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Joel Edgerton’s The Gift (2015)

Saturday, August 8th, 2015

Joel Edgerton’s new thriller The Gift is full of unexpected surprises. Click here for the trailer.

Shot in 25 days on a tight budget in and around Hollywood Hills, Edgerton’s film (which he also stars in) is a minor miracle of intelligent suspense filmmaking – especially since you think it’s headed in one direction for the first half of the film, perhaps more, and then segues into something altogether darker and more trenchant, but still without succumbing to the usual tropes of over-the-top violence that traditionally dominate the genre.

No one gets killed, there’s no gunplay, just a sense of ever mounting dread, and an appropriately brutal critique of corporate culture, from a film that had little to work with in the way of physical resources, and made the most of it, setting most of the action in one location, a classic strategy for shooting a low budget film on a short schedule.

As Wikipedia notes, “The project was first announced in August 2012, when it was reported that Joel Edgerton had written a psychological thriller script titled Weirdo, with which Edgerton would also be making his directing debut. His inspirations for the screenplay include Alfred Hitchcock, Fatal Attraction, and Michael Haneke’s 2005 Austrian film Caché.

On September 9, 2013, talking with Screen International, Edgerton stated that he would be starring in the film in a supporting role, and that he would also produce, along with Rebecca Yeldham, through Blue-Tongue Films. Rebecca Hall signed on to star in the film on November 3, 2014. It was also confirmed that Jason Blum would also produce the film through his Blumhouse Productions banner. On January 13, 2015, Jason Bateman was set to star in the film, as Hall’s character’s husband.

Principal photography on the film began on January 19, 2015, and ended on February 20, 2015. A majority of filming took place at a home in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood, The film was shot on an Arri Alexa [digital] with Canon C35 lenses, and was filmed in 25 days, according to its cinematographer, Eduard Grau. Grau was recommended by [Joel Edgerton's brother] Nash Edgerton, who served as The Gift’s Stunt Coordinator.

In an interview with Collider.com, Joel Edgerton revealed that he did not start filming his acting role until two weeks into shooting (devoting that time, instead, solely to directing). As soon as he did, his older brother Nash assisted on set behind the camera. Joel Edgerton completed shooting his role [in the film] in seven days.

On January 20, 2015, STX Entertainment bought the United States distribution rights to the film. STX retitled the film The Gift. The film is Edgerton’s fourth feature screenplay to be filmed, after The Square (2008), Felony (2013) and The Rover (2014).”

Truth be told, The Gift is a much better title. But as Stephen Holden observed in The New York Times, “even if The Gift, the Australian director Joel Edgerton’s creepy stalker thriller, didn’t make a dramatic U-turn at around the halfway point, it would still rank as a superior specimen. This movie doesn’t foam at the mouth like Fatal Attraction.

No bunnies are boiled. But fish are poisoned, a family dog goes missing and the soundtrack is tricked out with the sudden jolts dear to the genre . . . Underneath it all, The Gift is a merciless critique of an amoral corporate culture in which the ends justify the means, and lying and cheating are O.K., as long as they’re not found out. Bullying and cruelty are good for business.”

The Gift has much to say about the world we live in now – a genre film with a real social message.

Max Von Sydow Joins Game of Thrones

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

As it says above, Max Von Sydow is joining the cast of Game of Thrones.

As Laura Prudom writes in Variety, ”The Three-Eyed Raven is getting a makeover in season six of Game of Thrones Variety has confirmed that Max von Sydow will take over the role, which was originated by Struan Rodger in the season four finale of the HBO drama.

The enigmatic character is responsible for teaching Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) about his supernatural gifts, including his ability to transfer himself into the body of other creatures through the process of ‘warging.’ Although Bran and his allies were absent throughout season five, they are confirmed to be making a return in the new season, which has commenced filming in Europe.

While von Sydow is not expected to have much screen time in season six, he will reportedly play a major role in the events of the new season. The same has been said of fellow new cast member Ian McShane, who is playing an undisclosed role.

