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Manohla Dargis on “The Race to Save the Films We Love”

August 28th, 2016

Manohla Dargis has an excellent piece on the race to save classic films in today’s New York Times;

above, a scene from Lewis Milestone’s Seven Sinners (1925), before and after restoration.

This, of course, is a subject I have been hammering home for years, writing in The Moving Image Archive News, on this blog, and elsewhere, that as the saying goes “nitrate won’t wait.” All films before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which is highly, even eagerly flammable (as the image below of a nitrate projection booth from the 1920s in Great Britain aptly demonstrates), and if not properly stored, nitrate film rapidly begins to decompose into a sticky, gelatinous goo in a process which is impossible – or nearly impossible – to reverse. Today, nearly all motion pictures are shown digitally, and film itself has disappeared.

I have had the great privilege of screening a nitrate print of Terence Fisher’s sharply observed matrimonial comedy Marry Me! (1949) at the British Film Institute in London, and I remember vividly how the Steenbeck flatbed viewing machine was situated in a separate room on the roof the the archive’s building in a small, somewhat claustrophobic room, with fire extinguishers and buckets of sand regularly placed around the room at strategic intervals.

Only one reel at a time was brought up to me for screening; that way, if one reel caught fire, at least the rest of the film might be saved, the archivist told me. I was not to stop the film in the Steenbeck once it started running, for fear that the projector bulb might ignite a frame of the film, which would then instantaneously spread to the rest of the reel. And as each reel was finished, I was told to press a bell. An attendant would appear, take the finished reel of film with him, and appear with the next reel, in 1000 ft. (10 minute) chunks, until I had seen the entire film.

Visually, the experience was dazzling; I remember reading that Jean Cocteau complained that safety film prints (which replaced nitrate prints entirely in theaters around the world) of his film Beauty and The Beast (1946) in no way matched the luminous, silvery sheen of the original nitrate prints, but recognized the dangers and inherently instability of the nitrate medium, and so acquiesced to safety film screenings of one of his most sensual and visually lavish works, with remarkable cinematography by Henri Alekan.

A British nitrate film projection booth in the 1920s; the same precautions would have to apply today.

Ms. Dargis also relates some truly appalling horror stories from the long period in cinema history when the studios simply didn’t value the films they made, including this shocker from the history of Universal Pictures,

“In 2011, the historian David Pierce gave a talk on silent films at an annual event in Los Angeles called the Reel Thing. At one point, he showed a 1925 photo of a few dozen Universal Pictures stars next to a stack of crates holding that season’s negatives. He asked if anyone recognized these stars and was met with mostly bafflement. We soon found out why.

Twenty years after this photo was taken, Universal sent a letter to its East Coast lab ordering the destruction of all but 17 of its silent-film negatives. The studio had already lost numerous older titles in fires, and now it was junking the rest of its silent features — hundreds — having decided that most were not worth keeping. It’s no wonder that those stars were unfamiliar: Their own studio destroyed their legacy.”

That said, most of the article deals with the restoration of several classic films, even going to the extent of replacing lost dialogue by hiring actors to mime the voices of the performers in one film where the soundtrack has been destroyed, and points out that while 99.9% of all “movies” today are actually projected digitally – something I’ve discussed in this blog time and time again – a few film booths, and even one nitrate booth at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, still survive. Films aren’t really films unless they’re shown on film; it’s that simple.

And it’s also worth nothing, as Dargis does, that “even as major studios have stopped distributing film prints, they make film copies of the elements of their new releases, including those shot on digital. Studios like 20th Century Fox may maintain digital archives of their current releases, but the ‘analog solution,’ in the words of Schawn Belston, its executive vice president, media and library services, ‘is still the most trusted and has well-established archival longevity.’”

