Thursday, October 23, 2014

Citizen Kane

It's always a pleasure to see a classic updated for modern platforms, and the latest version of Citizen Kane should bring this masterpiece to life for a new generation of hardcore filmers. In its original release, Citizen Kane consisted of 13 thin strips of semi-translucent cellulose nitrate, each 34.98 mm in width and approximately 250 meters in length. On each strip was printed a series of small images--nearly 2,900 in all! Many of the images featured Orson Welles, but others show Joseph Cotten. Sometimes they were wearing makeup or costumes. The pictures were not as big as the strip; they were only 22mm wide and 16mm tall. To the left of the images was a continuous drawing of a sound wave. On either side of each image, four rectangular holes were punched through the strip. Each  strip was wound around a disc-shaped metal frame, called a reel. (One is pictured above.) The reels were packaged in individual metal cans, often labeled by hand, in marker. Four cans were packaged in a larger, octagonal metal case, like a primitive version of a SteelBook. (The picture below is of the packaging for a different film, but the packaging for Citizen Kane was nearly identical. Unfortunately, no collector of the time was smart enough to save an unopened version.)

Citizen Kane was unveiled at an unboxing ceremony on January 1, 1941, at the Pantages Theatre, 6223 Hollywood Boulevard. Everyone at the unboxing was given a booklet with words and images printed on it explaining what was on the film, although this wasn't very objective since it described what was in the pictures with loaded phrases like "excitement-packed," instead of focusing on the unbiased facts. The strips were loaded into a machine which passed light through each image, creating an image on a very large screen. By pulling the strip through the machine at high speed, the images were made to change very rapidly, 24 times every second. This produced an illusion of motion--it seemed to the audience that the images were moving. At the same time, light was shined through the sound wave to the left of the image, onto a special device which transmitted an electric current to "speakers" throughout the theater. In the speakers, a paper or cloth cone vibrated, creating longitudinal waves in the air inside the theater. These waves reproduced the noises the people in the images made, as well as "sound effects" that were created afterwards. Also there was music.

Even in its initial release, Citizen Kane had problems. The images didn't have any colors at all, which destroyed the illusion of looking at people doing things. Dividing it into 13 strips meant that sometimes there was a gap or pop when one strip had been fed completely through one machine and the other strip had to begin on the next machine. Small scratches or dust on the strips of cellulose nitrate became giant blemishes on the screen. And the speakers and the sound were not very high quality by the standards of modern filmers. What's more, the strips of cellulose nitrate were incredibly flammable and had to be carefully stored. This is probably why it was not well received by filmers or critics right away. Still, no one could deny that Citizen Kane made it seem like the audience was watching and listening to people on the screen, and over time its reputation grew. Today filmers recognize it as a masterpiece. 

So it's incredibly exciting to finally see an updated release. Over the years, it has been updated for modern sensibilities many times: there was a version that consisted of strips of celluloid, a version printed on magnetic tape, and a version on plastic optical discs (very similar to the latest re-release.) Here's what it looks like now:

As you can see, Citizen Kane now features many of the things that a modern filmer expects: a cardboard box, a plastic case which opens like a book, and plastic discs. It even has a small reproduction of the booklet given to the original audience, so that filmers today can have the same experience. It also has small versions of the pictures that were hung in the lobby outside the theater, although these are also not objective. One says "It's Terrific!" There is a book which features very nice fonts and images and an attractive binding; it has been updated to be more objective than the original booklet. It has a section called "Facts From Xanadu" which is entirely factual and unbiased. Here is one of the objective facts it has in it:
  •  The original working title of the film was The American.
However, in the real book that comes with the movie, these words are in a different font so it's important that filmers experience it for themselves. When the discs are fed into a special machine, it creates sounds that approximate the ones made by the speakers at the unboxing ceremony. Instead of an optical image of the sound wave, this version uses digital encoding. To be precise and objective, these sounds are encoded as DTS-HD Master Audio English 821 kbps 1.0 / 48 kHz / 821 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 1.0 / 48 kHz / 768 kbps / 24-bit). What that means is that without special configuration, the discs will only produce sound in the filmer's center speaker. Although the receiver can be configured to output sound to all speakers, there is no surround mix or effects track; the same sounds will be produced by all speakers. 

The disc also illuminates tiny dots on the filmer's home television set: 2,073,600 of them. If filmers are far enough away, they will see something that looks like the images on the original strip of cellulose nitrate. The dots change color, producing an illusion of motion, just like the first version. How fast the dots change depends on the filmer's equipment but on my setup they changed color 72 times every second. Citizen Kane doesn't take full advantage of this, though: it only changes the dots 24 times every second, just like its original release. So even on my underpowered, out-of-date system, Citizen Kane only uses one third of the available framerate. Hardcore filmers who have invested in better gear can configure it to make the dots change color as much as 240 times each second, creating a much smoother look, which should make it look much better and more accurate and in line with the tastes of modern consumers.

The images were smaller than in the original release: only 49.8 inches diagonally, but like the framerate, this will vary for individual filmers. What doesn't change is that the filmmakers failed to update the image size, so there are large black bars on the left and right side of the image. These bars don't change at all, no matter what framerate Citizen Kane is played at. Perhaps a future release will not miss this opportunity to either stretch or crop the image to match modern sensibilities. 

Even more unforgivable: although anyone who calls themselves a filmer has a television that is perfectly capable of producing colors, this release is only in black and white. Incredibly, plans to update the film going back to the 1980s have still not been completed; filmers will have to wait for a version that looks its best on their equipment:

Objectively, however, it is impossible to deny that the film contains three discs in a cardboard box, with plenty of content for filmer's dollars. It is also true that the discs produce sound, and even if the images don't move as smoothly as a modern filmer may expect, it still looks convincingly like a continually moving image. This is what we mean when we describe something as a "motion picture," and it is why Citizen Kane is a masterpiece that continues to delight even the most hardcore filmers.



Citizen Kane convincingly combines many small dots to produce images, then changes the color of the dots to produce the illusion of motion. However, it is not in color and has a locked framerate of 24fps.

SOUND: 10/40

Citizen Kane uses only one speaker. Nevertheless, with the proper equipment it can convert a string of scratches on a reflective disc into longitudinal waves in the filmer's room.


This is the most updated version of Citizen Kane's controls so far. Filmers can pause, rewind, skip chapters, and even open up a menu from the middle of the film. None of these options were available in the first release, and they improve the experience immensely.

EXTRAS: 8/10

Some points must be docked for omitting the original sturdy metal casing and shrinking the accompanying program. However, the discs are high-quality plastic and the new packaging is attractive and will look at home on any filmer's shelf.