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The Biograph Camera
by Billy Bitzer

From the Spring 1995 issue of the Operating Cameraman

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Billy Bitzer and David Ward Griffith had one of the most remarkable relationships in film history. Lasting sixteen years and working so closely together it is often difficult to attribute to one or the other their technical contributions that vastly impacted the motion picture art form. Technological breakthroughs such as the use of the close-up, fade-ins, iris, lighting and the dolly. Bitzer's ingenuity was able to put DW's creative ideas into workable film techniques. Griffith owed much visual aesthetic quality to Bitzer's camera work.

He photographed all the master's most important work: NEW YORK HATS (1912); JUDITH OF BETHULIA (1914); BIRTH OF A NATION (1915); INTOLERANCE (1916); BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919). We purposely have left much of this talented artist's language, from this '39 interview, for the charm and though somewhat dated, you come to know this master of the camera, and you can almost hear his voice.

This giant and unwieldy camera took pictures about 2 inches by 2 inches on film 2-3/4 inches wide. The pictures taken were viewed in a Mutoscope. This illustration from the Scientific American of 1897 shows the camera photographing the Pennsylvania Limited when running at the rate of sixty miles an hour.

No double exposures or trick work was possible with the Biograph camera. Other motion picture practical cameras used the perforated sprocket hole 35mm film, which is still the universal film used today. This sprocket hole permitted the running of the film through the camera for purposes of a second exposure (superimposed) or as many exposures as desired.

This was accomplished by the simple process of marking the starting picture frame and having the pull-down sprocket claws engage in the same holes following each exposure. The film could be run through the camera again and again, behind desired masks, etc. (Melies Trick Films, Pathes, Edisons, et al). The film could also be run backward for lap dissolves.

But not so with the Biograph camera. The film could only go through (in register) once. It could not be run backward for even one single frame, to the identical previous exposure that is. Hence, the dearth of trick effects in the Biographs. An occasional simple one was attempted now and then, but the operation was expensive and complicated.

For its culmination, the Printing Machine was resorted to. THOSE AWFUL HATS was one attempt in which the audience of a theater and also the moving picture upon the screen were shown at the same time.

In general, all double exposures or trick effects were "taboo." Mr. Griffith was made aware of this at the start, otherwise many of his films would have shown dreams, allegorical or symbolistic effects, as he had a tendency toward such. However, he was decidedly against trick photography in general and employed only the simplest and most elementary trick effects. These he used seldom, and only when no other known method would serve the purpose. In later years, when trick photography became highly developed and for a while became "all the rage" in the film industry, Griffith continued to shun it for the same aesthetic reasons he had always disliked it.

An early picture, and one of the few he also acted in, THE MUSIC MASTER, portrayed a violinist at a fireplace with his violin, while in the upper background, upon the wall, visions of his thwarted love life story appeared in a double exposure.

To accomplish this with the Biograph camera required two negatives. They had to be run through the printer likewise on one negative. The space for the vision was matted out in the camera. On the second separate negative, the violinist and fireplace was matted or blocked out.

With all other existing sprocket hole (perforated film) cameras, this simple double would have been made upon the one film and printed the same as an ordinary single exposure. But the non-sprocket friction drive, pull-down beater roller mechanical movement of the Biograph Camera prohibited this.

The first Biograph Camera was built by the Marvin and Casler Company of Canastota, NY, who specialized in electric rock drills. The camera weighed, when set up ready to take a picture, with its base stand, turn table, electric motor and storage batteries, more than two thousand pounds. After being set up, and it was found necessary to tilt the camera up a little, it required two men to raise it, one with an iron crow bar, the other with a monkey wrench to tighten the somewhat massive nut screw to hold it in place while he was peeping into the camera at the image on the film.

The General Electric 2-1/2 horse power motor weighed 250 pounds. Its speed was 1,800 revolutions per minute. The pictures were taken at the rate of 320 ft per minute, or 30 pictures per second. The speed of today is but 90 feet per minute and 24 pictures per second (sound), but at that time other motion picture companies made their pictures at the rate of 16 pictures per second, or 50 feet per minute on the standard 35mm film with pictures 3/4 x 1 inch, same as of today.

Biograph raw stock negative film was 2-23/32 in or approximately 2-3/4 inches wide and 2 inches high. The intermittent movement was created by a beater roller which bobbed up and down approximately one 2-3/4 inch space of film each time, but not definitely. The space between the exposures varied considerably, sometimes as much as an eighth of an inch. The film was punched at the instant of exposure with two round holes as it was clamped in its at rest exposure position.

The unevenness, which would have shown a very unsteady picture upon the screen, was taken care of in the printing machine. It used the holes, which had been perforated by the camera at the instant of exposure as master or registering guides, which made the Biograph pictures run very smoothly.

So we had a camera that perforated its film as we took the picture. The punchings from the perforator dies were expelled from the camera as they fell into the compartment in which the rather large circular camera shutter revolved, a two foot in diameter affair with blades or outstanding wings attached upon its face, which blew these punchings from this chamber out upon the ground.

