Film scholars and historians view Citizen Kane as Welles's attempt to create a new style of filmmaking by studying various forms of film making, and combining them all into one. However, Welles stated that his love for cinema began only when he started the work on the film. When asked where he got the confidence as a first-time director to direct a film so radically different from contemporary cinema, he responded, "Ignorance, ignorance, sheer ignorance — you know there's no confidence to equal it. It's only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you're timid or careful.":80
David Bordwell wrote that "The best way to understand Citizen Kane is to stop worshiping it as a triumph of technique." Bordwell argues that the film did not invent any of its famous techniques such as deep focus cinematography, shots of the ceilings, chiaroscuro lighting and temporal jump-cuts, and many of these stylistics had been used in German Expressionist films of the 1920s, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But Bordwell asserts that the film did put them all together for the first time and perfected the medium in one single film.:1171 In a 1948 interview D. W. Griffith said "I loved Citizen Kane and particularly loved the ideas he took from me."
Arguments against the film's cinematic innovations were made as early as 1946 when French historian Georges Sadoul wrote that "the film is an encyclopedia of old techniques." Sadoul pointed out such examples as compositions that used both the foreground and the background in the films of Auguste and Louis Lumière, special effects used in the films of Georges Méliès, shots of the ceiling in Erich von Stroheim's Greed and newsreel montages in the films of Dziga Vertov.
French film critic André Bazin defended the film and wrote that "In this respect, the accusation of plagiarism could very well be extended to the film's use of panchromatic film or its exploitation of the properties of gelatinous silver halide." Bazin disagreed with Sadoul's comparison to Lumière's cinematography since Citizen Kane used more sophisticated lenses,:232 but acknowledged that the film had similarities to such previous works as The 49th Parallel and The Power and the Glory. Bazin stated that "even if Welles did not invent the cinematic devices employed in Citizen Kane, one should nevertheless credit him with the invention of their meaning.":233 Bazin championed the techniques in the film for its depiction of heightened reality, but Bordwell believes that the film's use of special effects contradict some of Bazin's theories.:75
Citizen Kane eschews the traditional linear, chronological narrative, and tells Kane's story entirely in flashback using different points of view, many of them from Kane's aged and forgetful associates, the cinematic equivalent of the unreliable narrator in literature.:83 Welles also dispenses with the idea of a single storyteller and uses multiple narrators to recount Kane's life. The use of multiple narrators was unheard of in Hollywood films.:81 Each narrator recounts a different part of Kane's life, with each story partly overlapping. The film depicts Kane as an enigma, a complicated man who, in the end, leaves viewers with more questions than answers as to his character, such as the newsreel footage where he is attacked for being both a communist and a fascist.:82–84
The technique of using flashbacks had been used in earlier films such as Wuthering Heights in 1939 and The Power and the Glory in 1933, but no film was as immersed in this technique as Citizen Kane. The use of the reporter Thompson acts as a surrogate for the audience, questioning Kane's associates and piecing together his life.
At that time films typically had an "omniscient perspective", which Marilyn Fabe says give the audience the "illusion that we are looking with impunity into a world which is unaware of our gaze, Hollywood movies give us a feeling of power." The film begins in this fashion up until the "News on the March" sequence, after which we the audience see the film through the perspectives of others.:81 The "News on the March" sequence gives an overview of Kane's entire life (and the film's entire story) at the beginning of the film, leaving the audience without the typical suspense of wondering how it will end. Instead the film's repetitions of events compels the audience to analyze and wonder why Kane's life happened the way that it did, under the pretext of finding out what "Rosebud" means. The film then returns to the omniscient perspective in the final scene, when only the audience discovers what "Rosebud" is.:82–83
The most innovative technical aspect of Citizen Kane is the extended use of deep focus. In nearly every scene in the film, the foreground, background and everything in between are all in sharp focus. Cinematographer Toland did this through his experimentation with lenses and lighting. Toland described the achievement, made possible by the sensitivity of modern speed film, in an article for Theatre Arts magazine:
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.
