Griffith’s Cameraman, Billy Bitzer – An Interview by Beaumont Newhall (1965)

D.W. Griffith, American Film Master – by Iris Barry (MoMa 1965)

Billy Bitzer cca 1919
Billy Bitzer cca 1919

Griffith’s Cameraman, Billy Bitzer

An Interview by Beaumont Newhall

When Griffith joined Biograph he was fortunate to find in the studio G. W. Bitzer, who had been with the company since 1896, first as electrician, but soon as a jack-of-all-trades —cameraman, property man, scenic designer and director. The two at once became companions, and for sixteen years Bitzer almost single-handedly realized on film the action that Griffith directed. They worked together so closely that it is virtually impossible to separate their technical contributions.

Bitzer, when interviewed in 1940, vividly recalled this remarkable teamwork. His mechanical ingenuity enabled him to realize some of Griffith’s revolutionary ideas. But Bitzer remembered with humor that some of the devices Griffith used so effectively were stumbled upon by accident.

The Studio on Fourteenth Street (Billy Bitzer Story)
The Studio on Fourteenth Street (Billy Bitzer Story)

The Mutograph camera used by Biograph in the early 1900’s was a clumsy instrument. One of its great drawbacks was that film could not be re-rolled for a double exposure. This meant that the company could not make trick films, which were then very popular. Perhaps this purely mechanical deficiency of equipment made Griffith’s ideas particularly attractive to the Biograph financiers, for it offered them a way to meet competition through novelty. Bitzer recollects that this camera was used for a long time in the Biograph studio. It could be driven by hand or by a motor. Raw film, without the familiar marginal perforations of today, was put into the camera; during the shooting two holes per frame were punched out, and the celluloid disks fell through the bottom of the camera case onto the ground in a steady stream.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

Bitzer could easily duplicate a camera set-up by putting his tripod over the little pile of celluloid disks. Static electricity, generated by the friction feed of the film, caused trouble; to overcome it the interior of the camera was heated with a shielded bicycle lamp which burned alcohol. But in cold weather, when static was most severe, the heat brought fur ther trouble—condensation on the lens. The film scratched easily, and these scratches showed up so prominently in sky areas that it was necessary to exclude as much sky as possible in the composition of the shots. Yet out of this crude equip ment came some of the finest photography seen on the screen, and the catalog of innovations is staggering. Many of these innovations began as accidents which Bitzer turned into practical techniques. A less imaginative and courageous director than Griffith would have hesitated to recognize their esthetic and dramatic value. This is not the place to discuss priority; the importance of these devices lies in their functional, almost automatic, origin and in their brilliant exploitation.

DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)
DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)

Slow film which is “unbacked” —which has not been coated with an opaque light-absorbing substance on its re verse side—is prone to exaggerate highlights in a most distressing way. Points of light seem to spread and to eat up adjacent darker details. This halation can be partially pre vented by shading the lens with a tubular hood. Photographing one day by electric light in his basement, Bitzer improvised such a lens hood from an old glue pot. The results were fine, so fine that he took his home-made gadget on location. But when the film was processed the corners of each frame appeared rounded olf in darkness. Bitzer had forgotten an elementary optical fact—that the iris diaphragm in the lens which controls the amount of light falling on the film also affects the focus. Like the human eye, the iris of the camera eye is wide open in dim light and constricted in bright light. Objects near and far are sharp when the camera iris is small. Inadvertently, by closing the camera iris to the small diameter demanded by brilliant sunlight, Bitzer had brought the end of his lens hood into focus. When Griffith saw the projected film he was far from disappointed. “He got very excited,” Bitzer told the writer, “and asked me how I’d got ten the new effect. I said that I’d been working on it quietly for the last six months !”