The wide film we used was of rather thin celluloid base for its width. Running through the camera at the rate of five feet per second while intermittently clamped against the exposure frame thirty times per second and likewise punched was anything but a critically flat piece of film at its seat of exposure. Little bulges and ripples would occur which were caused by the uneven pull of the mechanism. Principally by the condition of the film which would become considerably springy upon dry days. "Buckling," we called it, which would cause a focus blur in spots, the picture being sharp and unsharp in spots over its area.

We built in a suction pump which went into its functioning upon operation of the camera. Air suction being communicated to what would be called the pressure plate in other cameras, directly behind the exposure frame through tubes from this pump. To prevent back halation, a perforated backing was constructed of genuine black ebony. Metals were useless, as the blackened surface would quickly be worn off by the film at the speed at which it ran over it. This suction of air pulled the film tightly against the perforated black ebony plate during the instant of exposure, and held it flat where pressure had failed heretofore.

As is the case with many innovations or remedial experiments, this somewhat crude contraption was improved upon by substituting a curved aperture plate. This positively prevented all this buckling of the film by curving the film in its running direction, that is horizontally. It could not develop any other bulges that occurred when the film was flat.

This curve was mathematically figured out in its relation to the photographic lens and also remedied another heretofore defect. It put the sides of the picture into focus when the center of the picture was in focus. This occurred when we used our lens wide open. I am speaking of critical focus.

This change accounted for the wonderful sharpness of Biograph pictures of that day as compared to those taken under the same conditions of light by other camera makes. Continual experimentation to overcome concurrent difficulties in the photographing of Biograph pictures was as great if not greater a job than the making of the pictures in those days.

Static, a form of frictional electricity, would discharge within the camera and fog mark the film at the point of discharge, making imprints of various shapes. Sometimes a continuous series of minute V-shaped marks from lesser discharges, marking the more intense discharges, had the appearance of trees, leafless, as in winter. These discharges would occur at points where the celluloid film would leave metal and contact velvet, with which the light-tight apertures in the film magazines were covered, or at the ebony plate at the aperture frame.

Weather conditions had much to do with this static trouble. The Eastman Company could not do anything about it at that time. At times, the entire existing American Companies would be compelled to cease camera work altogether while these conditions existed.

We first tried to get control of this discharge by bridging the gaps from metal to velvet with continuous wire and lead it to a Leyden Jar or grounding it on water faucets or on location into the ground itself. We tried ammonia fumes, everything, until we discovered that there was less static where heat and moisture existed.

By placing a little gas stove upon which was placed a tin tea kettle just outside the dark room door, running a rubber tubing from the spout of the tea kettle through a hole in the dark room wall to our film winding table, we wound the film through a jet of steam. Completely ignoring the Eastman caution label, which was pasted upon each package of film which reads, "Keep in a Cool Dry Place."

Thus, we conquered for the time being, our static troubles. It seemed to call for our steam kettle operation to take place right inside of this heartbreaker camera. So heat and moisture were applied with the aid of a bicycle pump which was attached to the outside of the camera. A one-inch diameter brass tube fastened to the top of this lamp, an elbow and tube extended through a light-protected hole into the inside of the camera.

A further sort of condenser allowed the heat and moisture to enter and excluded any extraneous light that would tend to fog the negative film. We burned 100% pure alcohol in the bicycle lamp. Anything inferior would cause residue or soot.

Here I would like to give an example of Mr. Griffith's extreme patience. Just visualize this happening. He strove to make more logical pictures with his children, as he was wont to call them. He really worked very much in earnest to create these better type of pictures, by not having them go through a series of motions, but rehearsing as much as time permitted, striving to have his players give it their all. He was rushed for time as we were trying to make five 1, 000 ft pictures a week and I have record sheets of seven pictures in one week.

Griffith was working in winter weather at Fort Lee, NJ, trying to beat the not too many hours of shooting light or sun, exulting at the end of the day if we got about what we set out to do. On occasion he found that when the negative was developed that there was nothing at all upon the film.

The heat and moisture inside the camera with freezing weather outside had caused a steam to form upon the back element of our taking lens. A la steam upon the window panes on washing day. I don't know if you have ever experienced the steamy windows on wash day, but I remember we had them before I became wealthy.

Now Mr. Griffith, instead of fuming or raging (he never swore) or asking for a new boy, perhaps Arthur Marvin, our other cameraman, just took it with his usual (no use crying over spilt milk) attitude, which was one of his outstanding traits. He just came back to my dark room and we talked it over, used a little horse sense and figured we might slightly warm the lens. Tried it and it seemed to do the trick.

When on location, we unscrewed the lens and plugged a handkerchief into the opening and started our bicycle lamp percolating. We'd take the lens into a nearby house or store. If none, we'd cover the lens with a handkerchief and hold it quite close to the heat of the bicycle lamp. When ready to take the picture we would screw the lens back into the camera, to the focus mark we had made for that scene, at the last moment and shoot. A lot of extra work kept the cameraman busy.

