Billy Bitzer, the Inventor


Billy Bitzer, byname of Gottfried Wilhelm Bitzer, (born April 21, 1874, Boston—died April 29, 1944, Hollywood), U.S. motion-picture cameraman who, in partnership with the pioneer director D.W. Griffith, developed camera techniques that set the standard for all future motion pictures and stimulated important experimentation in the field.
Bitzer achieved success in 1896 when his film of William McKinley being notified of the presidential nomination of his party was exhibited on the Biograph Company’s first program. He filmed the Spanish–American War for the William Randolph Hearst organization, becoming the first motion-picture cameraman to cover a war. When Griffith joined Biograph, Bitzer became his cameraman. During the ensuing years, Bitzer successfully translated the director’s creative visual concepts to the screen, especially in composition and the use of lighting to create mood. He photographed hundreds of Griffith’s motion pictures, including Judith of Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920).
Bitzer had been using lighting ‘effects,’ such as firelight, candlelight, or the morning sun, as early as 1909; he was the first cameraman to film completely under artificial lights, an innovation that eventually freed Hollywood technicians from dependence on natural light. Working with Griffith, he developed camera techniques that had a permanent influence on the industry — e.g., soft-focus photography, using a light-diffusion screen in front of the camera lens; the fade-out, used to close a scene; and the iris shot, in which the frame either is gradually blacked out in a shrinking circle, thereby ending a scene, or gradually opened in a widening circle, beginning a scene. He refined methods of taking close-ups and long shots and was one of the first cinematographers to make effective use of perspective.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica

Early documentaries

Logging In Maine
K: Billy Bitzer. P: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. USA 1906
Print: Library of Congress

“The subject is the movement of cut timber from the forest to the mill. The few scenes that make up the film are loggers performing the various operations necessary to prevent logs from jamming together. The men keep them headed with the flow of the water toward the lake on which the mill is located. The activities of approximately a dozen men were photographed.”
Library of Congress

Steam Hammer
K: Billy Bitzer. P: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. USA 1904
Print: Library of Congress

“From what appears to be a furnace, a large, glowing block is lifted with the help of a crane over to a table by a group of men. A hammer comes from above and pounds down on the block repeatedly as the men turn the block several times so that it will acquire a certain shape.”
Library of Congress

Panorama of Machine Co. Aisle
K: Billy Bitzer. P: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. USA 1904
Print: Library of Congress

“A camera on an overhead crane travels down a large, long aisle where men are shown working on large machinery on either side. Carts carrying equipment are shown traveling on rails down the aisles. There are also men walking in the aisles.”
Library of Congress

Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street (G.W. Bitzer, 1905) (is a) dazzlingly photographed short film, showing a ride on the newly completed subway. A highly unusual optical experience, often more like a film abstraction than a representational movie. The series Westinghouse Works (1904) contains some episodes with an overhead traveling shot through what was reportedly the world’s largest factory. These include episodes Panoramic View Aisle B., Panorama of Machine Co. Aisle, Panorama View Street Car Motor Room. Bitzer’s documentaries are among the most important early films.”
Mike Grost

>>> G.W. “Billy” Bitzer on this website

>>> America at Work (Westinghouse series)

>>> Labour