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Visual storytelling lessons from Citizen Kane, one of Roger Ebert's favorite films

EbertLast week, a mere two days after he wrote an article entitled "A Leave of Presence," the acclaimed and beloved American film critic Roger Ebert died. Like millions of other people, news of his passing deeply saddened me. I loved Ebert's writing, his wit, and his determination battling illness these past years, but I will always remember him from the '80s with Siskel & Ebert. Their authenticity was so rare and appealing back then (it's still rare today). I learned a lot about what makes for a good film over the years by reading or listening to Roger Ebert. Since the '90s, Ebert took time to write about many, many good films from the past. "I think of old films as a resource of treasures," Ebert writes on his website. "Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day." The old films have something to teach us, he thought. "I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see 'hits,' and discourage exploration."

Greatest film of all time?
One of Ebert' favorite films—he sometimes referred to it as his top favorite film— was Citizen Kane (1941) by the legendary Oreson Welles. “Whenever I am asked what the greatest film of all time is, I always say Citizen Kane,” Ebert says at the end of his commentary of the film on DVD. Though Ebert said that it's a silly question since it’s impossible to really compare and rank all the different types of films in some sort of list. “But Citizen Kane to me,” admits Ebert, “is so inventive, so fresh every time you see it, so new, that I never get tired of seeing it." Ebert watched the film at least thrity times in his life with various groups of people and he always learned something new about the film, he said. "You have to be an active viewer with Citizen Kane—it challenges you," Ebert says in his commentary of the film. The absolutely wonderful thing about this version of Citizen Kane on DVD is that it includes a commentary track by Roger Ebert which is very ensightful and a delight to listen to. His commentary is fantastic. (Believe it or not, you can even watch two men—David Bordwell and Jeffrey Lerner—give an interesting commentary on the commentary track made by Roger Ebert.)

As a tribute of sorts to the great Roger Ebert, I am reposting a piece I wrote a couple of years ago on Citizen Kane below.

Lessons from Citizen Kane (redux)
6a00d83451b64669e2014e8a4012bb970d-200wi-1Citizen Kane is considered by most film critics and filmmakers to be among the best American films ever produced. The fact that the film's lead actor, writer, and director — Orson Welles — was only 25-years old, and it was his first movie, makes the film even that much more remarkable. It's a wonderful film that is fresh even today, but are there lessons in the making of the film that we can apply more broadly to other creative arts including presentations? I believe there are. The film was innovative and used techniques in storytelling and production that were not common for the time. There are many things that made the film remarkable, such as the good use of makeup to age the actors, the physicality which Welles brought to the screen, the natural feel of the dialog achieved by allowing actors to cross-talk, the smooth transitions and continuity achieved via J-cuts, unusual camera angles, long scenes without a cut, use of subjective camera, and on and on — but here are a few below from which we can extrapolate lessons for our own presentations or speeches in all their myriad forms.

Story Structure.
Rosebud Although the unconventional (for the time) nonlinear narrative approach is a tad confusing at times, Citizen Kane made clear use of the basics of storytelling structure: Exposition (beginning), Conflict (middle), and Resolution (end). Beginning: the exposition is furnished early in the form of a newsreel (popular in the '40s) to give a history and overview of the protagonist's life. This infomation was crucial as the rest of the movie goes through Kane's life via flashbacks. MIddle: There is the reporter's conflict to find the meaning of "Rosebud" (Kane's last words), and there were the many internal conflicts which existed within Kane himself and his relationships with his friends, enemies and wives, etc. End: Although it looks like the end will be unresolved, at the last moment the meaning of Rosebud all makes sense in the final few seconds (though questions remain).

The non-linear structure of the narrative.
Script Citizen Kane unfolds in a nonlinear and in a sense circular way. The movie loops through time, recollections of Kane's life told through the memories of witnesses to Kane's life. The newsreel obituary footage at the beginning was important for the nonlinear approach to work. Says Roger Ebert on this device: "[the newsreal scene] keeps us oriented as the screenplay skips around in time, piecing together the memories of those who knew him." Most good presentations and keynote addresses follow a linear progression that is clear and engaging, but there is no reason that you could not craft your presentation in a non-linear style so long as you build in structure so that people know what you are doing and know where you are in the progression. For example, you could build a story about the ultimate success of your research (and why it matters), but you could at times go back to an earlier stage even before your research started to tell a short anecdote that was a precursor to your current research questions, even though you did not know that at the time. Nonlinear is more challenging, but if the flow is well planned and efforts are made to make things clear for the audience, it can be very engaging. Whether your presentation narrative unfolds in a linear or more of a nonlinear fashion depends on how you craft and develop the structure of your talk, not on what type of software you use, or whether you use software at all.  (In the photo above Welles is visiting co-writer Herman Mankiewicz (center) in the California desert while writing Citizen Kane. John Houseman (right) is holding a copy of the screenplay.)

Variety in pace and visual treatments
In Citizen Kane there is great variety in the pace and setting of scenes, even though it was not a big-budget picture. Some scenes move very slowly and are quickly juxtaposed with fast-paced montoges. Many scenes are quite visually subdued while others are visually dynamic and full of myriad elements and movement. This variety of what Bruce Block in The Visual Story calls "Rythmic patterns" is another example of contrast, and contrasts remember are interesting to our brains. While there is good visual variety, including unusual camera angles and set designs, there is also good affinity among the visual treatment throughout the film which contributes to a consistent overall look of the movie. This is a reminder for us too in the design of multimedia presentations that while great visual variety can be an effective technique to get attention and illuminate messages, there must also be a clear visual theme. Often this theme may be subtle but it helps establish cohesion among the different elements and helps communication generally.

