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Frame by Frame

Archive for October, 2012

Ridley Scott — Frame by Frame Video

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

I have a new video out in my Frame by Frame series, edited and directed by Curt Bright, on the filmmaker Ridley Scott. You can view it by clicking here, or on the image above.

As Wikipedia notes, “Sir Ridley Scott (born 30 November 1937) is an English film director and producer. Following his commercial breakthrough with Alien (1979), his best-known works are sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), best picture Oscar-winner Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), Matchstick Men (2003), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), American Gangster (2007), Robin Hood (2010), and Prometheus (2012).

Scott is known for his atmospheric, highly concentrated visual style, which has influenced many directors. Though his films range widely in setting and period, they frequently showcase memorable imagery of urban environments, whether 12th century Jerusalem (Kingdom of Heaven), contemporary Osaka (Black Rain) or Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down), or the future cityscapes of Blade Runner. Scott has been nominated for three Academy Awards for Directing (for Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), plus two Golden Globe and two BAFTA Awards. He was knighted in the UK 2003 New Year Honours list. He is the elder brother of the late Tony Scott.”

Follow this link to the video.

Flip The Frog

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Flip the Frog was one of the most original cartoon characters of the 1930s.

Ub Iwerks, the creator of Flip the Frog, started with Walt Disney and animated the first several Mickey Mouse cartoons; then he split off on his own and created Flip the Frog, one of the most memorable of all 1930s cartoon characters. When Flip failed to catch on with the public — he was simply too far ahead of his time — Iwerks eventually rejoined the Disney organization, doing special effects work on Disney animated features and cartoons, and also creating the special effects for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

In addition, Iwerks pioneered the use of the Xerox process to transfer line drawings on paper to clear plastic cels for animation, thus eliminating the “inking” process in classical animation; the results can be seen in such films as One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Iwerks won two Academy Awards for his work.

As Steve Hulett wrote, “Ub Iwerks was Walt’s strong right arm in the 1920s. He was a designer and work-horse animator on the early Disney shorts, considered so valuable that he was a 20% owner of the studio. But the 20% ownership ended when Iwerks departed Walt Disney Productions after a falling out with the majority owner. Bankrolled by movie mogul Pat Powers, Iwerks developed the frog character above, but within a few years flamed out as an animation kingpin and returned to Disney’s.” It’s too bad. Flip is, to my mind at least, much more interesting, and more varied, than Mickey Mouse.

Here’s Flip in Spooks, from 1932

“Writing on Water”: Digital Cinema Packages, Key Delivery Messages, and the Ephemerality of Digital Cinema

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Click here to view a video on projecting DCPs using KDMs; not so easy, is it?

Val Lewton, the 1940s film producer, once observed that making films was “like writing on water,” since the film medium was so inherently fragile. But that’s nothing compared to the new regime of Digital Cinema Packages.

The latest evidence of this comes from the New York Film Festival, where on September 28, 2012, Brian de Palma was scheduled to present his new film, Passion, to a sold out audience. But there was just one problem; since the movie came as a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package, and not an actual film print, when it came time to screen Passion, no one could unlock the files.

Result: no screening.

As Bob Cashill reported in the web journal Pop Dose, “In what was for me an unprecedented event in my decades of festival going, the screening was cancelled. Why?

Three words: Digital Cinema Package, or DCP.

What is DCP? It’s heralded as the future of cinema projection, but really it’s the present; chances are your local multiplex has gone DCP, as your local independently owned theater or repertory house struggles to find a way to pay for it as celluloid goes up in smoke. The brave new world of digital projection comes with pitfalls, however. Like, if the system malfunctions, and no one can get a grip on what went wrong, you’re [out of luck], as the Film Society of Lincoln Center learned the hard way last night.

If you follow the festival at all you’ve been reading a lot about how Richard Peña, its programming director, is bowing out after 25 years of distinguished service. ‘I bet he wishes he retired last year,’ grumbled a fellow patron as we all exited Alice Tully Hall after more than an hour of waiting.

Peña, who had to keep coming onstage to deliver the worsening news, said that the DCP has been tested without incident minutes before showtime, but minus a code [the KDM, or Key Delivery Message, that] had somehow locked down. Minus someone who could fix the code . . . [and] that was it for the evening.

