Original Creators: Filmmaking Genius Orson Welles
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Orson Welles.
If you have even a passing interest in film and the moving image than you’ll be familiar with the name Orson Welles. He’s a giant of the silver screen who, with his seminal work Citizen Kane (1941)—along with cinematographer Gregg Toland—helped shaped the visual vocabulary of modern film. Notable techniques they used were deep focus, low and varied camera angles, film noir-style deep shadows, camera moving through objects, and atypical lighting—and while these dramatic techniques weren’t new, it was Citizen Kane that gelled then together with skill, flair, and acumen.
As well as its visual artistry, the film was narratively unconventional with a non-linear story and was also notable for bucking the trend of the studio system of the time. Instead of being controlled by this system, which was at its zenith, Citizen Kane was made with complete freedom so Welles and his collaborators were allowed to do whatever they liked—which was unprecedented.
Camera moving through different objects: a sign and a glass ceiling in Citizen Kane.
They also harnessed the technological achievements and breakthroughs of the time to create a truly cutting-edge piece of filmmaking. To add to all these manifold glories it’s entertainment as high art, an art film that has mass appeal with a gripping populist story—one which follows the scandalous life of media mogul Charles Foster Kane (inspired by William Randolph Hearst)—and comes complete with a great twist ending, ticking all the boxes you need, thus confirming its inclusion in film studies classes ever since.
As well as creating that film behemoth, Welles was also a playful artist who liked to toy with the audiences he entertained. This was most notable in his radio play The War of the Worlds, a dramatization of the HG Wells novel, which saw him terrify listeners into thinking the play was real when it was broadcast on October 30, 1938.
A poignant moment in F for Fake.
Another of his projects which revealed his mischievous side was his sort-of-documentary F for Fake (1973), which focuses on the story of art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving, who was himself partial to creating fake works, notably a biography of Howard Hughes. It’s a mind-bending film which constantly plays with the idea of truth, challenging the viewer and confronting them, toying with what’s real in both Hory’s work, Irving’s role as his biographer, and the story that the film presents to us. You’ll left not knowing what’s fiction and what’s fact.
The incredible opening shot from Touch of Evil.
Along with The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) and his version of Shakespeare’s Othello (1952), another of Welles’ classic films is Touch of Evil (1958). The film opens with one of the greatest tracking shots in the history of everything ever—a three-minute crane shot that takes the viewer on a journey across the US border into Mexico, introducing us into a murky underworld that sets the tone for the rest of this influential film noir.
As well as creating film masterpieces and messing with our heads, Welles was also a fine actor, cropping up as the villainous but alluring Harry Lime in classic British movie The Third Man (1949), delivering the movie’s climatic speech about violence and culture. And, of course, he was in The Muppet Movie (1979) and his final filmic outing, perhaps his finest (if you were 10 years old), was voicing Unicron in the animated film The Transformers: The Movie (1986).