George William "Billy" Bitzer
Initially trained as a silversmith, Bitzer took night classes in ... Read more »
G. W. 'Billy' Bitzer, the cinematographer for most of D.W. Griffith's films, entered motion pictures at their start, 14 years before Griffith.
Initially trained as a silversmith, Bitzer took night classes in electrical engineering at the Cooper Union Institute in New York. In 1894 he joined the Magic Introduction Company, which later changed its name to the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. There he helped former Edison inventor W.K.L. Dickson design the Mutoscope machine, a device which used the "flicker book" principle to create an illusion of motion. He also perfected the Biograph camera, adding an air compressor to reduce friction. Between 1896 and 1908 Bitzer photographed numerous newsreels, his assignments including President William McKinley's inauguration, the Spanish-American War in Cuba, and the Jim Jeffries-Jim Sharkey championship fight--possibly the first film to use artificial light.
Several innovations associated with Griffith were in fact developed much earlier by Bitzer. His 1896 short of famed actor Joseph Jefferson doing scenes from "Rip Van Winkle" used--for perhaps the first time--close-ups for dramatic effect. By 1904 Bitzer had become a master of the filmed chase, and was regularly shooting sequences in which establishing shots of actors were immediately followed by close-ups. By 1908 he had pioneered the matte shot, in which a pre-photographed background is combined with a live-action scene, as well as various kinds of effects lighting.
In 1908, Bitzer teamed up with Griffith on "A Calamitous Elopement", beginning a collaboration that would last sixteen years. Griffith made the fullest use of Bitzer's innovations, encouraging him to perfect existing techniques (such as the fade and the dissolve) and to invent new ones for Griffith's increasingly complex narratives. Some of the Bitzer-Griffith innovations, such as the flashback, extreme long shot, traveling shot, split-screen shot, matte shot and various lighting effects, were planned in advance; others, however--such as backlighting, the iris shot, and the soft-focus shot--were the fortuitous result of mistakes Bitzer made during shooting.
By the time Bitzer and Griffith left Biograph for the Mutual Film Corporation in late 1913, they had developed the basic grammar for narrative cinema. Their next films, "Birth of a Nation" (1915) and "Intolerance" (1916), brought together the entire film grammar for the first time, and represent both men's artistic and financial apogees. Bitzer, who contributed his life savings of $7,000 to help meet the $60,000 production cost of "Birth", recouped his investment four times over.
In the 1920s new cameras like the Bell & Howell, as well as the influx of German cinematographers to Hollywood and the advent of sound, changed the nature of cinematography. Bitzer now found himself ridiculed when he appeared on set with the Pathe camera he had used since "Birth of a Nation". Rather than scorn the camera he loved so much, Bitzer began to work less frequently, shooting just five films after 1920. Sixteen years as an around-the-clock "camera fiend," however, had also taken their toll; Bitzer's alcoholism and domestic problems made him unreliable, eventually forcing Griffith to turn to the younger cinematographers who had once assisted his partner.
In 1926 Bitzer founded the International Photographers of the Motion Picture Industries society, for which he served two terms as president. In the late 1930s he returned to New York, where he worked in a photographic shop until 1939, when the Museum of Modern Art hired him to work on their film archives. There Bitzer repaired old cameras, restored film prints and annotated documents. He also began writing his autobiography, "Billy Bitzer: His Story", which was eventually published in 1973. In 1943 Bitzer's health forced him to return to California, where he died, forgotten by the industry he had helped establish.