When Orson Welles was asked who was the greatest cinematographer, he replied without hesitation, “Not only was Gregg Toland the greatest cameraman ever, he was also the fastest.”

The words, “the best” or “the greatest” are usually used for affect and are almost impossible to qualify even when one speaks of artistic luminaries like Matisse or Dickens, although it would not be absurd to throw such a title on Gregg Toland when it comes to the label of the greatest cinematographer from The Golden Age of Hollywood or for that matter, any era.

When filmmaking giants like Orson Welles, John Ford and Howard Hawks unanimously called Gregg Toland the greatest cinematographer they ever worked with this becomes the sort of unequivocal proof that any critic or film buff seeks. When you line up all the photographers Welles, Ford and Hawks worked with it’s the perfect litmus test.

Toland was a rare mix of great technician and artist when it came to photographing films in an industry whose concerns were heavily focused on box office returns.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Wuthering Heights (1939)

These three visual Tour de Forces Gregg Toland photographed planted the seeds of innovation that forever expanded the language of cinematography. The Toland language not only influenced American filmmaking but the world.

In The Beginning

Gregg Toland was born in Charleston, Illinois on May 29, 1904. He moved to California with his mother several years after his parents divorced in 1910. After studying electrical engineering and working with dime store cameras as a hobby, he landed a job at fifteen as an office boy with Fox Studios. In only a year he was promoted to assistant cameraman, making comedy shorts with director Al St. John.

By the middle of the 1920s he was working with Arthur Edelson on several films as second cameraman. One of these features was The Bat (1926), one of the first movies to use deep-focus photography and even though it was used sparingly it left a lasting imprint in Toland’s mind. Deep-focus photography displays the foreground, middle ground and background in focus at the same time, however this was a challenging method to employ considering the primitive cameras being used at the time. In this era most films used shallow focus, which means that only one part of the screen was in focus, usually on one of the actors, while the rest of the view remained blurry.

The year 1926 became a golden year for Toland, besides a series of fast promotions he was signed by Samuel Goldwyn Studios to become an assistant cameraman to cinematographer George Barnes. Goldwyn gave him a great deal of freedom, which was hardly the norm. Barnes also liked him and impressed by his speed and intuitive knowledge of cutting-edge photographic techniques. Another unusual move Barnes made was to insist that Toland receive co-cinematographer billing on the nine films they worked on together.

Toland became the youngest cameraman in the 1930’s and received his first solo credit in 1931 with the comedy, Palmy Days starring Eddie Cantor. It was not long after that he became one of the most in demand cinematographers in the industry. He worked with many of the top directors of his era, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, Orson Welles, and William Wyler. He was nominated for an Academy Award five times for best cinematographer between 1932 and 1942 including his win in 1940 for Wuthering Heights.

By the end of the 1930s, Toland had credits for almost 50 movies. In We Live Again (1934) and The Wedding Night (1935), his scenes were mostly subtle and mysteriously allusive. In the monumental masterpiece Les Miserables (1935), nominated for an Academy Award, he used eerie looking designs and dream-like perspectives to express the pending menace of the characters’ psychological landscape. In 1937, another Oscar nomination came for the film Dead End, and again he was nominated in 1939 for Intermezzo.

Citizen Kane

“I want to work with someone who’s never made a movie. That’s the only way to learn anything—from someone who doesn’t know anything.”

In American Cinematographer in February 1941, Toland wrote of his desire to further exploit “the new technical and artistic possibilities offered by such developments as coated lenses, super-fast films and the use of lower-proportioned and partially ceiled (ceilinged) sets.” He wrote that he wished that “instead of using them conservatively for a scene here or there” he “could experiment free-handedly with them throughout an entire production.” He was soon to get his wish.

For years Hollywood had been pursuing the young Orson Welles to come work in tinsel town with extremely lucrative contract offers, which he turned down. However, with the massive international fame he garnered from the infamous War of Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 RKO Pictures made him an offer he could not refuse. The legendary contract Welles signed stipulated that he would act, direct, produce and write two films. Mercury would get $100,000 for first film by January 1, 1940, plus 20% of profits after RKO recouped $500,000, and $125,000 for second film by January 1, 1941, plus 20% of profits after RKO recouped $500,000. The most controversial aspect of the contract gave Welles complete artistic control of the two films so long as RKO approved both project’s stories and that the budget did not exceed $500,000.