After a half hour or so of waiting Peña announced that audience members who couldn’t stay could get refunds at the boxoffice. Only 10-15% seemed to. Which was touching; we wanted to see the movie and were willing to put up with the inconvenience . . . But it was out of Peña’s hands, or De Palma’s hands, or any human hands. It was a glitch in the machine, a hiccup in the software. And with that the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival was tainted.”

Here’s what happened.

Once upon a time, when you screened a film at a theater, you took the 35mm print out of the shipping case, threaded it up, checked the aspect ratio, focus, and sound level, and ran the film. If you wanted to do an additional screening for a critic, or add an extra show, you could. If you wanted to switch the movie from one screen to another in your theater, you could. If short, you had the time, and the freedom, to have some measure of control over the projection of the films you screened.

Not anymore.

With digital projection comes a series of encryption codes, called KDMs, which must be used to “unlock” the digital files for projection, often within windows as short as four hours. Switching screens or adding additional shows now has to be cleared with the distributor every time, usually by e-mail. You can’t just pull the film and run it anymore. It has to be approved, and unlocked with a KDM, on a case-by-case basis.

As this excerpt from “Digital Cinema Technology: Frequently Asked Questions” notes, “KDM is the acronym for Key Delivery Message. The security key for each movie is delivered in a unique KDM, one KDM per per digital cinema server. The security key is encrypted within the KDM, which means that the delivery of a KDM to the wrong server or wrong location will not work, and thus such errors cannot compromise the security of the movie.

The KDM is a small file, and is typically emailed to the exhibitor. To create the correct KDM, however, requires knowledge of the digital certificate in the projection system’s media block.

KDMs have only a few [emphasis added] conditions associated with their use:

A KDM will only work for one movie title on one server.

A KDM will only work within the prescribed engagement time period.

To play a movie on two servers requires two KDMs for the movie. This means that to move a movie to a 2nd server requires a 2nd KDM. The engagement time window of the KDM is set per the business requirements of the studio distributing the movie. If your KDM expires and you don’t have a new KDM to continue on the engagement, then you cannot play the movie.”

This is about hegemonic studio control; nothing more, or what theorist Tim Wu refers to as the desire to control “The Master Switch.”

DCPs and KDMs take real authority away from the exhibitor; it’s a hypersurveillance system that comes from the top down, and limits what theater owners can do. Digital projection may have many significant attributes — superior picture and sound, no scratches, clean, crisp images — but now movies don’t really exist unless they’re unlocked by the KDM, and have no portability. This is what the studios want. But I’m not sure it’s good for the public, or critics, or exhibitors — a real measure of discretionary freedom has been lost.

Click here, or on the image at the top of this page, to view a demo video on how the process works.

This is an Orwellian future, nothing less.

To Save and Project: The 10th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

Monday, October 8th, 2012

To Save and Project is a celebration of preserved masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema.

The Museum of Modern Art’s 10th annual series of To Save and Project, under the direction of Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, continues to amaze and delight with some 75 films rescued from imminent destruction, projected for the most part in their original film format, as opposed to digital versions.

As Dave Kehr notes in The New York Times, the the 10th incarnation of To Save and Project comprises “about 75 films from 15 countries, a vast assortment of work in practically every conceivable format, from Hollywood features to home movies. And yet, as hefty as the program may be, it represents a small fraction of the films rescued each year from physical deterioration or commercial neglect by the world’s archives, museums and those studios enlightened enough to take responsibility for, and pride in, the films on which their business was built.

Paradoxically, even as preservation work proliferates, opportunities to see the films in question continue to dwindle, as studios cut back on their ‘deep library’ releases to home video, black-and-white movies vanish from television, and even museums and revival houses turn more and more to the digital presentation of films through hard-drive digital cinema packages (or D.C.P.’s, to use the industry acronym), which are rapidly replacing celluloid film prints.

For the moment, at least, MoMA is holding the line: all but a handful of the screenings in Save and Project are being presented the old-fashioned way: on film. ‘I’m not entirely convinced that digital technology is sophisticated enough to compare with the quality of celluloid on a big screen,’ said Joshua Siegel, an associate curator in the museum’s department of film and the organizer of this year’s festival. ‘There will be a time when we won’t be able to discern a difference, but for the time being I believe in showing these films in the original.’

Mr. Siegel’s purist approach is best represented by the two racy Hollywood features, made before the industry’s self-censorship regulations began to be strictly enforced, that open the festival on Thursday: John Francis Dillon’s 1932 Call Her Savage, with Clara Bow, and Raoul Walsh’s 1932 Wild Girl, a western romance with Joan Bennett. Both are new 35-millimeter prints struck from original nitrate materials donated to MoMA decades ago by 20th Century Fox.”

