Billy Bitzer - Rotten Tomatoes

Billy Bitzer

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A onetime silversmith and novelty manufacturer, 24-year old G.W. "Billy" Bitzer began working for the motion picture company that would later be known as Biograph in 1896. Initially hired as an electrician, Bitzer soon became indispensable to Biograph as the company's chief photographer, concentrating on news events and vaudeville sketches. The troubleshooting Bitzer was on the ground floor of several early cinematic developments--usually involving a measure of personal risk, such as filming from the cowcatcher of a moving train. In 1908, Bitzer met D. W. Griffith, who'd been hired by Biograph as an actor and writer. Bitzer would later claim that he didn't think Griffith was "so hot," but when the new employee expressed an interest in directing, the two formed a partnership that would make movie history. Without intruding upon one another's field of expertise, Griffith and Bitzer literally "grew" together technically and artistically. When Griffith decided he wanted to move his camera closer to his actors, Bitzer showed him how to set up the best angles without the end result looking clumsy; when Griffith wanted a distance shot with everything in perfect focus, Bitzer would come up with a new special lens for that purpose; and when Griffith wanted a method of dramatically ending a film that wouldn't be as crude or abrupt as a flat cut, Bitzer developed the slow fade-out. The Griffith/Bitzer Biograph films of 1909-1912 became the industry standard, and soon every cameraman worth his salt was endeavoring to match Bitzer's results. When Griffith moved on to feature film, he took Bitzer with him; though it may be hard to believe, Bitzer was the only cameraman and his the only camera utilized throughout the mammoth Birth of a Nation (1915). For Intolerance (1916), Griffith wanted a sweeping overhead shot of his gargantuan Babylon set; ever obliging, the fearless Bitzer photographed the scene from an aerial balloon. When Griffith set up his own Mamaroneck studios in the 1920s, he found he had to hire other cameramen to maintain a steady output; thus he began relying less and less on Bitzer, though the two continued working together off and on until Griffith's final film, The Struggle (1931). The failure of this last-named film finished Griffith in Hollywood; Bitzer, too, found himself considered "old hat" and unemployable. He lived in very austere retirement until he was hired in 1940 to work as a researcher with the film library at the Museum of Modern Art. Many of Billy Bitzer's incisive recollections of the Griffith years were recorded in the 1957 coffee-table book The Movies, published 13 years after Bitzer's death; more hitherto unpublished Bitzer reminiscences were gathered together for a 1973 book, Billy Bitzer--His Story. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi



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