David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg
David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg

The logical step was to contrive a lens hood which could be adjusted to give more pronounced effects. A large iris diaphragm from a still camera was added to the hood. To adjust it more easily a handle was fastened to the flimsy setting. This led to another accident. During the shooting the weight of the handle closed the iris gradually; the dark corners of the frame grew until the image was entirely blotted out. Again technical failure resulted in recognition by Griffith of a new device, the fade-out. “This was just what we needed,” pointed out Bitzer. “The climax of all these films was the kiss. We couldn’t linger over the embrace, for then yokels in the audience would make cat-calls. We couldn’t cut abruptly—that would be crude. The fade-out gave a really dignified touch; we didn’t have a five-cent movie any more.”

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

But the vignette mask was not always satisfactory; it cut out part of the scene. To subdue the corners of the frame and direct the eye towards the principal action the gauze mask was developed —simply a couple of layers of black chiffon fastened over the hood with a rubber band. Holes were burned in the gauze with the end of a cigarette where the image detail should be distinct. Further experiments were made with iris diaphragms made of translucent celluloid, with graduated filters and with “barn doors” —a box with four sliding members which could be pushed in at will to change the rectangular proportions of the frame. The front of Bitzer’s camera became notorious, and rival cameramen would bribe actors to give them detailed reports on his latest gadget.

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith

Bitzer claims that the birth of a nation was shot with just one camera. It seems incredible, but the program credit bears him out. “It was a $300 Pathe machine,” he reminisced, “with a 3.3 two-inch lens interchangeable with a wide-angle lens— that is, you had to screw one out and screw the other into its place. None of your turrets like they have today, where the cameraman presses a button and the six-inch lens pops into place! It was a light camera, and it was easy to pick it up and come forward for a close-up, back for a long shot, around for a side angle. But there were times when I wished that Mr. Griffith wouldn’t depend on me so much, especially in battle scenes. After all, a fellow doesn’t want to spend all his time in dusty California adobe trenches. The fireworks man shooting smoke bombs over the camera—most of them exploding outside the camera range and D. W. shouting ‘Lower, lower, can’t you shoot those damn bombs lower?’ ‘We’ll hit the cameraman if we do,’ answered the fireworks brigade, and bang!, one of them whizzed past my ear. The next one may have gone between my legs for all I knew. But the bombs were coming into the camera field so it was O.K.

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)
Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)

“All we had was orthochromatic film. Perhaps this old stock with its limited range of tones really helped the Birth of a  Nation photography —it sort of dated the period not only in the battle scenes but in the historical events like Lee’s surrender.”

Billy_Bitzer_NYWTS
Billy_Bitzer_NYWTS

This realistic quality has often been remarked. Individual shots have been compared to Brady’s Civil War photographs. The similarity is not accidental, for Bitzer, bribing a librarian with a box of chocolates, got hold of some photographic copies of the famous Civil War series for Griffith’s use. Be sides the quality of the slow orthochromatic film, light played a very important part in the picture. Daylight was used exclusively in the Birth of a Nation, except in the night shots lighted by flares. Throughout his career Bitzer has used daring lighting, even to the extreme of allowing light to fall directly on the lens. Reflectors were used to soften shadows, bringing out their detail, but always in a subdued way so that their presence is unnoticed in the film. These reflectors were soft —they were of cloth, not casting the harsh light of a polished metal, tin-foil or other “hard” reflector. Bitzer likes to tell about how he stumbled on back, or reverse, lighting. During a lunch hour on Fort Lee location he playfully turned his lens on Mary Pickford and Owen Moore as they were eating sandwiches, and ground out a few feet of film without their knowledge. The two were between the camera and the sun, but Bitzer went ahead—after all, the sequence was intended only as a joke, to liven up the projection room audience. Enough light happened to be reflected into their faces to hold the detail, and when it was screened Griffith was more than amused—since it indicated a new approach to lighting.

Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer
Gregory Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer

Fate had not dealt kindly with Billy Bitzer when we inter viewed him at the request of Iris Barry eight years before his death. He was no longer a working cinematographer and his contribution to our film heritage was then hardly known. We shall ever remember his pride of craftsmanship and his affection for ‘D.W.” His pioneer achievements rank among the most significant and remarkable in film history. (Beaumont Newhall)

Billy Bitzer cca 1916

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