Both this article and a May 1941 Life magazine article with illustrated examples helped popularize deep focus cinematography and Toland's achievements on the film.:73
Another unorthodox method used in the film was the way low-angle shots were used to display a point of view facing upwards, thus allowing ceilings to be shown in the background of several scenes. Breaking with studio convention, every set was built with a ceiling — many constructed of fabric that ingeniously concealed microphones. Welles felt that the camera should show what the eyes see, and that it was a bad theatrical convention to pretend there was no ceiling — "a big lie in order to get all those terrible lights up there," he said. He became fascinated with the look of low angles, which made even dull interiors look interesting. One extremely low angle is used to photograph the encounter between Kane and Leland after Kane loses the election. A hole was dug for the camera, which required drilling into the concrete floor.:61–62
Welles credited Toland on the same card as himself and said "It's impossible to say how much I owe to Gregg. He was superb."[aa]:59 He called Toland "the best director of photography that ever existed."
Citizen Kane's sound was recorded by Bailey Fesler and re-recorded in post-production by audio engineer James G. Stewart,:85 both of whom had worked in radio.:102 Stewart said that Hollywood films never deviated from a basic pattern of how sound could be recorded or used, but with Welles "deviation from the pattern was possible because he demanded it." Although the film is known for its complex soundtrack, much of the audio is heard as it was recorded by Fesler and without manipulation.:102
Welles used techniques from radio like overlapping dialogue. The scene in which characters sing "Oh, Mr. Kane" was especially complicated and required mixing several soundtracks together.:104 He also used different "sound perspectives" to create the illusion of distances,:101 such as in scenes at Xanadu where characters speak to each other at far distances. Welles experimented with sound in post-production, creating audio montages,:94 and chose to create all of the sound effects for the film instead of using RKO's library of sound effects.:100
Welles used an aural technique from radio called the "lightning-mix". Welles used this technique to link complex montage sequences via a series of related sounds or phrases. For example, Kane grows from a child into a young man in just two shots. As Thatcher hands eight-year-old Kane a sled and wishes him a Merry Christmas, the sequence suddenly jumps to a shot of Thatcher fifteen years later, completing the sentence he began in both the previous shot and the chronological past. Other radio techniques include using a number of voices, each saying a sentence or sometimes merely a fragment of a sentence, and splicing the dialogue together in quick succession, such as the projection room scene.:413-412 The film's sound cost $16,996, but was originally budgeted at $7,288.:105
Film critic and director François Truffaut wrote that "Before Kane, nobody in Hollywood knew how to set music properly in movies. Kane was the first, in fact the only, great film that uses radio techniques. … A lot of filmmakers know enough to follow Auguste Renoir's advice to fill the eyes with images at all costs, but only Orson Welles understood that the sound track had to be filled in the same way." Cedric Belfrage of The Clipper wrote "of all of the delectable flavours that linger on the palate after seeing Kane, the use of sound is the strongest.":1171
The make-up for Citizen Kane was created and applied by Maurice Seiderman (1907–1989), a junior member of the RKO make-up department.:19 Seiderman's family came to the United States from Russia in 1920, escaping persecution.:18 As a child Seiderman had won a drawing competition and received an apprenticeship at the Moscow Art Theatre,:157 where his father was a wigmaker and make-up artist.:42 In New York his uncle was a theatrical scenic painter, and he helped Seiderman get into the union.:18 He worked on Max Reinhardt's 1924 production of The Miracle and with the Yiddish Art Theatre,:157 and he studied the human figure at the Art Students League of New York.:42 After he moved to Los Angeles he was hired first by Max Factor and then by RKO.:19 Seiderman had not been accepted into the union, which recognized him as only an apprentice, but RKO nevertheless used him to make up principal actors.:19
"Apprentices were not supposed to make up any principals, only extras, and an apprentice could not be on a set without a journeyman present," wrote make-up artist Dick Smith, who became friends with Seiderman in 1979. "During his years at RKO I suspect these rules were probably overlooked often.":19 By 1940 Seiderman's uncredited film work included Winterset, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Swiss Family Robinson and Abe Lincoln in Illinois.:48 "Seiderman had gained a reputation as one of the most inventive and creatively precise up-and-coming makeup men in Hollywood," wrote biographer Frank Brady.:253