With so many films already lost and beyond recall, all we can do is desperately try to save those that still exist. And the film medium, whether on nitrate or safety film, remains one of the most evanescent artistic mediums in human history. If I take a book, throw it on the floor, deface it, mark it up, even tear up pages, just as long as the book can be reconstituted so that it’s legible, new copies can be created be re-setting the type, and reprinting the book. Not so with film; there’s just one negative, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone who loves films; check it out by clicking here.

Werner Herzog Explores The Internet in “Lo and Behold”

August 20th, 2016

Werner Herzog – who doesn’t own a cellphone – is tackling the history and mystery of the Internet.

As Hayley Tsukayama writes in The Washington Post, “filmmaker Warner Herzog didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17, and still doesn’t ever use a cellphone. That may make him seem like an odd guide to take a hyper-connected society through an examination of how the Internet has affected society.

But, in truth, it makes him an almost ideal observer — one of the few who can step back with some impartiality — to look at the effect this technology has had on the world. Released Friday, Herzog’s new film, Lo and Behold, looks at development of the Internet — something Herzog calls as ‘momentous as the introduction of electricity into our civilization.’

He spoke with The Washington Post last month ahead of the film’s debut; Magnolia Pictures provided me with a copy of the film ahead of its release. Here are a few snippets from our discussion of the film, which strings together vignettes examining the good and bad of the Internet. On his own tech use:

Werner Herzog: I have to say, right away, that I hardly ever use the Internet.

Hayley Tsukayama: Really?

WH: I do have a laptop and I do emails. Sometimes I do Skyping with family. But I don’t use a cellphone.

HT: Not at all?

WH: No.

HT: Why don’t you use a cellphone?

WH: For cultural reasons. I’m not nostalgic, but I like to maintain contact, like, with you, directly sitting across a table.  I’m not delegating my examination of the world to, let’s say, applications. I like not being available all of the time.

And, at the same time, I like knowing that no hacker or no hostile government could track me down. Now I’m sitting in this hotel in this room for how long. And they would know with whom I’m speaking and how many minutes. Nobody knows where I’m sitting, with the exception of you.

HT: That’s somewhat dark. One thing I liked about the film was that it shifted often between looking at the dark side and the benefits of the Internet. It doesn’t draw its own conclusion — why did you do it that way?

WH: It would be a silly approach to say the Internet is bad or the Internet is good. It would be too shallow. It is too complex. And besides, it’s a very American obsession to see movies that way — it makes sense in westerns, which have to do with a definition of basic justice, of good and bad.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Nine Great Filmmaking Tips from Roger Corman

August 15th, 2016

Roger Corman, still active as a filmmaker at 90, is being honored at the Locarno Film Festival.

As Sophia Harvey writes in No Film School, “while many directors consider low-budget filmmaking to be just a step in an ever more glamorous career, Roger Corman has made his home in the indie world.

And now he is one of the most lauded director/producers in Hollywood, still active at age 90, with over 400 works on his filmography. Many of these are beloved cult gems, especially the “drive-in” teen movies, both comedic and horrific, of his early career, and the heated political films that mark his later period.

In describing his youth, Corman recalls a time when he ‘was directing one picture during the day, during my lunch hour casting the next picture, and in the evening I was editing the previous one. That night I thought, “I have to sleep fast.”‘ He slowed down a bit after that, he laughs, but only a little.

In celebration of his lengthy and notable career, Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival invited Corman to be their Filmmaker’s Academy Guest of Honor at this year’s festivities. Last week, he spoke about his experiences, from landing his first job as a messenger at 20th Century Fox and discovering Francis Ford Coppola, to his admiration for James Cameron. Below, we’ve put together some of the most important takeaways from his Locarno talk.”

Here’s one great tip for starters: “1. Build A Crew That Makes You Proud. As a producer, Corman knows that the key to an efficient and well-run set is a cohesive crew. ’The first picture I directed, when I finished shooting, I made an A list, a B list and a C list of everybody on the crew. The A list were the ones who were very, very good. Those were the ones I wanted to hire back.

