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Video: The Theatrical Experience

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

If you’re going to watch a movie, you should see it on the big screen if at all possible.

Here, in another episode of Frame by Frame, I discuss the decline in theatrical film viewing in favor of at home video on demand streaming, as used in platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others, as DVDs fade into the distance, and theatrical screenings become a more and more rare experience. This is unfortunate, because the only way you can really see a film – and see all the detail within each shot, is on a big screen, which is the size that 90% of all films were originally made to be seen in, before the advent of television.

Now, of course, TV is fading away, as more and more people are content to watch films in their living room, and given the relative convenience and safety of seeing a film at home – as I note – who can blame them? But nevertheless, the fact remains that, as my late friend the director Roy Ward Baker once told me – and I never forgot it – “on a DVD or television, you can inspect a film, but you can’t experience it.” And it’s absolutely true, which is why seeing a film in a theater remains – after all these years – the optimal way to really see a film.

Check out the video above to find out why.

20th Century Fox Launches Ambitious EST Program

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Just a few days ago, Manohla Dargis quoted me on the disappearance of DVDs – well, here’s more proof.

As Brent Lang notes in Variety, 20th Century Fox “has just reached the century mark and to recognize the milestone, it is re-releasing a hundred films spanning the silent era, continuing through the golden age of Hollywood and ending in the early ’90s.

The pictures will be available on digital HD for the first time in their history, and include such classic films as F.W. Murnau’s  Sunrise, Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail and John Ford’s Men Without Women. The first batch of titles will be available Thursday and includes the musical Can-Can, the western My Darling Clementine and Pigskin Parade — a 1936 musical that marked Judy Garland’s film debut. There are also more modern offerings such as the Julia Roberts thriller  Sleeping With the Enemy and the Michael Douglas adventure Romancing the Stone.

The shift away from DVDs and the collapse of the video store could have dealt a death blow to classic movies, but Fox’s home entertainment team says the digital revolution appears to have ushered in a renaissance of film appreciation. ‘You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet,’ said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

‘It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be completists.’

In fact, catalogue titles now make up more than 40% of digital sales. That’s massive growth from four years ago, when they comprised approximately 5% of digital receipts, and Dunn expects their popularity will continue. To help draw attention to the offerings, Apple will have a dedicated iTunes landing page featuring these new titles.

‘Acquiring movies is so easy now,’ said Dunn. ‘You read about something and maybe there’s a reference to a filmmaker’s historical work, and my thumb moves across my phone and I’ve bought it.’ Although there are financial incentives to offering these pictures to the public, the studio positioned the move as about more than dollars and cents.

‘We are custodians of a great legacy of filmmakers whose contributions here span 100 years,’ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film. ‘We owe their work our best efforts to preserve and protect it, and to make these important films accessible in their best possible presentation for generations to come.’”

Well, that’s all very well, but for those who want the superior visual quality of physical media, HD downloads just don’t make it. Watching a film on your iPhone really has nothing to with really experiencing the film on the screen – these films were never made for such small dimensions. While this is better than simply storing these titles away in a vault, it’s just not the same as theatrical, or physical media, which with care will last a fairly long time. HD downloads, not so much.

But this is the future – EST, or “electronic sell through” – is here to stay.

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

Quentin Tarantino Explains Why 70MM Film Is Better Than Digital

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Click here, or above to see Quentin Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson shooting The Hateful Eight

As notes in Deadline Hollywood, “when Quentin Tarantino first discussed his vision with the Weinstein Co. to resurrect the roadshow picture for his eighth title The Hateful Eight in 70MM, there was one major hurdle to overcome: How could the cinema format be rebooted if most theaters don’t even have the equipment?

In a digital cinema age, few theaters own reel-to-reel projectors, let alone a 70MM machine. While these projectors were still common in the 1990s when Universal released Ron Howard’s immigrant epic Far and Away, by today’s standards they’re antiques.

All heads at the Weinstein Co. turned to Erik Lomis to meet this challenge. While his daily oversee at TWC as distribution chief entails booking titles in the widest number of theaters, Lomis was suddenly tasked with a rescue and secure mission akin to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield’s in Pulp Fiction: To obtain as many 70MM projectors for the roadshow release of Hateful Eight on Christmas Day.

‘In order to play the best theaters, we had to get them the equipment,’ says Lomis, ‘we bought into Quentin’s vision and we’re making it happen or we’ll die trying.’ Luckily, Lomis had a learning curve with the 70MM situation and the glitches that could arise when he released Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in September 2012. While Anderson shot in 65MM, the filmmaker didn’t insist on a minimum percentage of theaters showing The Master in 70MM.

At its widest point, The Master was shown in 70MM at 14 theaters, with a few prestige venues still in possession of the equipment, i.e. the Hollywood Cinerama Dome, The Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, and the Village East in New York City. During the run of The Master, dilemmas would ensue whereby a projectionist couldn’t thread the print or a projector’s motor would burn out. In such moments, the Weinstein Co. would send technicians out.