On an early tour of RKO, Welles met Seiderman in the small make-up lab he created for himself in an unused dressing room.:19 "Welles fastened on to him at once," wrote biographer Charles Higham. "With his great knowledge of makeup — indeed, his obsession with it, for he hated his flat nose — Welles was fascinated … Seiderman had an intimate knowledge of anatomy and the process of aging and was acquainted with every line, wrinkle and accretion of fat in aging men and women. Impatient with most makeup methods of his era, he used casts of his subjects in order to develop makeup methods that ensured complete naturalness of expression — a naturalness unrivaled in Hollywood.":157
"When Kane came out in script form, Orson told all of us about the picture and said that the most important aspect was the makeup," Seiderman recalled. "I felt that I was being given an assignment that was unique — so I worked accordingly. And there was a lot of work to do. Straight makeups were done in the makeup department by staff, but all the trick stuff and the principal characters were my personal work; nobody else ever touched them. They could not have handled it.":46
Seiderman developed a thorough plan for aging the principal characters, first making a plaster cast of the face of each of the actors who aged, except Joseph Cotten who was unavailable at that time. He made a plaster mold of Welles's body down to the hips.:46
"My sculptural techniques for the characters' aging were handled by adding pieces of white modeling clay, which matched the plaster, onto the surface of each bust," Seiderman told visual arts historian Norman Gambill. When Seiderman achieved the desired effect he cast the clay pieces in a soft plastic material:46 that he formulated himself.:20 These appliances were then placed onto the plaster bust and a four-piece mold was made for each phase of aging. The castings were then fully painted and paired with the appropriate wig for evaluation.:46–47
Before the actors went before the cameras each day, the pliable pieces were applied directly to their faces to recreate Seiderman's sculptural image. Welles was allergic to Max Factor's gum, so Seiderman invented an alternative that also photographed more realistically.:46 The facial surface was underpainted in a flexible red plastic compound;:43 Cotten recalled being instructed to puff out his cheeks during this process. Later, seeing the results in the mirror, Cotten told Seiderman, "I am acting the part of a nice old gentleman, not a relief map of the Rocky Mountains." Seiderman replied, "You'd be surprised at what the camera doesn't see unless we place it within its view. How about some more coffee?":43
The red ground resulted in a warmth of tone that was picked up by the sensitive panchromatic film. Over that was applied liquid greasepaint, and then finally a colorless translucent talcum.:42–43 Seiderman created the effect of skin pores on Kane's face by stippling the surface with a negative cast he made from an orange peel.:42, 47
Welles was just as heavily made up as young Kane as he was for old Kane, and he often arrived on the set at 2:30 a.m.:69 Application of the sculptural make-up for the oldest incarnation of the character took three-and-a-half hours. The make-up included appliances to age Welles's shoulders, breast and stomach.:19–20 "In the film and production photographs, you can see that Kane had a belly that overhung," Seiderman said. "That was not a costume, it was the rubber sculpture that created the image. You could see how Kane's silk shirt clung wetly to the character's body. It could not have been done any other way.":46
Seiderman worked with Charles Wright on the wigs. These went over a flexible skull cover that Seiderman created and sewed into place with elastic thread. When he found the wigs too full he untied one hair at a time to alter their shape. Kane's mustache was inserted into the makeup surface a few hairs at a time, to realistically vary the color and texture.:43, 47
Seiderman made scleral lenses for Welles, Dorothy Comingore, George Coulouris and Everett Sloane, to dull the brightness of their young eyes. The lenses took a long time to fit properly, and Seiderman began work on them before devising any of the other makeup. "I painted them to age in phases, ending with the blood vessels and the Aurora Senilis of old age.":47[ab]
"Cotten was the only principal for whom I had not made any sculptural casts, wigs or lenses," Seiderman said. When Cotten's old-age scenes needed to be shot out of sequence due to Welles's injured ankle, Seiderman improvised with appliances made for Kane's make-up. A sun visor was chosen to conceal Cotten's low hairline:47–48 and the lenses he wore — hastily supplied by a Beverly Hills ophthalmologist — were uncomfortable.:44–45
