The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Roger Ebert and Citizen Kane

Bryan Young | April 11, 2013

I had something else planned for this month’s Cinema column, but after the passing of Roger Ebert, in my sadness I retreated back into his work and found some incredibly fascinating things that connect to the Star Wars universe.

Roger Ebert is, perhaps, one of the greatest teachers of the language of cinema in the world, popularizing it and making columns like mine here make sense. One of those permanent classes held by Ebert as often as we’d care to spin up our DVD or Blu-ray players is his audio commentary of Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane might be one of the single most influential films in the landscape of cinema ever. It used unorthodox storytelling methods, seamlessly combined special effects with drama, and showed us something on screen we’d never, ever, seen before.

Ebert’s commentary is a master-class in cinema, helping viewers drill deeper into the film. When I learned of his passing, I decided it would be a good time to revisit the commentary and I had forgotten how often Ebert mentioned Star Wars in the context of special effects and Citizen Kane and it got me thinking about why.

Star Wars is hailed as one of the most monumental special effects pictures in the history of cinema. It was a watershed moment in the world of visuals and storytelling, creating a kinetic energy from cut to cut in a way that audiences hadn’t seen before.

Kane is very much the same.

Ebert, through his entire commentary, explains why shot after shot of Citizen Kane was actually a processed special effect, but in the context of the film itself they’re all but invisible. When George Lucas set out to make the Star Wars films, he inevitably mimicked the world of the Flash Gordon serials, where there was no effort to mask the special effects. No one took those old sci-fi serials seriously and, while the time was taken give them an abundance of heart, no one infused them with enough money to simulate a feeling of reality.

Using many of the same techniques that Orson Welles and his cinematographer, Greg Toland, pioneered on Citizen Kane, George Lucas took special effects to the next level with Episode IV, but then with the prequels brought them even further up the board. He took the fantastical and married it with a reality no one had ever seen. Lucas took Flash Gordon and set it next to the special effects realism of the best of Orson Welles’ work.

For Citizen Kane, many of the effects were visual tricks to create shots that were impossible to capture in focus or with the lenses of the day, and optical printers were used to combine shots. This is the foundation that all of the blue screen effects in the original trilogy are built on.

Since Welles was shooting different takes of actors for the same scenes and then compositing them together, he was able to choose the very best takes from each actor while not sacrificing quality — but staging these scenes was difficult. In one of the most memorable scenes, Kane (Welles) is typing a poor review of his wife’s opera performance in the foreground while his friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) interacts with him in the background.

By shooting them separately, they’re able to marry a shot together that keeps them both in brilliant focus and use only the best takes.

This is a technique that George Lucas improved upon digitally through the prequels. The one that comes most easily to mind is from The Phantom Menace during the dining room scene in the Skywalker hovel, where Qui-Gon confesses their mission to everyone at the table. Though he didn’t film each actor separately, Lucas was able to take only the best interactions and performances from the actors at the table and digitally combine them into one super-take, putting together the film exactly as he’d envisioned.

The other thing you can look to Citizen Kane for as inspiration for Star Wars, was the style of acting. It’s of a different time and unlike anything you’ve seen. Some today might call it boring or stiff, but I find it to be magical and melodramatic in the same way I find the charm in Star Wars.

And had it not been for the work of Roger Ebert over the course of his life, I’m not sure I would be have been able to capably see these threads between films, and I’m not even certain I’d be able to articulate them if it weren’t for the way he helped teach me (and the public in general) about the way to talk about film.

For more about Roger Ebert and his connection to Star Wars, I recorded a special episode of Full of Sith with clips and readings from his reviews of Star Wars films.

And I highly recommend watching Citizen Kane, both with and without Ebert’s commentary. It’s appropriate for all ages, though some younger kids might find it a bit slow. I watched it with my 10-year-old, though, and he seemed to enjoy it.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on twitter.

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