Moving pictures are, in essence, a form of photography, even though the art form rapidly expanded to include narrative, editing, and acting as well. In order for those pieces to work however, they need to have good images to create them. The person running the camera is responsible for those images, and this is the category that honors those people. Camerawork was always a highly technical process, and many cinematographers have regarded themselves as artists only second, or incidentally, to their technical skill. But don’t let that fool you – their eyes see the world in a different way, and when they succeed in showing that to us, we experience their art at its best.
In 1916, there were some great examples of the art and craft of cinematography. Eugene Gaudio has been credited with the first underwater photography in a feature film for his work on “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.” Elgin Lessley managed a surprisingly moody lighting style for the dark “Fatty” Arbuckle vehicle “He Did and He Didn’t.” In his autobiography, Billy Bitzer describes the unique challenges of working on the elaborate production of “Intolerance,” including setting up one of them most complex crane shots of the day. Joseph H. August uses camera angles to isolate the anti-hero of “Hell’s Hinges,” as well as effective pans that take advantage of the lonesomeness of the Western setting. And, although “German Expressionism” is still a few years away, Carl Hoffman may have created the visual prototype in the serial “Homunculus.”
The nominees for best cinematography in 1916 are:
- Eugene Gaudio, for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
- Elgin Lessley, for “He Did and He Didn’t”
- Billy Bitzer, for “Intolerance”
- Joseph H. August, for “Hell’s Hinges”
- Carl Hoffmann, for “Homunculus”
And the winner is…Carl Hoffman, for “Homunuculus!”
This was another of the tough choices, because I can’t deny that all of the possible selections was influential in some way or another in the years to come, but I felt that “Homunculus” was the most ahead of its time. Note that we don’t even have a complete copy available for viewing, so making the call becomes that much harder, although of course with movies this old that is par for the course. From what we do have, the “creation” scenes in “Homunculus” stand out as being some of the most creative images on 1916, and surely harbingers of what we would see in 1919 and later.