Low_shot  Party
ABOVE: The flashbacks unfold in a variety of scenes. Left is a still from a slower paced scene with an unusually low camera angle featuring dialog between only two characters in the newsroom/campaign headquarters. Right is a still from the rambunctious party scene that has the feel of a fast paced musical. (Note too that they are filmed on the same set.)

Deep Focus
One of the most remarkable things about the film visually is Welles's use of deep focus. Deep focus is achieved when everything in a shot is in focus. Often in cinema the foreground will be in focus and the background out of focus, or vice versa. This tells the audience where to look in a scene. When everything is in focus on screen, however, you need to use other techniques such as composition and movement to lead the audience's eye, suggesting where to look first, second, and so on. Welles used lighting to emphasize focal points. He also used eye gaze and staging to lead the viewer's eyes, yet with everything in focus the viewer is free to roam around and becomes more involved with the visual.

Deep_focus
ABOVE: This scene actually starts outside with the boy and the camera moves all the way back and through the table (the table splits in two to let the camera pass, though we do not see this trick of course). In this still you can see how everything is in focus and there is a clear foreground, middle, and background. Though young Kane playing in the snow is a small visual element, its light and movement get attention. Young Kane's fate is the subject of the conversation and his enclosure in the frame of the window is symbolic of the imprisonment Kane will feel at the thought of being sent away from home to be raised by his mother's banker, Mr. Thatcher.

This deep-focus technique was effective in creating deep space. Deep space is generally speaking more interesting to the eye as it involves the viewer and asks the viewer to participate more. By keeping everything in focus you allow the audience to be more involved in scanning the image. You can create depth by using contrasts such as big/small, dark/light, texture/textureless, bright colors/muted colors, warm/cool colors, sharp focus/blurred focus, and so on. ) "An audience watching a film or video does not notice more than three vanishing points. You only really need no more than three levels of illusionary depth," says Bruce Block in The Visual Story. You can see a clear illustration of these three levels in the stills above and below.

Depth2
ABOVE: This is a good example of deep space. Note the three men and the three levels of space. The close up on Kane left is bold and dramatic. More light is cast on Jedediah in the middle ground. This effect was done with an optical printer, layering the shot on the left with the shot on the right as it was too difficult to produce the deep focus using only the camera and light manipulation.

Leading the eye
An audience member can focus only on one relatively small area of a composition at a time. You can influence where the viewers will look on a screen by manipulating contrasting elements, but movement on a screen is the most powerful way to get someone's attention, which is why it must be used with discretion.  A larger and brighter element will slip from focal point once even a tiny element moves on a screen. In multimedia presentations animation must be used sparingly and always with a purpose. A little bit of animation can get attention or emphasize an element, but lots of animation will just become background noise.

Depth
ABOVE: Another example of deep space and a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. In the background Kane's size is diminished further by the size the widows, symbolic of the humiliating mood he was in at the time due to financial difficulties. Although the background element is small, our eye keeps track of it as it (Kane) moves to the back and then toward the front. Movement — even when the element is small — will alway get the eye's attention, even when competing with larger and brighter elements, so long as those other elements are relatively static.

Fireplace  Outside_snow
Above Left: In the large photo above the fireplace Kane is looking down in the direction of Mr. Bernstein. The reporter who is slightly taller looks downward to Mr. Bernstein. This has the subtle influence to point your eyes in the direction of Mr. Berstein, even though everything is in focus in the scene. Right: Note how your eye naturally is drawn to the little boy (Kane as a child) even though everything is in focus, including all four actors—all eyes are in the direction of the boy and the placement of the actors draws lines to the boy.

Techniques integral not superlative to the storytelling
Light While the film introduced many innovative technical elements that did indeed get noticed by the audience, these techniques were not superfluous but were rather used to support the narrative in a unique way, in a sense becoming part of the narrative. "Orson Welles took a visual style and flaunted it — he made the style an overt part of the story. The technique was inseparable from the narrative, not just its humble servant," says Chris Dashiell in an article entitled Kane Reaction on cinescene.com. In the world of presentations there is nothing wrong, for example, with using bold software or design techniques to aid your narrative, but these techniques must be used to make the messages stronger or impact your audience in a different way, not merely to show off or impress with dazzle. Techniques — impressive or not, new or not — must never be merely cosmetic or a decorative veneer. Ideally, they become "inseparable from the narrative."

                                  “Create your own visual style...
             let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others.”
                                           — Orson Welles

The takeaways
Lead the viewer's eye by establishing clear focal points in your visuals.
Use size contrast (and other contrasts) to create depth.
Use movement (animation) with discretion and clear intent.
Create good variety visually (and in terms of pace), but have a clear visual theme as well.
If you use multimedia, be bold and make it part of the narrative rather than a sideshow.
Have a clear and simple structure. Whether your narrative is linear or nonlinear depends on your approach and planning, not on which software you use.
Experiment, take a risk, try something new. There is no one best way (or best app) when it comes to creating & delivery powerful presentations.

Link
The DVD includes a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and another one by Roger Ebert. The boxed set of two DVDs also comes with the documentary "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" which was very interesting indeed. Highly recommend the DVDs There is now a 70th Anniversary edition in blu-ray as well. (Amazon).

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