Orson Welles and the Tools of Narrative Cinema

Light, color, space, time-motion, and sound in the movie "Citizen Kane"



Good movies need good directors. With this premise in mind, the purpose of this article is to discuss how Director Orson Welles used all the tools of narrative cinema in his production of the movie “Citizen Kane.” The author of this paper accomplishes this by providing a brief background of Orson Welles and his role in the movie “Citizen Kane.” A discussion of the various tools of narrative cinema are presented along with examples of how Orson Welles used these tools in the motion picture “Citizen Kane.”


Orson (George) Welles was born in 1915 and died in 1985. He was a great American actor, writer, producer, and director. He is most known for both his starring in and directing of the great American motion picture called

Citizen Kanein 1941 (“Welles, [George] Orson”).Citizen Kane, the story of a multi-millionnaire newspaper tycoon ‘Charles Foster Kane’ and his rise to wealth and power,is commonly known as “the greatest film ever made” (Murray 18). The manner in which Orson Welles incorporated the use of the tools of cinema are what made this film so famous. In fact, his “expressionistic use of sound and camera techniques greatly influenced later filmakers” (“Welles, [George] Orson”) for years to come. Leonard Maltin, one of our country’s most well know film historian, said that Citizen Kane is “a film that broke all the rules and invented some new ones… a stunning film in every way (Maltin 251-252).

Tools of Cinema

There are five major elements that are very key to the effective communication in a motion picture. They are the major tools of cinema used by a film director. These tools include:

1. light and color, 2. wo-dimensional space, 3. three-dimensional space, 4. time-motion, and 5. sound. Through the use of cameras, lights, lenses, audio and editing techniques, a director can actually mold the perception ofthe audience viewing the movie. This is the essence of the aesthetics (i.e., the understanding and appreciation of beauty) of cinema. With these tools, the director can express his artistic talent through the media of film.

Tool #1 – Light and Color

The first narrative tool is ‘light and color.’ “Lightis the signal that our eyes receive and our brain translates into perceptions” (Zettl 16). Therefore, when a person views a movie, they are actually looking at a light show. When the images appear at 24 frames per second, the human eyes see them as moving objects. This phenomena is called “persistence of vision.” Light can be manipulated through the use of shadows to create moods that make the viewer “see and feel in specific ways” (Zettl 34). For example, varying degrees of shadows can be used to accentuate drama, mystery, and suspense. (Note: Color can also be used by a director to create mood and atmosphere. However, for the purposes of this paper, the use of color will not be addressed since the movie

Citizen Kanewas accomplished on black and white film.)

Tool #2 – Two Dimensional Space

The second major tool of cinema is ‘two-dimensional space.’ This element is “a spatial field that is clearly defined by height and width” (Zettl 100) and is typical of the film screen. This two-dimensional screen space provides a field for the director to express what normally occurs in real living space. The classical film screen has an area orientation aspect ratio of 3 to 4 (i.e., 3 units high and 4 units wide) (Zettl 146). Additionally, one of the factors concerning a large film screen is the overpowering size of the images projected in cinematic form. Compared to a small television, a large cinematic screen adds a unique aesthetic quality to the viewer.Other field forces through application of the tool of two-dimensional space include: 1. Main direction (i.e., horizontal and vertical lines), 2. Magnetism of the frame (i.e., edges of screen exert a strong pull on objects within the frame), 3. Asymmetry of the screen (i.e., the viewer places more attention on figures on the right side of the screen), 4. Figure-ground (i.e., the figure in the foreground is viewed as the most important figure on the screen), 5. Psychological closure (i.e., where simple geometrical figures such as triangles and squares are mentally filled in even though they are not actually on the screen), and 6. Vectors (i.e., the use of graphic, motion, and index vectors that lead the viewers eyes in a particular direction).

