Have you ever watched a film and felt emotionally moved by the images you saw? Maybe you have cried at a movie? Or, perhaps, you felt tense whilst watching a chase sequence?
David W. Griffith is one of the earliest directors in silent cinema to emotionally captivate viewers by varying camera shots and cutting between scenes. His innovations with basic camera techniques (such as camera shots, angles and cutting) progressed moving images from a spectacle of documented life to the fictional narratives we watch in cinema today.
Not only did his early short films expose film as a new art form for personal expression, but his feature film displayed the cultural impact film can have on audiences. However, as Spiderman once said: “With power over an audience’s emotions comes responsibility for the message you promote in your films” (or something to that taste).
And Griffith used that power wrong. Really, wrong. Actually, so wrong D. W. Griffith has smeared his name from film legacy.
Griffith’s feature film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), chastised him from film history because of its profoundly racist storyline and cultural impact on America. The film helped revive the Ku Klux Klan and caused protests asking for the censorship of films. It is incredibly frustrating that this film is one of the first examples of narrative cinema emotionally moving viewers. However, it does perfectly exemplify the dangerous power well-executed camera techniques can have on film.
So, what were these camera techniques Griffith used to captivate his viewers?
The Close-Up Shot
Griffith began his directorial work at Biograph Company in 1908. His short one-reel films allowed him to experiment with varying camera shots, particularly the use of close-up shots. He intended to close the space between the camera and the actor so that the camera could capture their emotions.
“We were striving for real acting. When you saw only the small, full-length figures it was necessary to have exaggerated acting, which might be called “physical” acting, the waving of the hands and so on. The close-up enabled us to reach real acting, restraint, acting that is a duplicate of real life.” – D.W. Griffith, 1914
Griffith wanted his films to replicate real life. Instead of having over-the-top acting typical in theatre and earlier silent films, he wanted the camera to tell the audience how the character was feeling. By filming closer to an actor, the audience can recognise natural emotions without the need for over-exaggeration.
However, Biograph’s executives worried that the audience would not understand the purpose of using a close-up shot of an actor’s face. Like in After Many Years (1908), executives worried the audience would interpret the close-up shot as a decapitation instead of a wife longing for her husband’s return.
The idea that a close-up shot would depict a headless person is a funny perception to us now, but at the time, no one knew how audiences would perceive different shot types. Thankfully, Griffith was right, and the intention to connect the viewer with the character’s emotions with a close-up shot worked.
The Long Shot and Moving Camera
If a close-up shot expressed a character’s emotions and heightened drama by placing the audience within the scene; then, a long shot should focus the audience’s attention away from the action and towards the scenery. Now filming a long shot during early cinema would have been fine if directors didn’t film their moving pictures like a stage show with a few magic tricks. Thankfully, Griffith understood the restraints in keeping with theatre conventions and needed a way to break the confines of staged filming.
Screenshot from YouTube: Ramona, 1910
In Ramona (1910), Griffith broke away from the conventions of a stage setting and used long, landscape shots of a mountainscape in the film. By filming in a natural environment, settings began to feel fluid and free. But, here is where Griffith met his next challenge: if you want the scenery to be fluid and unconfined, the camera will need to move freely with the actors. And, this would have been a difficult feat – if it wasn’t for Billy Bitzer, his expert cameraman.
Before meeting Griffith, Bitzer experimented with travelling shots (such as pans, dollies, and tracking). However, it was when working with Griffith that Bitzer’s moving camera techniques began having an impact. For example, by combining travelling shots with close-ups, Griffith could evoke sympathy for a character or tension during the action. Similarly, he learnt that changing the camera angle changes the audience’s perception of a character.
Cross-Cutting and Parallel Editing
Griffith was also a pioneer in editing. He manipulated and controlled time in movies by cross-cutting and parallel editing. Although he was not the first director to use cross-cutting – Edwin Porter built suspense with cutting in his 1903 classic, The Great Train Robbery. However, Griffith’s talented cutting did earn him the strapline “Griffith’s last-minute rescue” because of the suspense he built by alternating between scenes.
Cross-cutting is an editing technique used for continuity and building a temporal structure of a scene. A director could give more information and a sense of cause and effect in the narrative by crossing between two events happening simultaneously.
For instance, in Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913), cross-cutting tells the spectator that the cavalry troops are fighting the Indians to rescue the settlers trapped inside a cabin. As the scene continues, Griffith edited the cuts between the fighting and trapped settlers for a shorter and shorter time to build tension and heighten suspense.
Screenshot from YouTube: Cross-cutting in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
Later in his feature films, Griffith would alternate between multiple storylines to give more narrative information. For example, in Intolerance (1916), four storylines are separated by time: a modern story on crime, a Christian story of Jesus’ mission, an account of the Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and a story about the fall of the Babylonian Empire.
Finally, Griffith and Bitzer introduced the softening of light in films. One of the most famous film conventions they brought to cinema was fade-in and out. Much like Méliès’ accidental invention of the jump cut, Bitzer accidentally created the fade-in and outs:
Bitzer had built a hood for his camera that opened light to the camera lens with a handle. He had previously learnt that the camera works similar to an eye’s pupil, and by limiting the amount of light around the lens with a hood, you could soften the edges of a shot. Griffith loved this technique and wondered whether Bitzer could build a device to change the amount of light whilst filming.
So, Bitzer created a hood with a handle to adjust the size of the circle in the shot. However, the handle’s weight broke and caused the hood to encompass the lens slowly. The result was an image slowly descending to darkness – what we now know as the fade-out.
“This was just what we needed. The climax of these films was the kiss. We couldn’t linger over the embrace, for then yokels in the audience would make cat-calls. We couldn’t cut abruptly – that would be crude. The fade-out gave a really dignified touch” – Bitzer discussing The Birth of a Nation and fade-outs.
Griffith could soften the ending of films by fading the light from the camera. A convention now used widely in cinema to represent the story coming to a close. Similarly, he could introduce a scene by opening the hood to let light into the camera.
By the time Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, his camera techniques had enamoured other filmmakers. His variation of camera shots, cutting and fades established their functions in telling a film narrative and proved films could evoke emotions from an audience.
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D.W. Griffith’s and The Origins of American Film
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