After spending almost 2 years trying to get projects off the ground like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Citizen Kane was given the greenlight by RKO executives and filming began in June, 1940.

WILLIAM ALLAND (Thompson, the reporter, in Citizen Kane) on how Gregg Toland and Orson Welles came together:

I remember sitting in a production meeting with Orson and a few others before the start of Citizen Kane. The time had arrived to select a cameraman, and Orson said, “If I could only get Gregg Toland–that’s the man I want.”

Orson had never even met Gregg, but he had admired Gregg’s work in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home. Someone at the meeting spoke up: “There’s no chance of getting Toland. He’s under contract to Sam Goldwyn.”  “I know that,” said Orson. “But I’d still like to have him photograph the picture.”

Just then the telephone rang, and Orson answered. A voice on the other end of the line said: “This is Gregg Toland. I understand that you’re making a picture at RKO. I’d like to work with you on it.”

Gregg Toland on the set of Citizen Kane (1941).

Welles was so impressed with Toland’s talent and ultimate contribution to Kane he insisted that he share equal billing with him and John Ford did the same with The Long Voyage Home.

Then Welles had to convince RKO to cut a deal with Goldwyn to borrow Toland and his entire crew and equipment. While shooting Citizen Kane, Toland had complete freedom to use deep-focus photography, ceilinged sets, low-angle lighting, high-powered arc lamps, coated lenses and everything else he could pull out of his bag of tricks that he had been developing since he began working behind the lens. He used a new lightweight and mobile camera with its own anti-noise device, fulfilling Welles’s vision for fluidity with unusual perspectives. Toland used a 24-millimeter lens (rather than the more common longer lenses) and the fastest film available to allow a greater depth of field. The masterful camera techniques Toland employed allowed Welles to pursue long uncut scenes with minimal editing and this became a method eagerly imitated by directors for decades to come. Toland used split-focus lenses, double exposures, and an array of innovative and counterintuitive techniques in a seemingly disordered blend that miraculously resulted in some of the most stunning cinematography in film history.

While shooting Citizen Kane, Toland had complete freedom to use deep-focus photography, ceilinged sets, low-angle lighting, high-powered arc lamps, coated lenses and everything else he could pull out of his bag of tricks that he had been developing since he began working behind the lens. He used a new lightweight and mobile camera with its own anti-noise device, fulfilling Welles’s vision for fluidity with unusual perspectives. Toland used a 24-millimeter lens (rather than the more common longer lenses) and the fastest film available to allow a greater depth of field. The masterful camera techniques Toland employed allowed Welles to pursue long uncut scenes with minimal editing and this became a method eagerly imitated by directors for decades to come. Toland used split-focus lenses, double exposures, and an array of innovative and counterintuitive techniques in a seemingly disorder blend that miraculously resulted in some of the most stunning cinematography in film history.

The two opening scenes below from Citizen Kane and The Long Voyage Home are eloquent and powerful examples of Gregg Toland’s mastery.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Long Voyage Home (1940)

The most innovative technical aspect of Citizen Kane was in the use of deep focus. This is what Gregg Toland had to say on the subject:

New developments in the science of motion picture photography are not abundant at this advanced stage of the game but periodically one is perfected to make this a greater art. Of these I am in an excellent position to discuss what is termed “Pan-focus”, as I have been active for two years in its development and used it for the first time in Citizen Kane. Through its use, it is possible to photograph action from a range of eighteen inches from the camera lens to over two hundred feet away, with extreme foreground and background figures and action both recorded in sharp relief. Hitherto, the camera had to be focused either for a close or a distant shot, all efforts to encompass both at the same time resulting in one or the other being out of focus. This handicap necessitated the breaking up of a scene into long and short angles, with much consequent loss of realism. With pan-focus, the camera, like the human eye, sees an entire panorama at once, with everything clear and lifelike.