Seiderman's tour de force, the breakfast montage, was shot all in one day. "Twelve years, two years shot at each scene," he said. "Please realize, by the way, that a two-year jump in age is a bit harder to accomplish visually than one of twenty years.":47
As they did with art direction, the major studios gave screen credit for make-up to only the department head. When RKO make-up department head Mel Berns refused to share credit with Seiderman, who was only an apprentice, Welles told Berns that there would be no make-up credit. Welles signed a large advertisement in the Los Angeles newspaper::48:22
THANKS TO EVERYBODY WHO GETS SCREEN CREDIT FOR "CITIZEN KANE" AND THANKS TO THOSE WHO DON'T TO ALL THE ACTORS, THE CREW, THE OFFICE, THE MUSICIANS, EVERYBODY AND PARTICULARLY TO MAURICE SEIDERMAN, THE BEST MAKE-UP MAN IN THE WORLD:20
"To put this event in context, remember that I was a very low man," Seiderman recalled. "I wasn't even called a make-up man. I had started their laboratory and developed their plastic appliances for make-up. But my salary was $25 a week. And I had no union card.":48
Seiderman told Gambill that after Citizen Kane was released, Welles was invited to a White House dinner where Frances Perkins was among the guests. Welles told her about the Russian immigrant who did the make-up for his film but could not join the union. Seiderman said the head of the union received a call from the Labor Department the next day, and in November 1941 he was a full union member.:48:22[ac]
Although credited as an assistant, the film's art direction was done by Perry Ferguson.:85 Welles and Ferguson got along during their collaboration.:37 In the weeks before production began Welles, Toland and Ferguson met regularly to discuss the film and plan every shot, set design and prop. Ferguson would take notes during these discussions and create rough designs of the sets and story boards for individual shots. After Welles approved the rough sketches, Ferguson made miniature models for Welles and Toland to experiment on with a periscope in order to rehearse and perfect each shot. Ferguson then had detailed drawings made for the set design, including the film's lighting design. The set design was an integral part of the film's overall look and Toland's cinematography.:42
In the original script the Great Hall at Xanadu was modeled after the Great Hall in Hearst Castle and its design included a mixture of Renaissance and Gothic styles.:50–51 "The Hearstian element is brought out in the almost perverse juxtaposition of incongruous architectural styles and motifs," wrote Carringer.:54 Before RKO cut the film's budget, Ferguson's designs were more elaborate and resembled the production designs of early Cecil B. DeMille films and Intolerance.:55 The budget cuts reduced Ferguson's budget by 33 percent and his work cost $58,775 total,:65 which was below average at that time.:93 To save costs Ferguson and Welles re-wrote scenes in Xanadu's living room and transported them to the Great Hall. A large staircase from another film was found and used at no additional cost.:56–57 When asked about the limited budget, Ferguson said "Very often — as in that much-discussed “Xanadu” set in Citizen Kane — we can make a foreground piece, a background piece, and imaginative lighting suggest a great deal more on the screen than actually exists on the stage.":65–66 The according to the film's official budget there were 81 sets built, but Ferguson said there were between 106 and 116.:64
Still photographs of Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York, were used in the opening montage, representing Kane's Xanadu estate. Ferguson also designed statue's from Kane's collection with styles ranging from Greek to German Gothic.:61 The sets were also built to accommodate Toland's camera movements. Walls were built to fold and furniture could quickly be moved. The film's famous ceilings were made out of muslin fabric and camera boxes were built into the floors for low angle shots.:64–65 Welles later said that he was proud that the film production value looked much more expensive than the film's budget. Although neither worked with Welles again, Toland and Ferguson collaborated in several films in the 1940s.:65
The film's special effects were supervised by RKO department head Vernon L. Walker.:85 Welles pioneered several visual effects to cheaply shoot things like crowd scenes and large interior spaces. For example, the scene in which the camera in the opera house rises dramatically to the rafters, to show the workmen showing a lack of appreciation for Susan Alexander Kane's performance, was shot by a camera craning upwards over the performance scene, then a curtain wipe to a miniature of the upper regions of the house, and then another curtain wipe matching it again with the scene of the workmen. Other scenes effectively employed miniatures to make the film look much more expensive than it truly was, such as various shots of Xanadu.