There were other drawbacks in Biograph cameras. The lenses had to be of longer focus to cover the wider film. The optical formula then being that of a two-inch focus to cover a one inch field. The sprocket-hole 35mm film cameras were using that as a standard lens, a 50mm or two-inch lens.

An eight-inch lens seemed to be the one for our 2-1/2 inch film which was a slow f/5.6 at full opening. It required bright light, prohibiting such scenes as shadowy woods effects. Among many other things, it handicapped us from striving for artistic lighting effects. Although at times when things were running smoothly and we were not in the dog house for one ambitious failure or another, we would gingerly attempt a stab at a painting effect.

By slowing down the action of the actors and stealing a little on the camera speed, that is slowing down to gain exposure with the shutter and lens wide open, we would slip some desired shading effects into a picture. INGOMAR THE BARBARIAN is one that comes to mind. It took daring, however, for if a failure, no one was to blame except the cameraman. He was to know whether the light conditions permitted the taking of the scene and no one else.

Mr. Griffith had a keen perception of lighting and of composition. He knew when it was there, I mean pleasing lighting. Of course he did not know the camera's limitations and with him, you just felt like trying for it anyway. Like many other things one acquires almost intuition after a while even on light values. I got into many a jam with the powers that were at the 14th Street office of the Biograph Company on another angle of light judging.

On exterior shooting days, our company would get a call to assemble, generally on the New York side of Fort Lee Ferry at the foot of West 125th Street. Until the cameraman arrived on doubtful days and guessed at whether it would clear or become worse, nothing happened. As soon as he said OK, the company boarded the ferry. If he misjudged and it rained or terminated shooting by either being too dark before the day was over, or vice versa, if he had called it off and the sun came out, he was in bad trouble. This of course happened at times if he used snap judgment.

So after some reprimands he began to take this weather thing seriously. Noting the direction of the wind, studying clouds, was the smoke rising, and he became somewhat of a weather prophet.

This is where the bond started taking root between myself and Mr. Griffith, which lasted for 16 years. He would really champion me by taking my side against the big mogul with a few words like, "It was difficult for anyone to judge the weather"; "Billy is a hard conscientious worker," which sure made me feel kindly toward him.

The Biograph Camera No 2 left much to be desired. With the third Biograph Camera, the Biograph Co had now joined up with the Patents Co. An arrangement had been made whereby they could use the sprocket film camera. They still struck to their "register hole punched by the camera at the time of exposure" principle. Instead of the continuous, evenly spaced sprocket holes in the film in which there were four holes to a frame upon each side of the film, the accepted standard, they had but two holes each side. Just enough holes to guide the film. They discarded the friction driven idea. A set of pull-down claws could pull the film down intermittently so that they could discard also the uneven pull-down beater.

We now also used the smaller 35mm standard film, unperforated. We discarded the more expensive wide film which cost ten cents per foot to the standard at 4 cents per foot of film. We still could not make double exposures while the camera punched the film, despite the adoption of pull-down pawls, or claws.

After a while, when a picture would come along in which a double dissolve or some superimposure seemed it would be effective, we brought out a standard 35mm sprocket hole film camera, which we had in reserve, and made a picture upon that. After seeing some very good results, the Biograph Co discontinued perforating the film in the camera, and it was such a camera that we used it until we left the Biograph Co, October 1913.

Now we ran into camera troubles of a new kind. Not being in the Motion Picture Patents Company's fold, we had trouble getting a camera at all. Mutual Films, which we connected with after leaving Biograph did not have a camera. I finally secured one which tickled me immensely as not only was the outfit as light as a thistle-down compared to those I had been using, but I envisioned the many effects that I could now try, heretofore not practical with the Biograph outfits. When we did finally get a Pathe camera, we were pretty closely watched and had to work more or less under cover.

A dark shadow loomed ahead. Where were we going to get our pictures developed in a Trust, as the companies in the combine were called. Other laboratories were little dumps, working mostly under cover, with hit and miss results. Poor pictures photographically would spell our doom.

We made some first exterior shots and developed them in a barn which I knew about over in Jersey. A friend had a small plant and a printer. DW, myself and the little gentleman who operated the little plant, making picture titles chiefly, stayed up all night watching our finished first results.

The barn wasn't any too cozy a place either for DW to hang out. DW worked right ahead in his usual calm way, never got excitable. Later these worries were smoothed out and we had our own laboratory on the old Kinamacolor lot at Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard, where we even developed and made the first prints of THE BIRTH OF A NATION, INTOLERANCE, etc.

Mr. Griffith and myself are still the best of friends, our separation coming about in this way. Mr. Griffith was going to Europe. "Isn't life wonderful!" There was a law suit impending in New York for me. A will contest. I felt I could not go and remained here, causing the first time that I was not at the camera when he was shooting. Entirely personal reasons upon my part, which did not concern Mr. Griffith, prevented my working with him again.