Last week, HBO chief Michael Lombardo told reporters that the current plan is for Game of Thrones to end after eight seasons, despite earlier quotes that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were aiming to wrap up the epic series after seven years. The series earned 24 Emmy nominations for season five, with noms for stars Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke and drama series, among others. Von Sydow is no stranger to iconic properties, and will next be seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens this December.”

True enough, but for some of us, Von Sydow will always be linked his work with Ingmar Bergman, which first brought him to international stardom in such films as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and other Bergman classics- and the rest of his work, while keeping him busy – very busy – seems an afterthought. Still, it can’t help but bring up the level of quality on the show, and his work is always inspirational to watch, no matter what he does.

At age 86, Max Von Sydow keeps right on working, and glad of it we are.

A Bad Day For Traditional Media

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Traditional media stocks are taking a beating today, as consumers move away from television for the web.

As Cecile Daurat reports on the Bloomberg News website, “Walt Disney Co.’s darkened outlook dragged down media stocks from Time Warner Inc. to 21st Century Fox Inc. and CBS Corp.

Disney, which through Tuesday had been the top-performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average this year with a record of stellar sales and profit, surprised investors by posting lower-than-estimated quarterly revenue and cutting its forecast for cable-television profit.

Disney’s shares slumped as much as 10 percent — the most since August 2011 — after the results, while Fox and CBS Corp., which both report earnings after the close, dropped more than 5 percent. Time Warner and Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., the owner of Food Network and HGTV, also fell even though they beat second-quarter earnings predictions. Overall, the Bloomberg U.S. Media Index had its biggest intraday decline in almost four years.

‘Investors are definitely reading across the Disney earnings and extrapolating it to the broader media sector,’ said Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Disney is facing two challenges of it own: fewer subscribers at cable networks such as ESPN, its biggest business, and foreign exchange losses from the strong dollar that are hurting both cable TV and international theme parks.

But the concerns over ESPN’s growth and comments on affiliate revenue from pay-TV providers, which Disney now expects to fall short of previous forecasts, may be a gauge for other media companies.

Both Time Warner and Fox are doubling down on exclusive live sports programming to demand higher fees for their channels from pay-TV distributors. And those higher fees have helped them fuel earnings growth in recent quarters. Investors will get an update on Fox and CBS, which has also pushed into sports programming, when the companies post results.

Time Warner’s decision to keep its full-year profit forecast after second-quarter earnings per share beat analysts’ predictions by a wide margin also weighed on the stock Wednesday. Maintaining the guidance suggested estimates for the second half may be too high, Sweeney said. Shares of the New York-based owner of HBO were down 7 percent to $81.49 at 12:55 p.m. in New York.

Discovery, which dropped 9.5 percent to $29.74, posted results that fell short of sales and earnings estimates Wednesday. The cable-TV company still increased its outlook for annual earnings-per-share growth, excluding foreign exchanges.

Cable-TV stocks like Scripps and Viacom Inc. suffered after Disney cut its forecast for cable profit. For fiscal 2013 to 2016, the entertainment giant had promised profit growth in the high-single-digit range. Now, with just five quarters to go, the company expects a mid-single-digit gain for the division over that time frame.”

This is sort of a late wake-up call to something that has been building for a long time; look at the frame grabbed chart at the top (click here, on the image above, to see a Bloomberg video on this whole topic, with some really sharp analysis). Netflix is going through the roof with subscribers, while traditional media – i.e. television and cable – is essentially flatlining.

This has been coming for a long time, and it’s sort of a seismic shock to the system for all involved, but Netflix is really taking over the whole viewing sphere, allowing people to see whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and also to cut free of the “bundling” that cable systems force on customers, paying for what really want and nothing else.

This is just the first shot in a new system of distribution that has been building for quite a while; I’m really surprised it has taken traditional media this long to notice that frankly, they’re in long term trouble. There’s no way this trend is turning around, and what happens next is -as far as I can see- that Netflix gets bigger and bigger, and traditional media becomes less and less relevant to millennials.

We’ll have to see what happens next.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

As I wrote in the first draft of the book, “Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

Forthcoming Book – Black and White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a forthcoming book on Black & White Cinema from Rutgers University Press.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist.

Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema. More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

Here are some early reviews:

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.”—Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.”—David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

More information here; my thanks to all who helped with this rather large project.