Tool #3 – Three Dimensional Field

The third tool of narrative cinema is the ‘three-dimensional field’ (i.e., depth and volume). On the film screen, three-dimensional images are projected onto a two-dimensional surface (Zettl 174). As a result, the three-dimensional field on the screen is an illusion. Although the x-axis and y-axis are limited in their size, the length of the z-axis in virtually limitless (Zettl 196). The director can create an illusion of depth by filming objects that partially overlap each other. Another aspect of this cinematic tool is volume duality where the director depicts an “interplay between positive volumes (objects that have substance and that can be touched, weighed) and negative volumes (empty space that surrounds, or is described by, positive volumes) (Zettl 196). Moreover, use of the z-axis motion vector is a strong indicator of depth (e.g., when a camera dollies or zooms toward or away from an object.) (Zettl 192).

Tool #4 – Time and Motion

The fourth tool of narrative cinema is ‘time and motion.’ Time and motion are commonly known as the fourth dimension of cinema. Since a key factor regarding film is moving images, the director’s ability to control of objective and subjective time forms an aesthetic expression of the pace, tempo, and rate of individual performances (Zettl 288). Objective time is “the time we measure by the clock” (Zettl 383) which presents an “objective, quantitative measure of observable change” (Zettl 383). Subjective time is “the duration we feel” (Zettl 385). It is “also called psychological time” (Zettl 385). The use of slow motion, fast motion, event motion (i.e., whatever moves in front of the camera), camera motion (to include camera pan, tilt, pedestal, dolly, zoom etc.), and editing motion (i.e., where movement is brought about by using shot changes from one film source to another) contributes to the film’s aesthetic quality.

Tool #5 – Sound

The last tool of narrative cinema is ‘sound’. Commonly referred to as the fifth dimension, sound encompasses the full spectrum of audio narration, dialogue, sound effects, and music. It is an essential aesthetic element for establishing the mood of a cinematic film. Literal sounds tell the viewer where they are (such as traffic sounds) and what time of day it is (like a rooster crowing in the morning). Nonliteral sounds do not have a literal meaning and do not signify a particular thing or event (such as expressive music) (Zettl 344).

Analysis of the Cinematic Tools in

Citizen Kane

Orson Welles integrated all of the tools of narrative cinema into the motion picture

Citizen Kane. As the Director of this great film classic, he did a marvelous job of integrating the essential elements of light, two-dimensional space, three-dimensional space, time-motion, and sound together. The remainder of this paper gives copious examples of how Orson Welles used each of these tools in the directing of this historic film.

The Use of ‘Light’ in

Citizen Kane

Orson Welles used the element of light throughout all segments of the black-and-white film

Citizen Kane. His use of light was rich and meaningful and conveyed an attractive interaction with contrasting shadows. There are many examples of his artistic flare in the use of this important tool of cinema. For example, at the close of the newsreel segment of the movie (News on the March), “the screen goes blank, and we are yanked into the screening room, where we are privy to the shadowy manipulations of 1940 media-men” (Bordwell 94). In this famous Projection Room scene, the news reporters discuss the meaning of “Rosebud” (Kane’s final spoken word before he died). Their conversation reminds “us that facts [reported by the media] are not [necessarily] the truth, that data can be shuffled in any order” (Bordwell 94). To add to the corruptness of their speech and intentions, Welles used very dim light to hide the features of the men’s faces. “In this way, the film-maker forces us to listen to what the men have to say – here the words are more important than the faces – but we listen while looking at a visually interesting screen” (Murray 24). This particular scene and its unique lighting adds a sense of drama and mystery at this beginning part of the film as the plot was in the process of being unveiled. The shadows in the Projection Room provided a bridge for the rest of the movie to carry on the mysterious and morose mood established by Charles Foster Kane’s death. Orson Welles knew that “Where there is no light, one cannot see; and when once cannot see, his imagination starts to run wild. He begins to suspect that something is about to happen. In the dark, there is mystery” (Alton 44).

Another example of the use of light occurred when Thompson enters and begins to read Thatcher’s manuscripts in the Thatcher Library. When he walks into the large room, “an immense beam of light falls across the table at which Thompson is seated transforming the room into a parody of a church (Murray 26). As Thompson begins to search for an answer to Kane’s last dying word, “shafts of light illuminate the mausoleum-like room. Perhaps the memoirs will explain the meaning of ‘Rosebud.’ But the light is deceptive, and Thompson leaves the library as much in the dark as ever” (Dick 111). The beam of light is a symbol of someone focused on searching for truth while the vastness of the darkened room depicts the difficult state of being unaware and uniformed.