This is an incredibly rare opportunity to see some remarkable films in the original format; I remember running a 16mm print of Call Her Savage in my film history class years ago, and being really impressed by it. The chance to see these films in the full splendor of 35mm shouldn’t be passed up, so if you live in the New York City area, and have even the slightest interest in cinema, this series should go to the very top of your “must see” list — it’s a once in a lifetime chance to see these films.

The series runs from October 11–November 12, 2012 — don’t miss it.

A Short History of Film, Second Edition

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

A Short History of Film

Second Edition

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Rutgers University Press

A history of world cinema that makes its past as vibrant as its present—now revised and updated through 2012.

Praise for the previous edition:

“This is the film history book we’ve been waiting for.” —David Sterritt, Chairman, National Society of Film Critics

“Highly recommended for all collections.” —Library Journal (starred review)

The second edition of A Short History of film provides a concise and accurate overview of the history of world cinema, detailing the major movements, directors, studios, and genres from 1896 through 2012. Accompanied by more than 250 rare color and black and white stills—including photographs of some of the industry’s most recent films—the new edition is unmatched in its panoramic view of the medium as it is practiced in the United States and around the world as well as its sense of cinema’s sweep in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster present new and amended coverage of film in general as well as the birth and death dates and final works of notable directors. Their expanded focus on key films brings the book firmly into the digital era and chronicles the death of film as a production medium.

The book takes readers through the invention of the kinetoscope, the introduction of sound and color between the two world wars, and ultimately the computer generated imagery of the present day. It details significant periods in world cinema, including the early major industries in Europe, the dominance of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, and the French New Wave of the 1960s.

Attention is given to small independent efforts in developing nations and the more personal independent film movement that briefly flourished in the United States, the significant filmmakers of all nations, and the effects of censorship and regulation on production everywhere. In addition, the authors incorporate the stories of women and other minority filmmakers who have often been overlooked in other texts.

Engaging and accessible, this is the best one-stop source for the history of world film available for students, teachers, and general audiences alike.

WHEELER WINSTON DIXON is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His many books include Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).

GWENDOLYN AUDREY FOSTER is a professor of film studies in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and with Wheeler Winston Dixon, Editor in Chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her many books include 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon) and Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture.

Second edition available in paper, hardcover and Kindle March, 2013 from Rutgers University Press.

Frame by Frame Video: Buster Keaton

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Buster Keaton on the set of Samuel Beckett’s Film (1964).

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the great film comedian Buster Keaton, whose career stretched from the silent era into the 1960s, and who conquered myriad personal problems and professional setbacks to carve out a career as one of the unparalleled geniuses of the silent screen.

As PBS noted of Keaton’s long reign in film, “Buster Keaton is considered one of the greatest comic actors of all time. His influence on physical comedy is rivaled only by Charlie Chaplin. Like many of the great actors of the silent era, Keaton’s work was cast into near obscurity for many years. Only toward the end of his life was there a renewed interest in his films. An acrobatically skillful and psychologically insightful actor, Keaton made dozens of short films and fourteen major silent features, attesting to one of the most talented and innovative artists of his time.

Born in 1895 to Joe and Myra Keaton, Joseph Francis Keaton got his name when, at six months, he fell down a flight of stairs. Reaching the bottom unhurt and relatively undisturbed, he was picked up by Harry Houdini who said the kid could really take a ‘buster,’ or fall. From then on, his parents and the world knew him as Buster Keaton. By the age of three, Keaton joined the family’s vaudeville act, which was renamed The Three Keatons. For years he was knocked over, thrown through windows, dropped down stairs, and essentially used as a living prop. It was this training in vaudeville that prepared him for the fast-paced slapstick comedy of the silent movies.

When, in 1917, his father’s drinking broke up the act, Keaton moved to Hollywood, where a chance meeting brought him contact with another former vaudevillian. Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, one of the most famous of the comic actors of the time, took Keaton on and showed him the ropes of the movie industry.

For the rest of his life, Keaton would acknowledge Arbuckle as one of his closest friends and his greatest influence. With his deadpan humor and exceptional acrobatic technique, the lanky Keaton was a perfect partner for Arbuckle’s clumsy antics. The audience agreed, and within a few years, Keaton had acquired the notoriety to move out on his own.