Dorothy Arzner – Starmaker

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

Here’s an interesting article on pioneering feminist director Dorothy Arzner.

As Ella Morton notes in the web journal Atlas Obscura of this talented but often forgotten filmmaker, “type the name ‘Dorothy Arzner‘ into Netflix’s search bar and you’ll get zero results. It’s an odd outcome, considering Arzner, a prolific golden age film director, has 16 feature films—among the most of any woman in Hollywood, ever. She gave Katharine Hepburn one of her first starring roles. She navigated the transition from silent films to talkies with panache, inventing the boom microphone in the process. And yet, she is largely unknown today.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner attended the University of Southern California with the intention of becoming a doctor. World War I interrupted her studies, but when it was over, she decided not to go back to medical school. ‘I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly. I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of medicine,’ said Arzner, according to [Judith Mayne's indispensable] book Directed by Dorothy Arzner. ‘So that took me into the motion picture industry.’

Arzner’s film career began in 1919 with a trip to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation—the film studio that would later become Paramount Pictures—at the invitation of director William DeMille. Exploring the various departments, Arzner gauged which aspects of filmmaking held the most appeal for her. ‘I remember making the observation, if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do,’ she said, according to [Donna R. Casella's] essay What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.

It would take years, however, before Arzner got the chance to prove her directing chops. She began working at the studio as a script typist, tapping at a typewriter all day. Though the work was humdrum, the opportunity to read major Hollywood scripts helped hone her instincts for what made a good film. The short-lived stint as a script transcriber—she was a less-than-stellar typist, and lasted only three months—was followed by a solid run in the Paramount editing bay.

In 1922, while editing the dramatic film Blood and Sand, about a peasant who becomes a champion bullfighter, Arzner saved money by intercutting stock footage of bullfights into the narrative. It was a shrewd move that both endeared her to the purse-string holders and helped establish her as a filmmaker with a keen eye.

By 1927, Paramount was ready for Arzner to take the reins on a studio feature. They assigned her Fashions For Women, a silent film about a cigarette girl named Lulu who impersonates Celeste de Givray, the best-dressed model in Paris. The novelty-ridden hi-jinks—actress Esther Ralston played both roles—didn’t set the world on fire, but the film gave Arzner the opportunity to put what she’d learned into practice. And there was much more to come.”

There absolutely is “more to come” – click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita To Be “Remade”

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Someone is actually going to try to “remake” La Dolce Vita. This will never, never work.

As Anita Busch writes in Deadline, rapidly becoming the most authoritative source of film industry news on the planet, “Some may call it heresy. Others will shrug and say, they did it with Lolita [and look how that turned out]. Federico Fellini’s estate just closed an option agreement with AMBI Group principals Andrea Iervolino and Monika Bacardi to do a ‘homage’ film on the filmmaker’s 1960s classic La Dolce Vita which starred Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg. Considered one the best films of the era, La Dolce Vita won the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

The project will be financed and produced by AMBI with Italian producer Daniele Di Lorenzo through his production company LDM Productions banner. How did it happen? Through Francesca Fellini, niece of Federico Fellini and the last blood descendent of the Fellini family.

‘We’ve been approached countless times and asked to consider everything from remakes and re-imaginings to prequels and sequels. We knew it would take very special producers and compelling circumstances to motivate the family to allow rights to be optioned,’ she said in a statement. ‘Daniele, Andrea and Monika have a beautiful vision of a modern film, and considering their Italian heritage and deep appreciation and understanding of my uncle’s works, there couldn’t be a better alignment for this project.’

The classic Italian film about a photographer and his beautiful conquests will be remade in a contemporary setting. ‘Our vision is of a contemporary story every bit as commercial, iconic and award-worthy as the original. These are big aspirations of course, but we have to be bold if we want to match the imprint of the original film and have the utmost confidence this vision will play out beautifully. We’re thankful to the Fellini family and eager to begin collaborating with Daniele, who shares our passion and has been so amazing in bringing this to us,’  said Iervolino.