Pan-focus was only possible after the development of speedy new film, enabling the cameraman to stop down his lens to the small aperture required for sharp focus. With the slow sensitivity characteristic of the film of a few years ago, this would have been impossible as not enough light could have gotten through such a small aperture to expose the film properly. Today, we get as much value out of fifty candlepower light as we once would have obtained from two hundred candlepower, so sensitive is the modern speed film.

Photographing Citizen Kane was indeed the most exciting professional adventure of my career.

         – Gregg Toland (article written for Theatre Arts magazine)

Gregg Toland Documentary

This is a short documentary on the life and career of Gregg Toland.

WWII Service

Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Office of the Coordinator of Information (later to become the CIA) before entry into World War II and Toland was asked to take part in the film unit of the agency. He was appointed as a lieutenant in the camera department of the Navy and this is where he co-directed with John Ford December 7th, a documentary of the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese. This documentary won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects for 1943. This marked the only time in Toland’s career that he worked as a director.

He died in Los Angeles, California on September 26, 1948 of coronary thrombosis at age 44.

Of the thirty-eight pictures I have photographed since Palmy Days, I believe Citizen Kane is the best example of camera possibilities in securing dramatic effect. Several others, however, particularly The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath, Intermezzo, Wuthering Heights, Dead End, Dark Angel and These Three, proved sources of infinite satisfaction in that regard.

– Gregg Toland

Technological Wizardry

Gregg Toland was not only an innovative artist, for after all that is exactly what a great cinematographer is, not simply a great technician. He possessed a deep understanding of human emotion brought to the forefront via framing, movement and light. Besides his superb artistry and technical prowess he pioneered the actual technology from an engineering perspective.

Sound

With the advent of sound movies in 1927, the audible buzz of movie cameras became a serious problem, requiring the inconveniently clunky soundproof booths. Toland helped create a tool, which silenced the camera’s noise, enabling the camera to move far more easily which gave a wider spectrum of visual possibilities. Toland invented a soundproof housing for cameras, a blimp-like mechanism that allowed for the shooting of close-ups of softly spoken moments without mood killing noise.

Innovations on The Long Voyage Home (1940) and Citizen Kane (1941)

Toland’s cinematographic techniques were truly revolutionary due to the fact that cinematographers before him used a shallow depth of field to separate the various planes on the screen, creating an impression of space, as well as stressing what mattered in the frame by leaving the rest (the foreground or background) out of focus. In Toland’s lighting schemes, shadow became a much more vibrant tool, both dramatically and pictorially, to separate the foreground from the background – and, therefore, to create space within a two-dimensional frame while keeping the entire picture in focus. In his understanding, this visual style was closer with what the eyes see in real life, since our vision blurs what is not looked at rather than what is. What is interesting here is Toland expressing a desire to come closer to reality though one feels the opposite, his photography takes one away to a dream world. Maybe the dream can bring us to a more intimate connection to reality.

In John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940), Toland leaned more heavily on back-projection to create his deep focus compositions (such as the shot of the island women singing to entice the men of the SS Glencairn), while continuing to develop the technologies that would allow for him to create his images on Citizen Kane. 

Deep Focus

Toland innovated extensively on Citizen Kane, creating deep focus on a sound-stage, collaborating with set designer Perry Ferguson so ceilings would be visible in the frame by stretching bleached muslin to stand in as a ceiling, allowing placement of the microphone closer to the action without being seen in frame. He also modified the Mitchell Camera to allow a wider range of movement, especially from low angles. ″It was Toland who devised a remote-control system for focusing his camera lens without having to get in the way of the camera operator who would now be free to pan and tilt the camera.”

The primary method to achieve deep focus was by closing down the aperture, which required increasing the lighting intensity, lenses with better light transmission, and faster film stock. On Citizen Kane, the cameras and coated lenses used were of Toland’s own design working with engineers from CalTech. His lenses were treated with Vard Opticoat to reduce glare and increase light transmission. He used the Kodak Super XX film stock, which at the time was the fastest film available. Toland worked closely with a Kodak representative during the stocks creation before its release in October of 1938, and was one of the first cinematographers to use it.