Some shots included rear screen projection in the background, such as Thompson's interview of Leland and some of the ocean backgrounds at Xanadu.:88 Bordwell claims that in the scene where Thatcher agrees to be Kane's guardian used rear screen projection to depict young Kane in the background, despite this scene being cited as a prime example of Toland's deep focus cinematography.:74 A special effects camera crew from Walker's department was required for the extreme close-up shots such as Kane's lips when he says "Rosebud" and the shot of the typewriter typing Susan's bad review.:88
Optical effects artist Dunn claimed that “up to 80 percent of some reels was optically printed.” These shots were traditionally attributed to Toland for years.:110 The optical printer improved some of the deep focus shots.:92 One problem with the optical printer was that it sometimes created excessive graininess, such as the optical zoom out of the snow globe. Welles decided to superimpose snow falling to mask the graininess in these shots.:94 Toland said that he disliked the results of the optical printer,:92 but acknowledged that "RKO special effects expert Vernon Walker, ASC, and his staff handled their part of the production — a by no means inconsiderable assignment — with ability and fine understanding.":74–75
Any time deep focus was impossible – as in the scene in which Kane finishes a negative review of Susan's opera while at the same time firing the person who began writing the review – an optical printer was used to make the whole screen appear in focus, visually layering one piece of film onto another.:92 However, some apparently deep-focus shots were the result of in-camera effects, as in the famous scene in which Kane breaks into Susan's room after her suicide attempt. In the background, Kane and another man break into the room, while simultaneously the medicine bottle and a glass with a spoon in it are in closeup in the foreground. The shot was an in-camera matte shot. The foreground was shot first, with the background dark. Then the background was lit, the foreground darkened, the film rewound, and the scene re-shot with the background action.:82
The film's music was composed by Bernard Herrmann.:72 Herrmann had composed for Welles for his Mercury Theatre radio broadcasts.:63 Because it was Herrmann's first motion picture score, RKO wanted to pay him only a small fee, but Welles insisted he be paid at the same rate as Max Steiner.:72
The score established Herrmann as an important new composer of film soundtracks and eschewed the typical Hollywood practice of scoring a film with virtually non-stop music. Instead Herrmann used what he later described as '"radio scoring", musical cues typically 5–15 seconds in length that bridge the action or suggest a different emotional response.:77–78 The breakfast montage sequence begins with a graceful waltz theme and gets darker with each variation on that theme as the passage of time leads to the hardening of Kane's personality and the breakdown of his first marriage.
Herrmann realized that musicians slated to play his music were hired for individual unique sessions; there was no need to write for existing ensembles. This meant that he was free to score for unusual combinations of instruments, even instruments that are not commonly heard. In the opening sequence, for example, the tour of Kane's estate Xanadu, Herrmann introduces a recurring leitmotiv played by low woodwinds, including a quartet of alto flutes.
