right) by cinematographer Karl Struss. The technical difficulties of early sound films required noiseless operation which severely restricted camera movement.
The use of long shots however were put to the side with the advent of sound in the movies. Microphones picked up everything. Noisy cameras had to be surrounded with large covers called blimps, stages had to be remade as “sound” stages and directors and actors had to make enormous adjustments in their techniques. The musical Singin’ in the Rain pokes great fun at these early accommodations, including the necessity for actors to speak “correctly” and to lose any trace of unusual or difficult accents.
Donald O'Connor (left) and Gene Kelly dance their way through a speech class for silent film actors. The "Moses Supposes" number from Singin' in the Rain (1954). A dapper looking Gregg Toland in his usual spot behind the camera. Toland's skill and technical expertise made him an exceptional collaborator for enfant terrible Orson Welles, shown here just before coming to Hollywood in 1939. The pipe, no doubt, was employed to make him appear older than his 24 years.
By the late 1930s the tools of the trade were advancing rapidly. Sound had pretty much been conquered and all its problems worked out by improvements in recording techniques and approaches. It was time for the introduction of deep-focus cinetmatography. In 1940 Orson Welles came to
The power of deep focus, Citizen Kane (1940). Welles, coming from a stage and radio background, was used to having multiple sources of action and speech. Toland's use of great depth of field allowed for long takes in which subjects from the extreme foreground to the farthest reaches of the image remained in focus. For Welles, this meant that action could take place without the need for cutting back and forth, allowing the viewer to change their own focus while watching the shot, an effect much admired but rarely duplicated with such force. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, and in the extreme background, Everett Sloane (left). Agnes Moorhead, as Mrs. Kane, considers her son's fate with banker George Couloris (left) and Harry Shannon as Charlie Kane's father who didn't hold with "no bank bein' the gar-deen" of his son.
Great depth of field in turn requires that the iris on the lens of the camera, the aperture through which light flows onto the film stock, is as small as possible. This means you need a
Toland's secret weapon in his quest for greater depth of field: Kodak Super XX, the fastest film available in the 1940s. The label warns that the high speed of this film stock required the use of a neutral density filter when shooting outdoors. The ND filter allowed for a better resolution in the grey areas in bright light situations. Another fine example of Toland's mastery of deep focus and a director who makes the most of it: Best Years of Our Lives, (1946) William Wyler, director. Jazz giant Hoagy Carmichael shows off his chops for Harold Russell and Fredric March (standing). In the extreme rear, Dana Andrews makes an important telephone call. The action in the background, Andrews' phone call, is the dominant dramatic moment in the scene but March's reaction to the outcome of the call also has dramatic impact for the viewer. Wyler's use of Toland's deep focus skills in a long take gives both events their due without cutting away. A very powerful scene beautifully executed.
Charlie Kane's mother (immediate foreground) signs his life away as Charlie, seen through the window, enjoys the last innocent day of his life. Toland's skills with light and composition on display in The Little Foxes (1941), William Wyler, director.The shadows and angle of a precipitous staircase hint at the darkness and danger of the house.
Toland died in 1948 but Welles maintained the long take, deep-focus approach in many of his other films including the late masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958), which he opens with a 3 minute 30 second single take that starts with a close-up of a bomb being attached to a car before the car drives across the Mexican-US border. The camera, on a crane, follows the occupants of the car and passersby and as the shot comes to a close a woman in the car complains to the border guard that she has this ticking sound in her ear just as the car explodes.
The Little Foxes. Bette Davis has a plan for Herbert Marshall and he's not going to like it. Many of the overlapping dialogue scenes in this cinematic rendition of Lillian Hellman's stage play benefit greatly from Toland's atmospheric photography. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh stroll across the US-Mexico border alongside a car about to explode in the long take opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
3 minutes and 30 seconds. One shot.
To watch the scene described from Citizen Kane, click here.
Don't miss the opening of Touch of Evil. And if you get a chance, see the film. It lives up to this spectacular open. Originally Universal studios covered this great shot with opening credits (courtesy of their Dept. of Troglodytes) but you can see it here as it was meant to be seen.
The Best Years of Our Lives is, quite simply, one of the greatest films ever made. Watch these clips from the film to get a taste of how Toland and Wyler used deep focus to great dramatic effect. And if you haven't seen it, rent it. You won't be disappointed.