The bulk of Keaton’s major work was done during the 1920s. Writing, directing, and staring in these films, Keaton created a world unlike the other comic stars of the times. Where Harold Lloyd battled physical adversity trying to make it to the top, and Charlie Chaplin avoided catastrophe through luck and good will, Keaton was an observer, a traveler caught up in his surroundings. He often found himself in the same compromising circumstances as Chaplin and Lloyd (chased by an angry crowd, left behind by a train), but he maintained a sense of even composure throughout.

No matter how lost or downtrodden Keaton seemed to be, he was never one to be pitied. The New York Times said of him, ‘In a film world that exaggerated everything, and in which every emotion was dramatized and elaborated, he remained impassive and solemn, his poker-faced inscrutability suppressing all emotion.’ It was this ’stone face,’ however, that came to represent a sense of optimism and everlasting inquisitiveness.

In films such as The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928), Keaton portrayed characters whose physical abilities seemed completely contingent on their surroundings. Considered one of the greatest acrobatic actors, Keaton could step on or off a moving train with the smoothness of getting out of bed. Often at odds with the physical world, his ability to naively adapt brought a melancholy sweetness to the films. The subtlety of the work, however, left Keaton behind the more popular Chaplin and Lloyd.

By the 1930s, the studio felt it was in their best interest to take control of his films. No longer writing or directing, Keaton continued to work at a grueling pace. Not understanding the complexity of his genius, they wrote for him simple characters that only took advantage of the most basic of his skills. For Keaton, as for many of the silent movie stars, the final straw was the advent of the talkies.

Though he acted in a number of films in the ’30s (often alongside Jimmy Durante), Keaton no longer possessed the stoic charm many had grown to love. He worked as an uncredited writer for the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton, eking out a living at a fraction of his former salary. He began drinking and through the ’40s did very little work of serious interest. It was not until 1953, and his appearance in Chaplin’s Limelight that the public revival of Keaton’s work began.

More than simply a nostalgia for the old days, this new interest encouraged Keaton to revive his career with frequent appearances on television. The sheer ability of his acrobatics astounded audiences who had become used to less sophisticated physical comedy, and by the 1960s, his films were returning to the theaters and he was being hailed as the greatest actor of the silent era.

In 1966, after finishing work on Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum, Buster Keaton died at the age of sixty-nine. His career spanned six decades and touched the lives of millions of people. He had worked with everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Samuel Beckett, Cecil B. DeMille to Tony Randall, and had maintained a seemingly selfless composure throughout. For many, this deadpan style was a poignant reminder of the fragility of life in the age of complex and overwhelming machines. Today, more than [forty-five] years after his death, Buster Keaton’s films seem as funny, touching, and relevant as ever.”

Buster Keaton, one of the screen’s true immortals.

Global Cinema Journal Collection (1904-1946) Online

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

The Media History Digital Library has a new and valuable resource available to scholars: their collection of international film journals from 1904 to 1946, all online for the first time.

As the site notes, “the history of media is a global history – involving the exchange of workers, styles, and technologies across national borders. French publications, such as Cine-Journal and Cinéa, reveal the important contributions of French filmmakers to film history. However, these French periodicals also contain advertisements for American films and demonstrate the popularity of certain global stars, such as Charles Chaplin and Sessue Hayakawa (both of whom had careers that criss-crossed national borders).

Some publications themselves were transnational creations. American and Canadian film enthusiasts were among the readers of Home Movies & Home Talkies, the British magazine for amateur filmmakers. Meanwhile, J.P. Chalmers—publisher of the American trade paper Moving Picture World—also published Cine-Mundial for the Spanish language market. As a global history, media history has also been greatly influenced by the course of international events. The increased number of American film advertisements in Cinéa (1921-1923) compared to Cine-Journal (1908-1912) speaks to the global market dominance of the American film industry that occurred due to the devastation of European lives, economies, and film industries during World War I (1914-1918).

The Italian journal Cinema championed film as an art form, and it contains articles by future art cinema icons, such as Michelangelo Antonioni. However, no film or publication exists in a political vacuum. Just look at the masthead and see the name of Cinema’s editor-in-chief: Vittorio Mussolini, son of the nation’s dictator Benito Mussolini.”

Definitely worth a look for inside information on international cinema from the first half of the 20th century.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/