For Susan Alexander Kane's operatic sequence, Welles suggested that Herrmann compose a witty parody of a Mary Garden vehicle, an aria from Salammbô.:57 "Our problem was to create something that would give the audience the feeling of the quicksand into which this simple little girl, having a charming but small voice, is suddenly thrown," Herrmann said.:79 Writing in the style of a 19th-century French Oriental opera, Herrmann put the aria in a key that would force the singer to strain to reach the high notes, culminating in a high D, well outside the range of Susan Alexander.:79–80 Soprano Jean Forward dubbed the vocal part for Comingore. Houseman claimed to have written the libretto, based on Jean Racine’s Athalie and Phedre,:460–461 although some confusion remains since Lucille Fletcher remembered preparing the lyrics.:80 Fletcher, then Herrmann's wife, wrote the libretto for his opera Wuthering Heights.:11
Music enthusiasts consider the scene in which Susan Alexander Kane attempts to sing the famous cavatina "Una voce poco fa" from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini with vocal coach Signor Matiste as especially memorable for depicting the horrors of learning music through mistakes.
In 1972 Herrmann said, "I was fortunate to start my career with a film like Citizen Kane, it's been a downhill run ever since!" Welles loved Herrmann's score and told director Henry Jaglom that it was 50 percent responsible for the film's artistic success.:84
Some incidental music came from other sources. Welles heard the tune used for the publisher's theme, "Oh, Mr. Kane", in Mexico.:57 Called "A Poco No", the song was written by Pepe Guízar and special lyrics were written by Herman Ruby.
"In a Mizz", a 1939 jazz song by Charlie Barnet and Haven Johnson, bookends Thompson's second interview of Susan Alexander Kane.:108 "I kind of based the whole scene around that song," Welles said. "The music is by Nat Cole — it's his trio.":56 Later — beginning with the lyrics, "It can't be love" — "In a Mizz" is performed at the Everglades picnic, framing the fight in the tent between Susan and Kane.:108 Musicians including bandleader Cee Pee Johnson (drums), Alton Redd (vocals), Raymond Tate (trumpet), Buddy Collette (alto sax) and Buddy Banks (tenor sax) are featured.
All of the music used in the newsreel came from the RKO music library, edited at Welles's request by the newsreel department to achieve what Herrmann called "their own crazy way of cutting". The News on the March theme that accompanies the newsreel titles is "Belgian March" by Anthony Collins, from the film Nurse Edith Cavell. Other examples are an excerpt from Alfred Newman's score for Gunga Din (the exploration of Xanadu), Roy Webb's theme for the film Reno (the growth of Kane's empire), and bits of Webb's score for Five Came Back (introducing Walter Parks Thatcher).:79
One of the editing techniques used in Citizen Kane was the use of montage to collapse time and space, using an episodic sequence on the same set while the characters changed costume and make-up between cuts so that the scene following each cut would look as if it took place in the same location, but at a time long after the previous cut. In the breakfast montage, Welles chronicles the breakdown of Kane's first marriage in five vignettes that condense 16 years of story time into two minutes of screen time. Welles said that the idea for the breakfast scene "... was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder ... a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like 60 years of a family's life.":51 The film often used long dissolves to signify the passage of time and its psychological effect of the characters, such as the scene where the abandoned sled gets covered with snow after the young Kane is sent away with Thatcher.:90–91
Welles was influenced by the editing theories of Sergei Eisenstein by using jarring cuts that caused "sudden graphic or associative contrasts", such as the cut from Kane's deathbed to the beginning of the "News on the March" sequence and a sudden shot of a shrieking bird at the beginning of Raymond's flashback.:88–89 Although the film typically favors mise-en-scène over montage, the scene where Kane goes to Susan Alexander's apartment after first meeting her is the only one that is primarily cut as close-ups with shots and counter shots between Kane and Susan.:68 Fabe says that "by using a standard Hollywood technique sparingly, [Welles] revitalizes its psychological expressiveness.":88