The Use of Two-Dimensional Space in

Citizen Kane

Welles took advantage of two-dimensional space while filming

Citizen Kane. He used the spatial fields of height and width to his advantage. One particular scene that depicts this powerful tool of cinema was when Kane gave a speech at a political rally. Strategically placed behind Kane while speaking from his podium was a gigantic, extreme close-up picture of Kane’s face. The “juxtaposition of Kane’s face … in close-up with the medium shot of Kane at center in the foreground (Murray 25)” was superb. “The camera shoots up at an oblique angle to emphasize the power of Welles as Charles Foster Kane at Madison Square Garden” (Brady 208-209). This spatial field arrangement clearly demonstrates how the overpowering size of an image projected onto a screen in cinematic form can add to the aesthetic quality of a film.

Another interesting application of the two-dimensional space element is at the beginning of the movie where Kane on his deathbed quietly says his last dying word. The camera shows an extreme close-up of Kane’s lips where he we hear him say “Rosebud.” This powerful scene in the beginning of the movie establishes the detective-like hunt for the meaning of this mysterious word. From the lips of Kane was a riddle that needed to be solved. It is natural for the viewers of

Citizen Kaneto constantly reflect upon this overpowering image of Kane’s lips and the spoken word “Rosebud.” Thus, the movie revolves around the search to find “a clue which may unlock the enigma of this man’s real personality” (Brady 251).

The Use of Three-Dimensional Field in

Citizen Kane

The third tool of cinema that Orson Welles used in Citizen Kane was the three-dimensional field of depth and volume. Greg Toland was the cinematographer for this motion picture, and he is commonly known for his excellent use of deep focus photography in this motion picture. Deep focus is “a technique in which background and foreground are in focus at the same time” (Dick 298). This filming procedure allowed Welles the freedom to shoot long uninterrupted sequences, thus creating the capability to film longer scenes. “When Peter Bogdanovich asked Welles why he used so much dep-focus shooting in Citizen Kane, the director replied: ‘Well, in life you see everything in focus at the same time, sowhy not in the movies?’” (Murray 28). An example of the deep focus technique was the scene when Kane’s mother sends him off with Thatcher. In this flashback sequence, the mother, father, and Thatcher are in the foreground. Through a window in the background, we see Kane as a young lad playing in the snow. Welles films the “adults inside the house and the boy outside in order to make the relationship clear” (Murray 30). By doing this, he “gives us simultaneity in one shot” (Murray 30).

Another good example of Welles’ use of deep focus was when Susan attempts to kill herself and Kane promises that she can quit singing. At close-range, we see a glass and bottle of poison. At middle range, Susan’s face is shown on a pillow as she lies on a bed. Farther in the background, there is a trace of light showing through the bottom of the door at the far entrance of the room. As the scene progresses, the sound of someone (Kane) knocking hard at the door is coupled with the sound of Susan gasping for breath. This deep focus photography establishes the relationship between Susan and her husband Kane behind the door. (Murray 30).

The Use of Time and Motion in

Citizen Kane

Orson Welles also effectively used time and motion (commonly referred to as the fourth tool of narrative cinema) in this great film classic. In the scene where Susan is at her nightclub sitting at a table all alone in a drunken stupor, Welles first opens up the camera with a shot of a picture on a billboard. Then the camera moves upward and tracks forward through the rain to the top of the roof of a building. After a quick cut the camera moves through the clear, glass skylight and down into the club focusing on Susan who is sitting along at a table in a drunken stupor. Welles “attempted, whenever possible, to avoid cuts” (Brady 256), so he would dolly the camera from one “part of a set to the next, avoiding the visual interruption of jarring incisions found in most films. All this took stopwatch planning and exact coordination of actors, sets, cameras, microphones, and lights” (Brady 256). Welles used his tracking shots to “imitate the process of investigation itself — a gradual narrowing of the field of inquiry — so that the progress inward, toward the heart of a mystery, becomes the characteristic camera movement” (Beja, Morris, ed. 101).