The iconic comedy-drama followed a photographer/reporter Marcello Rubini (Mastroianni) over seven days and nights on his journey through Rome in a fruitless search for love and happiness. While Marcello contends with the overdose taken by his girlfriend, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), he also pursues heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) and movie star Sylvia (Ekberg), embracing a carefree approach to living. Despite his hedonistic attitude, Marcello does have moments of quiet reflection, resulting in an intriguing cinematic character study.”

Fellini’s film had one essential ingredient that the new film won’t have – Fellini – like Psycho without Hitchcock. It will probably also be in color, when the original was stunningly effective in black and white. This will be a curiosity, and may even make some money, but it won’t be La Dolce Vita – and it won’t have Fellini’s vision. Nothing anyone can do can replace that, or even replicate it – La Dolce Vita was a personal testament by Fellini of his life at that time in Rome, and the new film – whatever it is – will be something else entirely.

Why not just re-release the original, to give contemporary audiences a taste of real genius?

Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond at MoMA

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning retrospective of 100 years of Technicolor.

As Ben Kenigsberg writes in The New York Times, “this year [Technicolor] turns 100. The breadth and variety of American films that used Technicolor processes between 1922 and 1955 are apparent in a recent book, The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 by James Layton and David Pierce, and a continuing series at the Museum of Modern Art running through Aug. 5 . . . [after early experiments with a variety of processes, the company created "three-strip Technicolor," used extensively during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and] with a refined combination of cyan, magenta and yellow on its prints, the company unveiled that process in Flowers and Trees, a 1932 Disney short (showing in the MoMA series Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond, on July 31 and Aug. 3).

A three-color Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (Sunday), followed in 1935. The film series presents Technicolor as more than a novelty and tries to convey what the MoMA curator Joshua Siegel calls a ‘misunderstood’ story. He added, ‘I think we have these associations with Technicolor as this kind of garish, highly saturated, candy-color look, which was certainly true of a certain period of filmmaking.’” But that’s just a small part of the story.

As The Museum of Modern Art’s website adds, “This 100th-anniversary celebration of Technicolor, initiated by George Eastman House and presented in collaboration with the Berlinale, Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, and Austrian Film Museum, presents more than 60 feature films, along with a rich selection of cartoons, short subjects, industrials, and screen tests. MoMA’s exhibition focuses exclusively on American films made between 1922 and 1955 (the year that Hollywood studios stopped using Technicolor three-strip cameras), with a delirious range of musicals, melodramas, swashbuckling and seafaring adventures, sword-and-sandal Biblical epics, Orientalist fantasies, Westerns, literary adaptations, homespun Americana, and even rare instances of film noir and 3-D.

The exhibition honors Technicolor’s most immortal achievements, presenting rare 35mm dye-transfer prints of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain. It also deepens and complicates our appreciation of Technicolor’s history—and our nostalgic memories of movie-palace dreams—by revisiting some of the more muted and delicate, even diaphanous, uses of Technicolor in films like The Toll of the Sea and The Garden of Allah.

Even as period advertisements for Technicolor heralded the process as uniquely ‘natural,’ and ‘truer to life’ —a reflection of the painstaking efforts of the company’s technicians and color supervisors to achieve greater verisimilitude—filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli and Rouben Mamoulian were working closely with their cinematographers, production designers, costumers, and makeup artists to explore the expressive, fanciful, and even psychological uses of color by experimenting with light and shadow, chiaroscuro and sfumato, in emulation of Old Masters like El Greco, Titian and Zurburán, or with the brash, electric colors and bold contours of Fauvists like Raoul Dufy.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, the series runs from June 5 through August 5, 2015, and is an absolute must for all cineastes, even if you’ve seen these films before. The chance to see them projected in their original format- 35mm film as opposed to digital prints – is becoming increasingly rare, and the work and effort that went into this amazing series is really quite amazing. As Kenigsberg notes, “in a sense, digital work can’t compare to the artistry represented by the company’s heyday. ‘Technicolor is not just about color,’ Mr. Siegel said. ‘It’s about light and shadow, and it’s about depth and molding.’ These qualities are lost, he added, ‘in digital projections of contemporary films.’”

This is a must-see exhibition for everyone who loves cinema.

Michael Bay to Produce Remake of “The Birds”

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

The Birds is coming – again.