The C list were the ones who were not good and I would never hire them back. And the B list, which was more complex, were the ones who were just OK, I’ll hire ‘em back if I can’t get any better’ he explained. ‘I made another list after each picture. And over a short period of time… I had a crew where everybody was friendly, they were all outstanding, and we all worked together. It was also sometimes known as the Corman Crew.’

The Corman Crew was often hired as one unit, which is unusual in the indie world. He described the ‘great camaraderie’ that was created by this dynamic and the ‘enormous sense of pride’ felt, by him and the rest of the crew for garnering such a reputation in the independent field.”

And don’t forget, when Ingmar Bergman astonishingly couldn’t get a US distributor for his film Cries and Whispers (1972), and Corman was by then running his own production/distribution company, New World, Corman instantly came up with completion money, and a solid US distribution deal for the film (it even played drive-ins), which was subsequently nominated for five Academy Awards (winning one Oscar for Sven Nykvist’s luminous cinematography].

And he’s still out there on the cutting edge, doing retrospectives and championing the work of young filmmakers, such as Ana Lily Amirpour, doing an hour long on-stage discussion / screening of her film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and in general keeping up with the latest movements in cinema, even if he has slowed down just a tiny bit.

Words of wisdom from one of most prolific and successful filmmakers in history.

Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory

August 13th, 2016

Here’s a fascinating, troubling book about the problems inherent in archiving digital work.

Ever since I switched to working in digital HD for making my experimental movies, the problem of long term storage of the films has become more and more important to me everyday. When I was working in 16mm, it was – and still is – a simple matter to archive the original materials in a “cold vault,” where they will last hundreds of years, provided that the temperature and humidity conditions are optimal.

No such “file it and forget it” method applies to digital archiving, as this fascinating book by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito aptly demonstrates.

As the description for Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory asks, “how will our increasingly digital civilization persist beyond our lifetimes? Audio and videotapes demagnetize; CDs delaminate; Internet art links to websites that no longer exist; Amiga software doesn’t run on iMacs.

In Re-collection, Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito argue that the vulnerability of new media art illustrates a larger crisis for social memory. They describe a variable media approach to rescuing new media, distributed across producers and consumers who can choose appropriate strategies for each endangered work.

New media art poses novel preservation and conservation dilemmas. Given the ephemerality of their mediums, software art, installation art, and interactive games may be heading to obsolescence and oblivion.

Rinehart and Ippolito, both museum professionals, examine the preservation of new media art from both practical and theoretical perspectives, offering concrete examples that range from Nam June Paik to Danger Mouse.

They investigate three threats to twenty-first-century creativity: technology, because much new media art depends on rapidly changing software or hardware; institutions, which may rely on preservation methods developed for older mediums; and law, which complicates access with intellectual property constraints such as copyright and licensing.

Technology, institutions, and law, however, can be enlisted as allies rather than enemies of ephemeral artifacts and their preservation. The variable media approach that Rinehart and Ippolito propose asks to what extent works to be preserved might be medium-independent, translatable into new mediums when their original formats are obsolete.”

This is a question – perhaps the question – in archival studies today. What will ultimately be done, other than backing up three or four times for all media, and then trying constantly to keep abreast of changing platforms?

The “rule of three” pretty much sums up the current approach – back it up on your computer, an external hard drive, and somewhere in long term storage with something like Amazon Glacier, and then hope for the best. But that’s still a pretty thin comfort zone. This is an excellent study on this important question, and deserves the widest possible audience.

I’d like to thank video artist Bill Domonkos for recommending this; it’s on his mind, too.

New Book – “Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of The Real”

August 13th, 2016

Wheeler Winston Dixon has published a new book, Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real.

Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real examines late stage capitalism in films, detailing the Hollywood production process, and explores the benefits and downsides of social media in relationship to the cinema, outlining the collapse and transformation of the Hollywood movie machine in the twenty-first century, and the concomitant social collapse being felt in nearly every aspect of society.

