Best Cinematography 1914
Cinema is, ultimately, the art of using a motion picture camera. In the very early days, the cameraman was king of the movie set, the person who decided everything about what the audience would see. But, innovators like Georges Méliès put an end to that – in his case for the simple expedient of being in front of the camera. The division of labor had a practical side as well. Often, it made sense for someone with experience in acting to direct the actors, while the cinematographer took care of the technical and visual side of storytelling.
By 1914, directors and producers were generally credited with most of the “creative” side of filmmaking. Even Billy Bitzer, the genius behind most of D.W. Griffith’s films, said in his autobiography that he considered himself a craftsman and not an artist. Those familiar with “Judith of Bethulia,” the first feature these two collaborated on, may disagree. Where Bitzer gives us battle and drama, Segundo de Chomón gives us true spectacle in “Cabiria.” No one, including Griffith, ever forgot the creative use of tracking shots in that film. Alvin Wyckoff, working on “The Virginian,” on the other hand, produces a unique vision of the Old West in an era when not everyone had yet forgotten it. Working in Canada, Edmund August Schwinke tried to maintain a level of accuracy in portraying the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples for “In the Land of the Head Hunters.” And, last but not least, an unnamed camera operator (possibly Boris Zavelev) showed us a truly advanced vision of the cinema in “Silent Witnesses.”
The nominees for best cinematography for 1914 are:
- In the Land of the Head Hunters (Edmund August Schwinke)
- Cabiria (Segundo de Chomón)
- The Virginian (Alvin Wyckoff)
- Judith of Bethulia (G.W. “Billy” Bitzer)
- Silent Witnesses
And the winner is…the anonymous camerawork of “Silent Witnesses!”
This was another tough call, especially in light of the influential nature of “Cabiria” and the lasting fame of Billy Bitzer. But, as astounding as those tracking shots must have been in 1914, they don’t hold up all that well today, they seem to be somewhat random in their placement and duration, and Bitzer was also capable of better than he showed us in “Judith,” possibly being overwhelmed by the scale of the picture. I’ve said that “Silent Witnesses” isn’t my favorite Bauer, but even so, it feels ahead of its time when placed next to any of the others, at least in terms of camera positions and lighting.