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D. W. Griffith: The Birth of a Nation and The Birth of Modern Cinema

In every field of human endeavor there are those individuals whose work sums up that which came before them. These are people whose work redefines the scope of their field for future generations. Everything that comes after is measured in reference to, and depends on, the work of such people. In the field of cinema D. W. Griffith was such a man.

Griffith´s three hour war epic The Birth of a Nation, tells the story of the Civil War itself, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the rise of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan), by portraying the lives of two families living through the experience. The story is told in a way that had never been done before. D.W. Griffith expanded the boundaries of storytelling on the screen, conveying a rich, complicated tale.

Using the techniques at his disposal Griffith sought to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. He began to transform this emerging medium from craft to Art. The foundations for the type of cinema which you and I enjoy today had been laid.

How was this done? Part of the reason was that in The Birth of a Nation D W Griffith introduced the following innovations, many of which became standard features of film:

  •  use of ornate title cards
  • special use of subtitles to graphically verbalize imagery
  • its own original musical score composed for an orchestra
  • introduction of night photography (using magnesium flares)
  • use of outdoor natural landscapes as backgrounds
  • definitive usage of the still-shot
  • elaborate costuming to achieve historical authenticity and accuracy
  • many scenes filmed from many different and multiple angles
  • the technique of the camera “iris” effect (expanding or contracting circular masks to either reveal and open up a scene, or close down and conceal a part of an image)
  • the use of parallel action and editing in a sequence
  • extensive use of color tinting to obtain dramatic or psychological effects
  • moving, traveling or “panning” camera tracking shots
  • the effective use of total-screen close-ups to reveal intimate expressions
  • beautifully crafted, intimate family exchanges
  • the use of vignettes seen in “balloons” or “iris-shots” in one portion of a darkened screen
  • the use of fade-outs and cameo-profiles (a medium closeup in front of a blurry background)
  • the use of lap dissolves to blend or switch from one image to another
  • high-angle shots and the abundant use of panoramic long shots
  • the dramatization of history in a moving story
  • impressive, splendidly-staged battle scenes with hundreds of extras (made to appear as thousands)
  • extensive cross-cutting between two scenes to create a montage-effect and generate excitement and suspense
  • expert story-telling, with the cumulative building of the film to a dramatic climax

These innovations resulted in a film that looked very genuine and authentic. A film of almost of documentary quality, that vividly reconstructed a momentous time period in history. Film scholars agree that The Birth of a Nation was the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history. The importance of Griffith to American cinema can be summed in the following two quotes:

Charlie Chaplin called him

“The Teacher of us All”

Orson Welles stated

“No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man”

On your next visit to the movies, try to see how many of his innovations you can recognize. Then, imagine watching the same film with none of them! I think you will agree that the story you would be watching would certainly not be as enjoyable, nor as moving.

Want to know more about D. W. Griffith and his work? Have a look at the following links:

The Birth of a Nation: Public Domain film hosted, among others at the Archive.org website.

Visions of Light: A 1992 documentary film that covers the art of cinematography since the conception of cinema at the turn of the 20th century. Many filmmakers and cinematographers present their views and analyse why the art of cinematography is so important to the process of “making movies”.

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