Examining key works in contemporary cinema, analyzing Hollywood films and the current wave of independent cinema developed outside of the Hollywood system as well, Dixon illustrates how movies and television programs across these spaces have adopted, reflected, and generated a society in crisis, and with it, a crisis for the cinematic industry itself.

The book is available online now, by clicking here or on the image above; it will appear in print shortly.

New Article: “It’s All About Relationships” – An Interview with Peter Medak

August 11th, 2016

I have a new article out today – a career interview with director Peter Medak in QRFV.

As I write in my introduction to the interview, “by his own admission, Peter Medak has had a very unusual career as a director. Forced to leave his homeland at the age of 18 during the Hungarian Revolution, leaving his parents behind in the process, Medak fled to London, then a welcoming haven for emigrants, and began a film career from the absolute bottom rung of the business, eventually working his way up to his first film as a director, Negatives, in 1968.

Along the way, he had a lot of good luck, and made many connections within the film business that were of great value to him later – and still are today – but after the critical and commercial success of arguably his most famous film, The Ruling Class (1972), for which Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, Medak made the great mistake of doing a favor for his friend, the actor Peter Sellers, by agreeing to undertake the direction of Ghost in The Noonday Sun (1973), a film which soon ran aground due to Sellers’ capricious demands and the interference of his friend, the British comic Spike Milligan.

Completed but immediately shelved by the studio, the blame for Ghost in The Noonday Sun’s failure fell, unfairly, on Medak, who suddenly found himself going from “hot” to “not” status almost overnight, beginning a long period of working on films that he didn’t really believe in to pay the rent, until he managed to break the losing streak with the ghost story The Changeling, starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere, and more spectacularly with The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991), two films in which Medak finally had a free hand.

But even when he worked in television, Medak’s visual style and his skill with actors always shines through, and as we both agreed during this interview, there’s nothing wrong with working on an episode of a series like Breaking Bad – “Peekaboo,” in 2009 – and Medak continues to be active to the present day, and is now working on a documentary of sorts on the film that almost ended his career, with The Ghost of Peter Sellers, a work in progress which reunites the surviving cast members of that memorable debacle for a fascinating “what went wrong?” trip down memory lane.”

What followed was a fascinating and frank interview with a gifted filmmaker; I hope you get a chance to read the article, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. But you should be able to gain access easily enough through many of the online databases that UNL subscribes to, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read the really amazing adventures of this uncompromising artist – who suffered through a difficult time, and came out the other end with two stunningly successful films.

I’m glad I got a chance to talk to Peter – it’s great stuff.

Matthew Rosza on Fan Culture and Suicide Club

August 10th, 2016

Here’s a brilliant piece by Matthew Rosza from Salon on Comic-Con and fan based movie culture.

As Rosza writes, in part, “it’s easy to roll your eyes at the Suicide Squad petition. In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss the news, fans of the new movie Suicide Squad have created an online movement to shut down aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes for posting predominantly negative reviews of their beloved film. Cue the inevitable jokes about how nerds need to get a life.

Is it really that simple, though? Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that fans of pop culture properties — whether movies, TV shows, books, video games, or anything else — don’t merely view them as forms of entertainment, or themselves as consumers of said media . . .

The underlying logic is fundamentally irrational: Because they’ve financially supported these industries their whole lives and received an embarrassing social stigma for doing so, these industries owe them. While being a fan gives you a legitimate emotional connection, the underlying relationship is still that of consumer with product.

Any loyalty that a fan feels is a personal choice about how to invest time and money; any choice made by a producer, from corporations to individuals, is done to promote their own self-interest. Because that involves appealing to as broad an audience as possible, this means ignoring some fans who insist on exclusivist attitudes.

What can be done about this? More than anything else, we need to change the conversation that we’re having about pop culture in general. For better or worse, the fact that an entire generation holds pop culture on such a pedestal means that the cultural has become political.