A few times, Lomis even rolled-up his sleeves and solved some 70MM problems in projection booths around L.A. ‘We even had Paul Thomas Anderson threading in one booth,’ recalls Lomis about one instance.”

This is quite an experiment; thanks to Lynn Rogers for the tip on this!

Steven Spielberg on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Steven Spielberg argues that movies shot on film are superior to digital cinema – and I agree with him.

Recently, I was reading an article by Hugh Hart in the Summer 2015 issue of the DGA Quarterly, which discussed film vs. digital cinema, a topic which has been much examined of late. While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – the article highlighted a new phenomenon – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would agree with this movement, and argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks. And indeed, there are many within the industry who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema, both on an indie and a completely commercial level. As proof of this, one can cite J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceall of which are shot on film.

In an interview with Michael Rosser published on December 3, 2015 in Screen International, Steven Spielberg argues that “if it is a straight story, without any benefits of new technology, there’s no reason to shoot anything digitally. The outcome digitally looks like the difference between a painting with acrylics and a painting with oils. Film is textural and had a kind of velocity in the grain count alone where digital is as clean as looking through a pane of glass at the outside world and to me it’s almost too vivid, too vibrant, too real.

Especially in historical films, there needs to be a bit of a veil between the here and now and something that happened way back when. That veil is almost unconsciously provided when you shoot on celluloid but is lost when you shoot it digitally. As long as we have film, why not shoot with the real stock?” When asked if George Lucas, a long time fan of digital cinema, ever tried to change his mind, Spielberg replied that “he used to, but he could never get me to do that.”

I think he’s absolutely right, and that this burgeoning movement is a return to the real.

Lost Walt Disney / Ub Iwerks Cartoon Found

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

A print of the silent cartoon Sleigh Bells – long thought lost – has been found at the BFI Archive in London.

As The British Film Institute notes on their website, “The BFI National Archive and Walt Disney Animation Studios are pleased to announce the rediscovery of a rare, long-lost, Walt Disney animated film, Sleigh Bells (1928) featuring the first ever Disney character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a long-eared precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was invented by Walt Disney in 1927 and was loved for his mischievous and rebellious personality. A number of other films do survive but Sleigh Bells has been, until now, a lost film, unseen since its original release. The animation in the film was accomplished by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, both of whom went on to create the character of Mickey Mouse, following a contractual disagreement with Universal Pictures, for whom they had created the Oswald films.

The print of Sleigh Bells (1928) was preserved in the collections of the BFI National Archive. The exciting rediscovery was made by a researcher browsing the online catalogue of the BFI National Archive’s holdings. Walt Disney Animation Studios have taken this unique surviving film print and created both a new preservation print and digital copies. The film has a running time of approximately six minutes.”

It’s not surprising to me that the film turned up in the BFI Archives; they’ve been way ahead of the United States since the 1940s in cataloguing and preserving classic films from all over the world, when the Hollywood studios themselves did little to preserve the treasures of the past. But now you can see this bit of history for yourself, thanks to an archive that really cares about the history of the cinema. Hats off the to the BFI!

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Sleigh Bells.

UNL Film Studies Alumna Staci Hogsett at UCLA Film Archive

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

A UNL Film Studies graduate has gotten a really prestigious position at one of the country’s top film archives.

As Erin Chambers writes on the UNL English and Film Studies Department website, “this past summer, UNL alumna Staci Hogsett became a Collections Services Assistant at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, one of the most renowned visual arts archives in the nation.

In her very first film studies class at UNL, she listened as Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon spoke of the possibility of finding missing scenes from Fritz Lang’s pioneering science-fiction epic, Metropolis, and the prospect of recovering pieces of film history is what eventually led her to pursue a career in film archiving.

Staci graduated from UNL with a BA in English and Film Studies in May 2011, and went on to volunteer with the Nebraska State Historical Society. There, she worked with ephemeral or sponsored films and home movies, and spent much of her time caring for the collection by clearning, repairing, and creating more detailed records for items.

She soon began applying for graduate schools, and in 2013 moved to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree in Moving Image Archive Studies at UCLA. ‘During my time there I had the opportunity to intern at places such as Western Costume Company, where I worked with their costume archive, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Film Archive, where I helped to inventory home movies that were on deposit from the Japanese American National Museum,’ she writes.

Her work with the UCLA Film & Television Archive began with a work-study position in the publicity department, which she held for two years while working towards her MA. She eventually secured an internship at the Archive, where she helped inventory new acquisitions. She received her MA in June 2015, and thanks to her hard work at the Archive, she joined the Collections department as a staff member one month later.”

Congratulations, Staci – an incredible accomplishment!

Too Many Films Stuck in The Vaults

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

Too many great films are still stuck in the vaults, with no way to see them in any format.

As Michael Hiltzik writes in The Los Angeles Times today, “Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of Alias Nick Beal, a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be The Wild Party (1929), the first talkie to star 1920’s “It” girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner.

Film critic Leonard Maltin says he’d like to score a viewing of Hotel Haywire a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges. Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount’s 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They’re frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles.

Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there’s not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets.”

