This is the first piece in a series looking at the history of the great cinematographers. In no chronological order, we start with the innovators innovator-Gregg Toland.
Born in Charleston, Illinois on May 29, 1904, Toland and his mother moved to California after his parents divorced. His mother took a job as a housekeeper for many people in the film industry which led a 15 year old Toland to a job as an office boy at Fox Studios. He soon moved up to an assistant camera man and in 1926 went to the Samuel Goldwyn Studios as an assistant to George Barnes. It was there on the set of the Gloria Swanson pic, ‘The Trespasser’ that according to legend, Laura Hope Crews told Samuel Goldwyn , “That young man should be a cameraman. He’s got the makings of a great one.” Barnes asked producer Goldwyn to give Toland equal billing as co-cinematographer on ‘The Trespasser’ and 8 subsequent productions and by 1931 Toland had his first solo credit for the Eddie Cantor comedy, ‘Palmy Days’.
During the 1930s, Toland became the youngest cameraman in Hollywood but soon one of its most sought-after cinematographers. In the almost mechanized era of the studio system, Toland was recognized as and more importantly allowed to be a true innovator in his field. Always eager to apply new technologies and reformulate them for his specific needs, he experimented heavily and completely rejected the standard Hollywood look that utilized soft focus and gave films almost zero depth. With his revolutionary style and innovation Toland, enlisting high contrast black-and-white film, deep focus [with foreground, middle-ground, and background all in sharp focus] was able to create a sharp black and white that was much more in line with German expressionist films that the usual Hollywood pap.
The main way to achieve deep focus was closing down the aperture, which required increasing the lighting intensity, lenses with better light transmission, and faster film stock. Toland worked with Kodak to help them develop their Super XX film stock which was the fastest film stock at the time and he was one of the first cinematographers using it heavily on set.
‘During recent years a great deal has been said and written about the new technical and artistic possibilities offered by such developments as coated lenses, super-fast films and the use of lower-proportioned and partially veiled sets,’ Toland wrote in American Cinematographer, 1941 ‘Some cinematographers have had, as I did in one or two productions filmed during the past year, opportunities to make a few cautious, tentative experiments with utilizing these technical innovations to produce improved photo-dramatic results. Those of us who have, as I did, have felt that they were on the track of something significant, and wished that instead of using them conservatively for a scene here or there, they could experiment with them throughout an entire production.’
Toland, is of course referring to his work on, ‘Citizen Kane’. Toland sought out Welles after the 23-year-old ‘boy wonder’ arrived at RKO . Welles’ contributions to stage drama and radio were well known, but as he told Toland at their first meeting, “I know nothing at all about film-making.” Toland replied, “That’s why I want to work with you. That’s the only way to learn anything – from somebody who doesn’t know anything.” So Welles persuaded RKO to let him borrow Toland, despite the fact that the studio had a full complement of excellent directors of photography under contract.
Toland would work only with his own equipment, which he had customized to his needs, and with his regular crew. Toland used his 24mm lens throughout much of the picture to impart a greater depth of field than was obtainable with the more common longer lenses. The field could be further deepened by using a smaller aperture. His lenses were treated with Vard Opticoat to reduce glare and increase light transmission. Large arc lights which had been designed for Technicolor photography were installed because their penetrating power is greater than that of incandescent lighting. Arc broads and incandescent spots were used together to light some of the larger sets. 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. The wider-angle lenses became “for all intents and purposes, universal-focus lenses,” Toland reported. Film theorist Andre Bazin said that Toland brought democracy to film-making by allowing viewers to discover what was interesting to them in a scene rather than having this choice dictated by the director.
For Kane, he created deep focus on a sound-stage, collaborated with set designer Perry Ferguson so ceilings would be visible in the frame by stretching bleached muslin to stand in as a ceiling, which allowed 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.” (Wallace, Roger Dale “Gregg Toland—His Contributions to Cinema,”)
For Citizen Kane, Toland at the age of 37 received his 6th Oscar nomination. He had already been nominated for ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Dead End’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Intermezzo’, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, and ‘The Long Voyage Home’, and won for’ Wuthering Heights’.
During WWII, the war department recruited Toland to work in their film department. Co-directing with John Ford, ‘December 7th’ was a documentary about the attack on Pearl Harbor that looked so realistic in its re-staging that many thought it was actual footage. The film received the 1943 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects.
Although ‘Kane” is considered by most to be his best work, Toland photographed several other brilliant films including, ‘The Little Foxes’, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, ‘Song of the South’ and ‘The Bishop’s Wife’.
In 1948, at just 44 years old, Gregg Toland passed away from a coronary thrombosis.
So when you are enjoying the latest movie on the big screen, just remember that without Gregg Toland and other innovators like him-you wouldn’t be seeing Batman in exactly the same light.