Cinematic composition in Citizen Kane

It is almost impossible to write something new about Citizen Kane, because there were at least quadrillion pages written about this movie already.

One of the recent articles (written by Tim Wilson) deals with extreme depth of field used throughout the movie. I read it just few days ago and thought it would be a great example of cinematic storytelling. What really caught my attention were these words:

Okay, so what’s that mean about cinematic values? For me, it means “composition.” Everything in its place. Maybe the one and only reason that the chair is there is to provide one more layer — but you can tell it’s not there by accident. The shot is COMPOSED. Everything is there by INTENT. Intent and composition are merged, and set at the service of larger storytelling priorities.

So let’s take a look at the cinematic composition described above:

Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane (1941)

Each character or item creates a layer in the picture. Going from the foreground to the background, we have (for example) these layers:

  • sheet of paper
  • Mrs. Kane
  • Mr. Thatcher
  • Mr. Kane
  • chair
  • window
  • little Kane

This creates cinematic composition. I already tried to define what does the word cinematic mean, so just briefly, cinematic shot/composition is achieved by – literally – adding layers.

From the cinematography point of view, the layers are achieved through careful blocking (staging) of actors and props (chair) and by using large depth of field (=small aperture).

But also from the storytelling perspective, there are layers. While the parents are making decision about little Kane’s future, we can see him as a kid playing cheerfully outside in the snow.

That’s why this shot is very cinematic, it’s literally full of layers.


Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
A Viewer’s Companion to ‘Citizen Kane’
The Motion Picture Cameraman
Framing and composition in short The Division Of Gravity

Other Examples:

Charlie's Family Restaurant by Andrew Mohrer
Charlie’s Family Restaurant by Andrew Mohrer

Look at the photo by DJ Poe. It’s amazing how many layers there are in the shot. Very cinematic composition!


If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to write a comment.

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