Often associated with the success of film director D.W. Griffith, pioneer silent film cameraman Billy Bitzer (1872-1944) is credited with having discovered or improved upon many cinematic techniques.
Billy Bitzer was born John William Bitzer in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on April 21, 1872. He was baptized Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer, adopted George William as his formal name, and was known as Billy or G.W. during his career in film. His parents, Johann Martin and Anne Marie (Schmidt) Bitzer, were German immigrants who had settled in the Roxbury section of Boston, where his father worked as a blacksmith and harness maker. Bitzer's younger brother was photographer John C. Bitzer.
Bitzer was trained as a silversmith, but in his early twenties he worked as an electrician in New York City. He took night classes at Cooper Union, studying electrical engineering. In the mid-1890s Bitzer went to work for Magic Introduction Company, which soon became American Mutoscope and then Biograph Company. This early motion picture enterprise produced movies and made cameras, projection equipment, and flip-card viewing machines. Initially hired as an electrician, Bitzer took on the role of photographer and began filming newsreels when Magic Introduction Company acquired Mutoscope Camera.
Among the big events Bitzer filmed early in his career at Biograph Company was the presidential nomination of William McKinley on McKinley's front lawn in Canton, Ohio. This film was shown on Biograph Company's first program in 1896. He was the projectionist at the premier showing of the company's motion pictures in October of that year. Capturing footage of the Spanish-American War, Bitzer became the first cameraman to shoot a war in motion picture. He filmed USS Maine, Havana Harbor in 1898 for the William Randolph Hearst organization. Another early accomplishment was Bitzer's lighting of the boxing match between Jim Jeffries and Tom Sharkey in 1899. Using more than 40 lights over the ring, Bitzer took credit for the first successful artificially-lighted indoor film.
Bitzer's first short fiction movies were shot in 1900. His initial effort, The Interrupted Message, was a film Bitzer wrote, photographed, and directed himself. He soon became the head cameraman for Biograph Company, photographing films both for projection and for the Mutoscope flip-card viewers. As a cinematographer, he was responsible for the lighting and photographing of images in the making of a film. Cinematography developed as a separate craft early in the history of film, and Bitzer rose to prominence and was regarded as a leader in his field.
Actor D.W. Griffith turned to directing at Biography Company in 1908. He teamed with Bitzer to form the best-known director-cameraman pair in the history of American film. As close as brothers, the two men had chemistry unmatched in the industry. Griffith's intricate stories were brought to life by Bitzer's photography, and their creative force involved some tension amidst the harmony. Despite their occasional differences, the duo's collaboration lasted 16 years. Their work demonstrated the potential of film as an art form.
Bitzer and Griffith's movie-making partnership fostered the development of numerous cinematic techniques. Bitzer's soft-focus photography involved the use of a light-diffusion screen in front of the camera lens, thereby softening the subject. The pair's Broken Blossoms (1919) employed diffused, softened lighting with this method and made the film an artistic success.
As one of the first photographers in film to effectively use perspective, Bitzer improved the way close-ups and long shots were handled. He was also a pioneer in lighting, using sunshine and firelight as special effects in his photography. Bitzer was the first cinematographer to shoot a film using entirely artificial lighting, thus ending the need to rely on natural light.
The iris shot is Bitzer's best-known innovation. This technique involves the frame slowly opening in a widening circle as a scene begins, or slowly blacking out in a shrinking circle to end a scene. This process was used throughout Griffith and Bitzer's Civil War epic masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915), and extensively in Intolerance (1916). Both of these films are considered to be among the most brilliant of the 1910s.
Despite great success during that era, the film industry began to change and Griffith and Bitzer did not adjust well. World War I spawned cultural changes in the United States, and German expressionism in film was incompatible with the duo's style. Griffith began to recruit younger cameramen to work with his chief cinematographer. This was especially offensive to Bitzer, as he had remained with Griffith during difficult financial times, sacrificing his salary to help potentially successful films to be completed. As a veteran, Bitzer did not appreciate Griffith's hiring of 16-year-old Karl Brown to assist him. The young newcomer recalled the friction this caused between Griffith and Bitzer in his book Adventures with D.W. Griffith: "I was young and ignorant, and I had no reputation to maintain or protect; I could fail repeatedly and it didn't matter because nobody expected me to do anything else but fail. But if I should just happen accidentally to make something good enough to go into a Griffith picture, I was a genius, no less, at least for that one brief moment. But if Bitzer ever failed at all to produce his incomparable best, such as one scene out of a thousand that was not quite superlatively fine, then the old man was slipping and it would be well to look around for a replacement to have handy just in case."
When special effects cameraman Hendrik Sartov was hired by Griffith in 1919, Bitzer was forced to share his billing. Sartov's forte was a soft focus close-up which very much impressed Griffith. Bitzer's once-thrilling techniques were no longer moving. Brown noted Bitzer's disappointment in Adventures, "And now Griffith had brought in Sartov to make a fool of Bitzer at his own specialty, the big beautiful close-ups of Lillian Gish. This must have been a real crusher for Bitzer, who had taken Griffith under his wing back in the old Biograph days and had patiently taught Griffith which end of the camera took the pictures."
Bitzer became depressed and began drinking and disappearing for days at a time. He recalled those days in his biography Billy Bitzer: His Story, "With the entrance of Sartov, I became the pupil." Another nail in the filmmaking duo's coffin was Griffith's insistence on creating a star out of Carol Dempster. An actress of questionable talent, Dempster was Griffith's leading lady in numerous films, all of which Bitzer reluctantly photographed. He disliked Dempster and resented the attention Griffith lavished on her, but the team continued to work together through the making of Griffith's last silent film, Lady of the Pavements (1926).
Bitzer founded the International Photographers of the Motion Picture Industry in New York in 1926. He held the union's presidency twice. The union later became the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Since 1975 an annual Billy Bitzer Commendation Award is presented to one of its members. Bitzer was honored with the award posthumously in 1976. Cinematographer and recipient of 1987's award remembered Bitzer in Back Stage, "I think Bitzer would be proud of his union today. Remember he started the union during difficult times. I am very honored to be associated with a cinematographer like Billy Bitzer." A union chapter was established in Hollywood in 1929, and Bitzer was blacklisted by the film industry.
During the Depression era, Bitzer worked for the government-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a cameraman. He also prepared filmstrips and recorded lectures. In the 1930s his work for the Museum of Modern Art in New York included contributions to a history of the Biograph Company. He also reconstructed antique cameras and restored old movies for the museum's film archive.
Bitzer's image was one of a short man who wore a rumpled hat, baggy pants, and a thin tie, who stood on his camera box to film his shots. He used a hand-cranked Pathe camera, and usually Griffith was at his side shouting directions to the actors. Bitzer converted to Roman Catholicism in middle age, having been raised Lutheran. After his 20-year common-law marriage to Elinore Farrell dissolved, he married Ethel Boddy in 1923. He and Ethel had a son, Eden Griffith Joseph Bitzer. Bitzer's death on April 29, 1944, was due to a heart attack. He had been living at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Flushing, New York.
Billy Bitzer: His Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
Brown, Karl, Adventures with D.W. Griffith, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1993.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 3: 1941-1945, American Council of Learned Societies, 1973.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press, 1996.
Back Stage, January 9, 1987, p. 1.
"Bitzer, Billy," Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/seo/b/billy-bitzer/(December 12, 2000).
MacIntyre, Diane, "Did You Get That, Billy?," The Silents Majority, http:www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/BTC/camra3.htm(December 12, 2000). □