As a result, when a disproportionately large number of movies, TV shows, video games, and books feature white, straight and male characters at the expense of other groups, this is an inherently political act (deliberately or otherwise) and needs to be confronted . . . [and] conversely, it is terribly disheartening when the producers of entertainment refuse to recognize the cultural power they wield and utilize it in an inclusive way . . .

While it’s important  . . . to stand up to problematic trends and tropes in cultural products, we still need to remember that they are ultimately just that — products. There is a great deal to be said about a society that loves its popular culture so fervently that they will turn them into platforms on which greater social justice causes are fought.

For right now, though, it behooves all of us to take a step back and recognize that there is an air of entitlement which makes all of this possible, and none of us look good so long as it remains unaddressed.”

Maureen Honey’s New Book – Aphrodite’s Daughters

August 10th, 2016

Cultural historian and theorist Maureen Honey has an essential new book out from Rutgers University Press.

As the website for the book notes, “the Harlem Renaissance was a watershed moment for racial uplift, poetic innovation, sexual liberation, and female empowerment. Aphrodite’s Daughters introduces us to three amazing women who were at the forefront of all these developments, poetic iconoclasts who pioneered new and candidly erotic forms of female self-expression.

Maureen Honey paints a vivid portrait of three African American women—Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery—who came from very different backgrounds but converged in late 1920s Harlem to leave a major mark on the literary landscape.

Honey examines the varied ways these poets articulated female sexual desire, ranging from Grimké’s invocation of a Sapphic goddess figure to Cowdery’s frank depiction of bisexual erotics to Bennett’s risky exploration of the borders between sexual pleasure and pain. Yet Honey also considers how they were united in their commitment to the female body as a primary source of meaning, strength, and transcendence.

The product of extensive archival research, Aphrodite’s Daughters draws from Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery’s published and unpublished poetry, along with rare periodicals and biographical materials, to immerse us in the lives of these remarkable women and the world in which they lived. It thus not only shows us how their artistic contributions and cultural interventions were vital to their own era, but also demonstrates how the poetic heart of their work keeps on beating.”

Aphrodite’s Daughters has already attracted a great deal of favor able critical attention, with Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, author of Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color describing Aphrodite’s Daughters as ”an excellent book on a trio of under-read and often misunderstood poets. Maureen Honey’s portrait of this unique cadre of modernists reveals the fascinating conflicts of politics and poetics that exemplify the Harlem Renaissance’s artistic production.”

Cheryl A. Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance adds that ”Maureen Honey’s archival research and critical acumen transform our understanding of Gwendolyn Bennett, Mae Cowdery, and Angelina Grimké, poets who explored their interior and erotic lives with deft lyricism and uncommon courage.”

This is a stunning, groundbreaking piece of work – well worth your time and attention.

Wheeler Winston Dixon – New Films Posted on Vimeo

July 31st, 2016

I have a number of new films posted on Vimeo, all in digital HD.

The titles include An American Dream, Real and UnrealStill Life, Light and ShadowCaptive AudienceClosed Circuit, The Shapes of Things, Summer Storm, CityLago di Garda and Acceleration and many more. You can check them all out by clicking on the image above, or the individual links for each title. I’ve been working on these films for the past couple of years, but all were released in 2016. They range in length from a half an hour to two minutes, and cover a number of different topics and approaches. They’re ”cinepoems” in the tradition of Man Ray, gathering widely disparate images together into an often conflicting, sometimes coherent whole.

An American Dream traces the rise of late-stage capitalism in the United States, and the decline of personal interaction. Money, violence, and consumerism dominate the images here, as befits a society in which 1% of the populace control 99% of the nation’s wealth, leaving the rest of us as mere spectators. In the final analysis, An American Dream is a requiem for a society in which inequality is the new norm.

Of An American Dream, critic Peter Monaghan noted that “the film’s theme is the rise of late-stage American capitalism, and the decline of personal interaction amidst increasing attachment to money, violence, and consumerism,” while David Finkelstein wrote that “watching An American Dream, hypnotized by the beautiful motion of slowly flying fragments of glass accompanied by heavenly voices, is like washing down several Valium pills with a martini, and musing on the state of American life as you drift off into a long, imperturbable sleep.”