I, too, would love to see a legitimate copy of Alias Nick Beal, one of my favorite noirs, but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. To date, Universal has done almost nothing in this regard. As just one example, I’ve been waiting for years for a DVD of William Castle’s The Night Walker (Universal, 1964), which, as Wikipedia notes, is “one of the last black and white theatrical features released by Universal Pictures, and Barbara Stanwyck’s last motion picture, [but] The Night Walker is one of the few William Castle films from his ‘horror’ period that is unavailable on DVD.”

Yet Hiltzik’s article demonstrates that there’s clearly a market for these older films, beyond the canonical classics. As George Feltenstein, who heads the Warner Archive imprint of on-demand DVDs of classic films notes, the WB service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved “far more successful than we even dreamed. I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we’ve been.” And that’s putting it mildly – to date, no other major studio has stepped up to the plate with the same commitment as WB has.

This isn’t altruism. As Feltenstein candidly told Hiltzik, “‘my job is to monetize that content, make it available to the largest number of people possible and do so profitably.’ That gives [Warner Archive] a window into values that others might miss. Take B-movie westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s that landed in the Warners vault. To Allied Artists and Lorimar, their producers, ‘these films were worthless and they said it’s OK to let them rot,’ Feltenstein [said].

Instead, Warner Archives packaged them into DVD collections, ‘and they’ve all been nicely profitable.’ Feltenstein says Warners is releasing 30 more titles to its manufacturing-on-demand library every month. ‘It’s growing precipitously and there’s no end in sight.’”

Yet much more work clearly needs to be done, and especially since all films made before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which decomposes rapidly and is highly flammable, things have to move along at a much faster clip if we’re going to preserve what’s left of our cinematic heritage. I’ve been noting this for a long time, in any number of articles, but even though Warner Archive is leading the pack, there’s plenty of films left that need a solid DVD release – not streaming, thank you, but on a DVD, which can be permanently kept in one’s collection.

Let’s get these films out where everyone can see them – now!

Interview on NPR’s “Inquiry” With Mark Lynch

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Mark Lynch’s NPR program Inquiry interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

You can see what Mark wrote above as an introduction to the interview – it was a fun session, and Mark always asks all the right questions – plus, he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s always a pleasure to converse with him. Inquiry comes from WICN, the New England NPR station, and Mark Lynch really does his homework – and it shows. There’s really no need to say anything further – just click here, or on the image above, to go to the interview, and listen for yourself – it runs about 30 minutes, which absolutely flew by.

Thanks, Mark- much appreciated!

Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere (1959)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

And as long as I’m in a De Sica mood, here he is in Rossellini’s masterpiece General Della Rovere.

Vittorio De Sica wasn’t only a director; he was comfortable on both sides of the camera, and did some of his very best work as the lead actor in Roberto Rossellini’s tragic drama of the Italian Resistance during World War II, General Della Rovere.

Shot in a mere 33 days, and edited in 10 days after that in order to make the deadline for the Cannes Film Festival that year, Rossellini’s film is audacious on any number of levels – from the gradual shifting of the lead character’s complete selfishness to resolute heroism; the stunning use of actual newsreel stock footage of the war, used here both as establishing material, as well as an occasional backdrop for an actor performing in front of a rear-projection screen, in a completely self-referential fashion; to Rossellini’s revolutionary use of the zoom lens in a manner which anticipates his later historical films – and won the Golden Lion at the Festival.

As DVD Beaver notes, “Roberto Rossellini’s first box-office success after a string of commercial failures, notably with Ingrid Bergman, was also a return to the themes of the film that brought him international fame, Rome, Open City and his other neorealist classics. In a magnetic performance, Vittorio De Sica is Emanuele Bardone, an opportunistic rascal in wartime Genoa, conning his fellow Italians and exploiting their tragedies by promising to help find their missing loved ones in exchange for money. But when the Nazis force him to impersonate a dead partisan general in prison to extract information from fellow inmates, Bardone finds himself wrestling with his conscience for the first time.

Based on an article by the Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, Rossellini casts Vittorio De Sica as confidence trickster Emanuele Bardone who helps to save Italians arrested by the Gestapo or at least pretending to do so in exchange for money or gifts from their family. When he attempts to save a man already executed he is turned over by the man s wife and is given the choice of execution or carrying out a confidence trick for the Germans; to assume the identity of the General Della Rovere. Turning on his country to save his skin Bardone enters prison to seek out the identity of the partisan commander, Fabrizio.”

I watched this film again a few days ago, a film I have known and loved for more than four decades, and once again, it simply knocked me to the floor. In addition to De Sica’s indelible and letter-perfect performance in the lead, there is the equally masterful performance of Hannes Messemer as SS Col. Müller, who attempts to use Bardone’s skills as a con man to get information from the members of the resistance. But as the film moves inexorably towards its tragic yet transcendent finish, it’s clear that Bardone’s transformation from scam artist to patriot can lead to only one conclusion, and one of the most powerful endings in the history of cinema. Simply put, this is a must see film.

Fortunately available on several DVD formats, General Della Rovere is simply essential cinema.

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

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

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