Gregg Toland

Gregg Toland


Gregg Toland, A.S.C. (May 29, 1904 - September 26, 1948) was a highly influential American cinematographer noted for his innovative use of lighting and techniques such as deep focus, an example of which can be found in his work on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. During the 1930s, Toland became the youngest cameraman in Hollywood but soon one of its most sought-after cinematographers. Over a seven-year span (1936–1942), he was nominated five times for the "Best Cinematography" Oscar, including a win in 1940 for his work on Wuthering Heights.

He worked with many of the top directors of the '20s, '30s, and '40s, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, Orson Welles, and William Wyler.

He was born and raised in Charleston, Illinois and died on September 28, 1948, of a coronary thrombosis in Hollywood, California.

Toland was the subject of an "Annals of Hollywood" article in The New Yorker, "The Cameraman," by Hilton Als (June 19, 2006, p. 46).

Just before his death, he was concentrating on the "ultimate focus" lens, which makes both near and far objects equally distinct.

Contributions on Citizen Kane

Some film historians believe Citizen Kane's visual brilliance was due primarily to the contributions of Toland, not director Orson Welles. However, many Welles scholars maintain that the visual style of Kane is similar to many of Welles' other films, and hence should be considered the director's work. Nevertheless, the Welles movies that most resemble Citizen Kane (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, Touch of Evil) were shot by Toland's collaborators, Russell Metty (at RKO) and Stanley Cortez.

At the time Kane was produced and released, Welles and Toland (among others) insisted that Welles gave lighting instructions that fall normally under the director of photography's responsibility. Years later, though, Welles acknowledged that "Toland was advising him on camera placement and lighting effects secretly so the young director would not be embarrassed in front of the highly experienced crew".

Innovations on The Long Voyage Home and Citizen Kane

Toland's techniques have proved to be a revolution for the art of cinematography. Before him, shallow depth of field was used 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. With Toland's lighting schemes, shadow was a much more interesting tool, dramatically as well as pictorially, to separate foreground from background and thus to create space within a two-dimensional frame while everything was in focus. This technique was also, according to Toland, more comparable to what the eyes see in real life, since our vision does not blur what we look at, but what we do not look at.

Deep focus technique and lighting schemes

At Orson Welles' urging, Toland experimented freely on Citizen Kane, creating deep focus, collaborating with set designer Perry Ferguson so ceilings would be visible in the frame, and making a range of alterations to the Mitchell BNC camera to allow a wider range of movement.

The main way to achieve deep focus was closing down the aperture, which required more powerful lighting, lenses with better light transmission, and faster film stock. On Kane, the cameras and coated lenses used were of Toland's own design, which allowed for the many inventions of the movie. His lenses were treated with Vard Opticoat to reduce glare and increase light transmission. He used the Kodak Super XX film stock, which was, at the time, the fastest film available. Lens apertures employed on most productions were usually within the f:2.3 to f:3.5 range; Toland shot his scenes at between f:8 and f:16.

Optical print shots and in-camera composites on Citizen Kane

Gregg Toland collaborated on a number of shots with Linwood G. Dunn. Although these looked like they were using deep focus, they were actually a composite of two different shots. Some of these shots were composited with an optical printer, a device which Dunn invented and perfected over the years, which explains why foreground and background are both in focus even though the lenses and film stock used in 1941 could not allow for such depth of field.

But Toland hated this technique, since he felt he was "duping", thereby lowering the quality of his shots. Thus other shots (like the shot of Susan Alexander Kane's bedroom after her suicide attempt, with a glass in the foreground and Kane entering the room in the background) were in-camera composites, meaning the film was exposed twice—another technique that Linwood Dunn perfected.

Similarities between Citizen Kane and The Long Voyage Home

Toland had already had experience with heavy in-camera compositing, and many of the shots in Kane look similar in composition and dynamics to a number of shots in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home.

For instance, both movies contain shots that create an artificial lighting situation such that a character is lit in the background and walks or runs through dark areas to the foreground, where his arrival triggers, off-screen, a light not on before. The result is so visually dramatic because a character moves, only barely visible, through vast pools of shadow, only to exit the shadow very close to the camera, where his whole face is suddenly completely lit. This use of much more shadow than light, soon one of the main techniques of low-key lighting, heavily influenced film noir.

The Long Voyage Home and Citizen Kane share a number of other striking similarities:

  • Both films allowed lenses at times to distort faces in close-up, especially during low-key lighting sequences described above.
  • Sets, both interiors and exteriors, were lit mostly from the floor instead of from the rafters high above. A radical departure from Hollywood's traditional lighting, this technique also took much longer to execute, thus contributing significantly to production costs. However, the effect was strikingly more realistic, since light sources placed closer to the characters allowed softer lighting, which lights placed far above the set could not produce.
  • Both directors, Welles as well as Ford, shared directorial credit with Toland, even though Hollywood contractual and guild rules did not allow this.

Other important works

Note the in-focus figure of the man in the phone booth in the background, while maintaining clear focus on the three foreground characters.]] Although Citizen Kane is his most well-regarded achievement, especially since it is today virtually universally acknowledged that Toland was in fact responsible for the visuals, his style was much more varied than most people realize. For The Grapes of Wrath, he took inspiration from Dorothea Lange's photographs, achieving a rare (for Hollywood) gritty and realist look.

Service during WWII

When the Office of the Coordinator of Information (predecessor to the Office of Strategic Services and leter the Central Intelligence Agency) was created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt before the United States' entry into WWII, Toland was recruited to work in the agency's film unit. Toland was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Navy camera department, which led to his only work as a director, December 7th: the Movie.

Academy Award nominations

Selected Filmography


The 2006 Los Angeles edition of CineGear assembled a distinguished panel composed of Owen Roizman, László Kovács, Daryn Okada, Rodrigo Prieto, Russell Carpenter, Dariusz Wolski and others. Called "Dialogue with ASC Cinematographers", the panel was asked to name two or three other cinematographers, living or dead, who had influenced their work or whom they considered to be the best of the best. Each panel member cited Gregg Toland first.


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