Of the much more optimistic Still Life, critic Jorge Orduna wrote that “the world turns. The oceans give and take their power. The trees grow, the sun rises and sets, and we all go through it daily, and yet we don’t think about it. In this collection of images, you’re forced to think about it, even if it’s only for a brief time. For 30 minutes, you see both the stillness and motion of life. Watching the film without interruption, with headphones on, you feel as though you’re in your own cocoon, and by the end, you’ll have a new appreciation for the world around you.”

I have a show coming up this Fall at the Amos Eno Gallery in New York, but you can see the films now, right here on Vimeo. But they do look better on a large screen. So if you’ve got a video projector lying around the house, try one of the longer ones, like An American Dream, Real and UnrealStill Life, or The Shapes of Things, and see what you think. Those are perhaps my favorites of the group of films, and The Shapes of Things, especially, looks fabulous when projected in a theatrical setting. So get a blanket, some lawn chairs, and set it up in the backyard, or on the rooftop – after all, they’re free – something else I like about them.

Click on the various links or the image above, and have a look.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Homo Sapiens” (2016) Opens in New York

July 30th, 2016

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s haunting new film Homo Sapiens is a truly mesmerizing experience.

As the notes for the film make clear, “the images could be taken from a science fiction film set on planet Earth after it’s become uninhabitable. Abandoned buildings – housing estates, shops, cinemas, hospitals, offices, schools, a library, amusement parks and prisons. Places and areas being reclaimed by nature, such as a moss-covered bar with ferns growing between the stools, a still stocked soft drinks machine now covered with vegetation, an overgrown rubbish dump, or tanks in the forest.

Tall grass sprouts from cracks in the asphalt. Birds circle in the dome of a decommissioned reactor, a gust of wind makes window blinds clatter or scraps of paper float around, the noise of the rain: sounds entirely without words, plenty of room for contemplation.

All these locations carry the traces of erstwhile human existence and bear witness to a civilisation that brought forth architecture, art, the entertainment industry, technologies, ideologies, wars and environmental disasters. In precisely framed wide shots, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s static camera shows us the present post-apocalypse. There are no people in his film, and yet – as the title pointedly suggests – he has his eye on nothing less than the future of humanity.”

As Glenn Kenny wrote in The New York Times, “the latest film from the meticulous, provocative Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter could be described as an environmental documentary. Its form is as simple as death. A stationary camera takes in, one after the other, a single image of a space constructed (or simply scarred) by humankind, and subsequently abandoned. In the first minutes of Homo Sapiens we see railroad tracks, a bicycle rack and the rudiments of a train station.

No image repeats or magnifies; while a series of shots may be clustered in the same general area, each image is discrete and none are subject to further examination. Although the film’s credits include a foley artist and a rerecording technician, its soundtrack comes across as entirely vérité; the wind whispers, birds chirp and the people who built the settings we’re seeing are far, far away, if they’re even around at all.

The first section of the movie has vending machines with Japanese characters on them. While Mr. Geyrhalter did not, as it happens, bring cameras to the vicinity of Fukushima, where an earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear disaster that precipitated mass evacuations in 2011, it’s probable he wishes the viewer to make a connection. Next stop is an abandoned shopping mall in Ohio.

In a way, the images are reminiscent of the empty, haunted spaces associated with the art cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr. But Mr. Geyrhalter’s method is more austere, and the effect produced is subtly different. Each individual shot creates a frisson of desolation that resonates far beyond the facile irony suggested by the movie’s title.” This is must see viewing – not that it will come to a theater near you, sad to say; nevertheless, this is the sort of film that should have at least one slot in a 24 screen multiplex, as some sort of respite from the mayhem in the 23 other theaters.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief trailer for this astonishing film.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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