This project has been in the works for some time, but apparently, now it’s really going to happen. As Britt Hayes reports in ScreenCrush, “A remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (or any Hitchcock, for that matter) seems absurdly unreasonable and destined to fail. A remake of The Birds from producer Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes banner seems even more absurdly unreasonable, but here we are. The remake has been in development for some time now [since 2014, at least], but Bay & Co. have finally found a brave soul to volunteer their services.

Variety reports that Dutch director Diederick Van Rooijen has been hired to helm the remake of The Birds, which is being produced by Platinum Dunes, Mandalay and Universal. Platinum Dunes is well-known for its remakes of ‘80s horror flicks, while Universal has recently been developing reboots of its classic monster films, and now the pair have met somewhere in the middle with Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s classic 1963 film centered on a socialite who moves up to Northern California only to discover that the peaceful seaside town is under attack by hordes of birds that have suddenly turned murderous. The Birds was — and remains — such a singular horror classic that it’s hard to imagine a modernized retelling improving or even matching the original.

Van Rooijen is best known for the Dutch thrillers Daylight and Taped, and while I have not seen the former, the latter is very well executed and intense. But remaking a Hitchcock film is an incredibly difficult feat, and there aren’t many directors who would be up to the task. Van Rooijen has some specific talents to bring to the table, and as a director many Americans are unfamiliar with, he does have a slight advantage no matter if the film succeeds or fails.”

Anyone remember Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, with Vince Vaughn? That didn’t work out too well. And actually, there’s already been a remake – of sorts – of The Birds – the straight-to-cable TV movie The Birds II: Land’s End (1994), directed by Rick Rosenthal, who was so unhappy with it that he insisted his name be removed, and the project became an “Alan Smithee” film – a film no one wanted to claim (this long running pseudonym was retired in 2000). So this seems like a rather risky project to me.

I really don’t know of one Hitchcock “remake” that has ever worked. Do you?

Francesca Catalano – A Brilliant New Director of Cinematography

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Francesa Catalano is a new talent to watch – literally!

Yesterday, at the suggestion of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, I viewed Luca Boni and Marco Ristori’s low budget horror film, Reich of the Dead (2015), shot in Italy on a minimal budget with English speaking actors – including Andrew Harwood Mills, Dan van Husen, Aaron Stielstra, Ally McClelland -  which would be just another program picture were it not for Francesca Catalano’s absolutely superb CinemaScope cinematography, using a RED Scarlet digital camera to achieve some really astonishingly subtle effects.

From what I can gather, this is her first film as a full-fledged DP, although she has worked in second unit and assistant capacities on a number of films. But on the evidence of her work here, she is clearly a major talent, and someone who is ready to step up to fulltime DP work on a major project. Someone smart will grab her soon – she’s got a style all her own, which uses a good deal of available light, and deeply saturated color, and makes this very minor film well worth watching – sort of like one of Val Lewton’s Gothic thrillers from the 1940s.

In particular, her style of cinematography embraces the principles of tenebrism, which as Wikipedia notes,  “is a style of painting using very pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. The technique was developed to add drama to an image through a spotlight effect, and was popular during the Baroque period of painting.”

I wrote her to ask for her thoughts, and she responded, in part: “Thanks so much for your note. I really love [the painter] Caravaggio, and I think everyone who wants to be a DP should know or have seen once in their life some of his great work. You’re right, the movie is done with a very low budget and just a few lights, which is the reason that I tried to use natural light as much as possible, to bring out the colors of the location itself, and enhance the costumes.”

Catalano’s work is really one of a kind – as I told her, it is reminiscent of Caravaggio, but also recalls the work of the great Italian DP Mario Bava in its atmospheric and restrained sense of mood and atmosphere – in short, the vision of a true original, who has obviously studied painting seriously, and instinctively understands how to use light and shadow to create a really remarkable series of images on a very limited budget.

American DPs often approach their work as if it’s just another assignment, and expect most of the color grading to be done in post-production, but here, working with minimal resources, Catalano shows how much can be done on the set, using the qualities of the scene itself, and taking real risks with her compositions, to achieve something really extraordinary.

All in all, Catalano has the sensibility of a true artist.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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