Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Cinematography

Best Cinematography 1917

In its purest form, filmmaking is just photography. A camera captures a series of images and the human eye-brain complex creates the illusion of movement, and all of the narratives that go along with it. The first filmmakers often thought in terms of portraiture, or of landscapes, rather than telling stories. As the art form became more sophisticated, more elements were introduced: acting, special effects, editing, and screenwriting (eventually including recorded dialogue) became vital elements of the motion picture. But the camera remained essential to its definition, and the cinematographer’s technical skill and aesthetic view helps to define how we see the worlds created on film, even to this day.

In 1917, cinematography was already one of the more established positions on a film crew, and many of the people (mostly men) running cameras had long experience creating images on both still and moving film. The Russian Empire boasted some of the most creative photographers of the period, and Boris Zavelev was perhaps the best. He won a Century Award in 1915 for “Daydreams,” a movie he made in collaboration with director Evgeni Bauer, and this year he’s on the list again for “The Dying Swan,” the last movie Bauer was able to complete before he died. Here, he uses a mobile camera and dramatic lighting effects to establish a sense of doom and depth. In “A Man There WasJulius Jaenzon demonstrates that the Swedish also had a sense of the somber and dark by 1917. He shows storms at night which probably would have just been black spaces if shot realistically on the film of the time, but which work through the lighting effects he applies. The video I saw of “Fear” had inferior visuals, but I could see that some interesting work was going on, especially in the dream sequences and scenes set in India. I don’t know the name of the cinematographer hired by Robert Wiene to bring these images to life. Finally, Maurice Tourneur’s camera team of Lucien Andriot and John van der Broek used his familiar lighting techniques to tell a story of a child who faces possible death due to the negligence of the adults in her life. Mary Pickford’s acting is only half of the reason that these scenes are so compelling: the rest is down to tight direction and excellent use of light and shadows. Mary’s dream sequences become darker and darker as she gets nearer to death, yet the audience can always make out the important details.

The nominees for best cinematography for 1917 are.:

  1. The Dying Swan
  2. A Man There Was
  3. Fear
  4. Poor Little Rich Girl

And the winner is…

Julius Jaenzon for “A Man There Was!”

Honestly, I could almost have rolled a die to pick between the three good prints I had (“Fear” didn’t get a fair chance, I admit, because I couldn’t see a decent print). But, reflecting back on it, it seemed to me that the Swedish film was the one where the photography stood out throughout the movie, and not just in a key scene. Given that I had to choose one movie to give the award to, that seemed like the best criterion to use. “A Man There Was” is simply a beautiful film, which any fan of photography will enjoy from beginning to end.

Best Cinematography 1916

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:

  1. Eugene Gaudio, for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
  2. Elgin Lessley, for “He Did and He Didn’t”
  3. Billy Bitzer, for “Intolerance”
  4. Joseph H. August, for “Hell’s Hinges”
  5. 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.

Best Cinematography 1915

Capturing images on the screen is where the entire concept of movies begins. What we really respond to in watching a film is simply light, nothing more. The skill required to manipulate light and objects to create images that will impact an audience is tremendous, and often overlooked in the industry. Great cameramen are artists, at least as much as great directors, and accomplished technicians as well.

The year 1915 encouraged the growth of this art form, even as the increasing popularity feature-length movies raised the narrative level of the medium. In “Young Romance,” cameraman Walter Stradling combined striking exteriors with highly deliberate interior shots that show a sense of mise-en-scène rarely seen in American cinema to this time. By contrast, in “The ItalianJoseph H. August creates a stark vision of an urban world of tenements and gangsters, although the opening sequence in the old country also shows a nostalgic romanticism. Russian cinematographer Boris Zavlev, with “Daydreams,” once again merits recognition for his “free” camera which isn’t afraid to move both with and counter to actors in order to place the audience more convincingly inside their world, rather than looking at it from a distance. Back in the USA, Alvin Wyckoff gives us both intimate views of the emotional world of the characters in “The Cheat” and considerable use of contrast and shadows to define the darkening world they inhabit. No doubt this night film style will be picked up and used again in the future. The artistic use of light and shadow is also strong in the crime picture by Maurice Tourneur, “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” which includes some very original angles and unusual images indeed.

The nominees for Best Cinematography for 1915 are

  1. Young Romance
  2. The Italian
  3. Daydreams
  4. The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is…Boris Zavlev for “Daydreams!”

Daydreams1This year we did see American cinematographers start to break out of the confines of earlier years of production, but the Russians still surpassed them. “Daydreams” feels like a movie from the 20s, not the mid-teens, and a lot of that is due to Zavlev’s freely mobile camera. While last year’s winner, “Silent Witnesses” almost won by default, this year “Daydreams” had tough competition but still managed to pull ahead of the pack. The use of a complex tracking shot to show a character’s change of decision and the effective filming of a stage performance that includes the audience without making them into performers themselves are two great examples of what made Russian cinema the artistic leader it was at the time.

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:

  1. In the Land of the Head Hunters (Edmund August Schwinke)
  2. Cabiria (Segundo de Chomón)
  3. The Virginian (Alvin Wyckoff)
  4. Judith of Bethulia (G.W. “Billy” Bitzer)
  5. 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.

Billy Bitzer: His Story

Billy Bitzer

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/661668

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.