What Orson Welles can teach you about “innovating from ignorance”

Clayton J. Hester
3 min readApr 4, 2022

Orson Welles called Gregg Toland the greatest cinematographer. He told the story of why Toland said he wanted to work for Welles.

“Because you’ve never made a picture before… and you do not know what cannot be done.”

Toland was not wrong. Welles took chances, he pushed the boundaries of film-making to create a heightened style. Cinema had never seen anything quite like Citizen Kane before, and it hasn’t since. This case study will cover three topics: narrative structure, lighting and composition.

Narrative is one of the most basic elements in storytelling and film-making. It is the backbone of a movie, and Welles broke this convention in his debut feature. While it’s not uncommon for a story to have an unconventional structure these days, it wasn’t so common in 1941. Naturally, there will be spoilers present throughout this case study, so consider yourself warned. Also keep in mind that much of what will be written is based on interpretation, as much of the film’s meaning is left up to the viewer.

The story of Kane is non-linear, and it jumps around in time. The film starts with Charles Foster Kane’s death, and then goes back in time to show his life. It jumps around again, showing different parts of his life. There are no clear-cut chapters or acts, which can be confusing for some viewers. However, this unconventional narrative structure is one of the things that makes the film so unique. It’s a different experience than most films, and it forces the viewer to pay attention to every detail. The story is told in a way that mirrors Kane’s life- a life that was full of chaos and disorder.

Kane’s biography is told in spiraling concentric circles: we hear the tale in overlapping parts that meet up along the edges with repeated scenes while also taking us in new, unseen directions. Eventually, these circles match up in the scene of Kane walking down a hall of inter-reflecting mirrors. Here, Kane as seen through his many relationships with those around him, is all met in the one man.

Lighting is another important aspect of film-making, and Welles used it to great effect in Citizen Kane. He often had his actors perform in near darkness, which created an eerie and tense atmosphere. This was a technique that he borrowed from German Expressionist cinema. In addition, he used light and shadow to create visually stunning compositions. For example, the scene where Kane first meets Susan is lit in a way that makes her seem angelic. Contrast that with the scene later on where she reveals her true nature, and it’s clear that Welles was a master of lighting.

Citizen Kane is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. It’s an innovative masterpiece that broke boundaries and changed cinema forever. Welles was only 25 when he made the film, and it’s a testament to his talent and creativity that it’s still considered groundbreaking 70 years later.

It makes you glad sometimes that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Clayton J. Hester

Country boy. Explorer of the creative process & life, the arts, storytelling, innovation and history of ideas. Omnia in gloriam Dei facite — claytonjhester.com