Another great motion of the camera was the scene that surveys Kane’s possessions. Welles uses the camera to track over a large area of crated, material possessions that Kane has acquired over the years of his empty life. Using a continuous series of dissolves, the camera moves downward to a furnace at floor level. Looking into the burning, fiery furnace, we see an old toy sled that Kane used as a young boy. The sled was being consumed by fire, and it carried with it the answer to Kane’s mystery — it had the name “Rosebud” on it.

With respect to the use of time, the “News on the March” sequence depicts an overview of the life of Charles Foster Kane. The scene conveys a compression of time. The “pace is frenetic… [as] fifty years of a man’s life are compressed into a few minutes” (Dick 94). This process is also known as elliptical editing, “the most common form of temporal relations… to compress time” (Quicke 2).

The Use of Sound in

Citizen Kane

Welles used sound, the fifth tool of narrative cinema, very effectively in

Citizen Kane, as well. He oftentimes would use sound to “link images… [rather than] beginning and terminating with the image” (Corrigan 85). For example, the scene where Susan is seated at the piano in her shabby rooming house suddenly dissolves to a shot of her, much better-dressed, at a finer piano in a more elegant house, while she continues to play the same piece” (Beja 101). Welles referred to these as “‘lightning mixes,’ in which the sound continues (although from a different source) while the scene cuts or dissolves to a new locale and time” (Beja 101). Another example of the lightning mix was when “Thatcher says to the child Kane, ‘Merry Christmas, Charles,’ [and] the boy answers, ‘Merry Christmas–‘ and the story leaps ahead seventeen years to Thatcher saying, ‘And a Happy New Year'” (Beja 101).

Welles also used music to hold the mood of the film. He specifically chose certain types of music for use in

Citizen Kanethat would coincide with the way in which he wanted the film to be perceived and received on behalf of the attending audience (Brady 262). An example of this was the selection of a fully orchestrated sound track for the scene where Susan Alexander Kane made her debut to the opera. In this opera scene, Welles makes the film footage fit to the music instead of the more traditional approach where the music is made to conform to the footage itself (Brady 264).

Working from years of experience with radio, Welles used sound effects in the production of

Citizen Kane. The “tension of suspense are peculiarly dependent on the use of sound” (Boorstin 131). In line with this thought, the use of an echo sound can add to the aesthetic quality and message of the scene being portrayed. An “echo is caused by the direct sound being reflected off a nearby surface… [and] the less absorbent the material, the more distinct the echo” (Mott 47). Welles saw the benefit of using such a sound effect in the scene where Kane and Susan are together alone in a large, overpowering, auditorium size, living room. “In order to emphasize the spaciousness of Xanadu, and at the same time to underline the emptiness of Kane’s life there with Susan, he used an echo box or chamber” (Murray 28).


Orson Welles did not invent the narrative tools of cinema, but he did use them in a very special and unique way. He pushed the use of light, two-dimensional space, three-dimensional field, time and motion, as well as sound to its limits. As a director, he did an outstanding job in the integration of these tools together. He used the tools of narrative cinema to complement one another in telling the story of Charles Foster Kane in a way that captivated the viewing audience. In many ways, his use of the tools of cinema make him a legend in his own time. As a result, his unique application of these essential elements of filmmaking has had a far reaching effect and influence upon motion picture directors for over 60 years and, I believe, will continue to do so for many years to come.

Works Cited

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Beja, Morris, ed.

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Making Movies Work — Thinking Like a Filmmaker. Los Angeles: Silman-

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Citizen Welles – A Biography of Orson Welles. New York: Charles Scribner’s

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Corrigan, Timothy.

A Short Guide to Writing About Film, Fourth Edition. New York:

Longman Publishers, 2001.

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Maltin, Leonard.

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Sound Effects — Radio, TV, and Film. Boston: Focal Press, 1990.

Murray, Edward.

Ten Film Classics — A Re-Viewing. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing,

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Short Notes on Editing (Class Handout for CTV 505 “Aesthetics and

Techniques for Cinema-Television”). Virginia Beach, Virginia: Regent University, 2002.

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Sight, Sound, Motion — Applied Media Aesthetics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

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