Billy Bitzer: His Story

by popegrutch

Billy Bitzer

Worldcat Link:

I’ve made a point of including the name of Billy Bitzer in each of the reviews of the D.W. Griffith movies I’ve done this year. It’s sort of redundant: you’d be hard-pressed to find a Griffith picture where Bitzer wasn’t the cameraman. But, it seems important to me to honor the man who crafted the images that brought Griffith’s visions to life.

Today, cinematographers have a way of being ignored, in favor of the “auteur theory” that tells us that the real creative artist behind a movie is the director. Only occasionally does some film buff notice that certain Directors of Photography have certain styles and strengths, that they carry over from movie to movie, no matter who they’re working for.

But, in the early days of cinema, this distinction was less clear. The earliest movies are often directed and shot by the same person – Georges Méliès, for example, shot many of his own movies, when he wasn’t the star. After a while the division of labor began to make sense, even for directors who didn’t want to work in front of the camera: the director needed to be paying attention to what was happening and to give directions on the spot, while someone else turned the crank and checked focus. Cameramen (and it was usually men) slowly became the junior partners in the relationship.

But, in such a visual medium as the silent movie, I think their contribution remains pretty significant. Bitzer was the one who had to come up with technical ways to achieve the innovations that Griffith wanted to make possible. The freshness and originality of those early short films for Biograph is in part due to his efforts.

For that reason I thought I’d mention his autobiography, now long out of print. It was written in the process of preparing archival materials for the Museum of Modern Art, and never really got the attention or editing it deserved, but it’s the only record we have from a cinematographer of this period. Bitzer’s personality comes through clearly, as well as his humble estimation of his efforts, although by the time he was writing (1944) the techniques he had pioneered were the basis of a multi-million dollar industry. He’s more interested, really, in talking about Griffith’s genius, and the joy of working with his favorite actors, than in showing off for himself. The book includes several rare photographs from the early silent period and a remarkably comprehensive list of the movies, long and short, that Bitzer worked on.

Read my full review on Goodreads.