While The Birth of a Nation deserves its place in film history for the way it changed the language of cinema, it is important to note that D. W. Griffith didn’t invent every technique used in The Birth of a Nation. The burgeoning film industry of the early 1900s spawned a number of innovative directors who created many of these techniques, among them Griffith’s primary collaborator, Billy Bitzer. However, Griffith’s films were the most popular of the era, and he was more prolific than any of his colleagues. Moreover, Griffith frequently improved upon techniques that others had invented. The Birth of a Nation represents the culmination of visual strategies to communicate narrative that the film industry had been working on for the first twenty years of its existence. Countless directors after Griffith owe their technical knowledge of filmmaking to the cohesiveness of The Birth of a Nation.
Camera Angles and Distance
Before The Birth of a Nation, films were made under the assumption that if audience members paid to see a star, they would probably want to see the whole person. But Griffith realized that by moving the camera closer to his subject into a close-up, more intimate details were revealed on the subject’s face, personalizing the character’s expression in a much more valuable way. When contrasted with close-ups, long shots had added value. One of the most celebrated shots in the film starts with a relatively tight, intimate view of a mother and her children weeping on a hillside. Without a cut, via the opening of an iris and a pan (a horizontal movement of the camera), Griffith slowly reveals what the family watches: General Sherman’s devastating march. Griffith successfully ties the personal to the historical in one shot. Additionally, actions occur on multiple planes, and the viewer is trusted to process action occurring simultaneously in the foreground, the middle ground, and the background. This occurs not only in battle scenes but in busy interiors as well, heightening the documentary authenticity of the sequences. Finally, Griffith masters the use of dissolve as scene transition. From a fixed camera position, dissolving from an empty courtroom to a courtroom full of newly elected black representatives, Griffith suggests that they overran the court and sullied the entire room and its traditions.
Griffith invented what today is called the flashback, though he called it the “switchback.” In a flashback, a brief return to a past time interrupts the forward progress of a linear narrative. The Birth of a Nation also makes use of parallel editing, which is a cutting back and forth between two scenes that occur simultaneously. Eager to demonstrate that films could do things that staged plays could not, Griffith mastered parallel editing. By accelerating the duration of the shots, and by making faster cuts between them, the resolution of each storyline is brought to a rousing climax through both suspense and intensity. The final sequences of the Klan rescue mission are pioneering uses of parallel editing.
The Birth of Nation is notable for many of its innovative production strategies. Billy Bitzer was the first cinematographer to employ nighttime photography, a feat he achieved by firing magnesium flares into the night for the split-screen sequence of the sacking of Atlanta. It was the first film to use hundreds of extras to re-create battle scenes. The film also became the first to have an original score (co-scored by Griffith, who drew heavily on the motifs of classical greats). Normally a two-reeler would screen in a theater and a hired piano player would improvise general mood music so that each screening essentially had a different soundtrack. Griffith employs historical references to add documentary authenticity as well. His elaborate intertitles quote such authorities as Woodrow Wilson (even providing footnotes) and his “composition” shots re-create famous paintings or Mathew Brady photographs depicting the bleak impact of the Civil War.