The lens apertures employed on most productions were usually within the f/2.3 to f/3.5 range. Toland shot his scenes in between f/8 and f/16. This was possible because several elements of technology came together at once: the technicolor three strip process, which required the development of more powerful lights, had been developed and the more powerful Carbon Arc light was beginning to be used. By utilizing these lights on a B&W shoot with the faster stock Toland was able to achieve apertures previously unattainable on a stage shoot.

DOF for symmetrical lens.

Infinity Lens

“Just before he died he had worked out a new lens with which he had made spectacular shots. He carried in his wallet a strip of film taken with this lens, of which he was very proud. It was a shot of a face three inches from the lens, filling one-third of the left side of the frame. Three feet from the lens, in the center of the foreground, was another face, and then, over a hundred yards away was the rear wall of the studio, showing telephone wires and architectural details. Everything was in focus, from three inches to infinity.”

Shadows at Dawn

Toland’s influence has continued long after his death. In just a few years, the techniques that seemed so startling in Citizen Kane were being adopted by cinematographers (as well as still photographers) worldwide. Toland’s innovations contributed greatly to modern filmmaking as well as to television. The kind of photography that modern audiences take for granted was shaped by Toland’s craftsmanship and imagination.

Throughout his short career he experimented at every opportunity drawing from the avant garde, German Expressionism, modern painting and photography as well as anything else that breathed forth inventive possibilities. The movies he worked on often are filled with intense and edgy interplays between light and dark, taking one at times to surrealistic dreamlands and sometimes nightmares. He was most assuredly a technical master, although he never lost for a second an earthy all-too-human quality, an aspect almost totally absent from modern movies, that delve into hyper-technical worlds and maybe this is part of Toland’s magic, the balancing of the two that ultimately lead to an unforgettable array of memories…like vivid dreams.

 Cinematographer (66 credits)

 1948     Enchantment 
 1948     A Song Is Born
 1947     The Bishop’s Wife
 1946     The Best Years of Our Lives
 1946     Song of the South
 1946     The Kid from Brooklyn
 1943     December 7th: The Movie
 1943     The Outlaw
 1941     Ball of Fire
 1941     The Little Foxes
 1941     Citizen Kane
 1940     The Long Voyage Home
 1940     The Westerner
 1940     The Grapes of Wrath
 1939     Raffles
 1939     Intermezzo: A Love Story
 1939     They Shall Have Music
 1939     Wuthering Heights
 1938     The Cowboy and the Lady
 1938     Kidnapped
 1938     The Goldwyn Follies
 1937     Dead End
 1937     Woman Chases Man
 1937     History Is Made at Night (uncredited)
 1936     Beloved Enemy
 1936     Come and Get It
 1936     The Road to Glory
 1936     These Three
 1935     Splendor
 1935     The Dark Angel
 1935     Mad Love
 1935     Public Hero #1
 1935     Les Misérables
 1935     The Wedding Night
 1934     Forsaking All Others
 1934     We Live Again
 1934     Lazy River
 1934     Nana
 1933     Roman Scandals
 1933     The Masquerader
 1933     Tugboat Annie
 1933     The Nuisance
 1932     The Kid from Spain
 1932     The Washington Masquerade
 1932     The Tenderfoot
 1932     Man Wanted
 1932     Play-Girl
 1931     Tonight or Never
 1931     The Unholy Garden (uncredited)
 1931     Palmy Days
 1931     Street Scene (uncredited)
 1931     Indiscreet
 1931     One Heavenly Night
 1930     The Devil to Pay!
 1930     Whoopee!
 1930     Raffles
 1929     The Trespasser
 1929     Condemned
 1929     This Is Heaven
 1929     Bulldog Drummond
 1929     Queen Kelly (uncredited)
 1928     The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (Short)
 1928     The Love of Zero (Short)
 1927     Johann the Coffinmaker (Short)
 1926     The Winning of Barbara Worth
 1926     The Bat

Director (1 credit)

 1943     December 7th: The Movie