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Black & White Cinema – A Short History on TCM

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

I was honored to have Robert Osborne discuss my book Black & White Cinema on TCM last night.

For a special evening of black and white films on October 7, 2015 entitled “Artists in Black and White,” showcasing the work of such brilliant cinematographers as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Haskell Wexler and Karl Freund, Robert Osborne and Turner Classic Movies ran a series of five films that best exemplify the brilliance of monochrome cinema during the classical Hollywood studio era, including Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (photographed by Toland) and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (shot by Wexler).

Introducing the films, Osborne remarked that “there’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.”

Needless to say, I thank Robert Osborne and TCM for their interest in my work, and TCM, as always, is a national treasure – the last place on television where one can see the classics, complete and uncut, in their original aspect ratios – with no commercials. Many thanks, and long may TCM continue into the future!

Black and White Cinema is available in Kindle, paperback and hardcover formats – check it out now!

New Video – Science Fiction Futurism

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

I have a new video out on Science Fiction Futurism and Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

Science fiction films have been predicting the future since Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon in 1902, and as with that film, as much as they might get things right, they often err in describing what the future holds.

In this short video, edited and photographed by Curt Bright, I talk about some of the other films that have shaped our consciousness of the future, to mark the release today of Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian, such as Things To Come (1936), Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

While these visions of the future are often fanciful, sometimes they hit the mark, as with hologram projection, talking computers, two-way television and numerous other technological advances. So click here, or on the link above to take a quick trip into the cinematic future, and remember, as Criswell famously noted, “we are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives.”

Maybe some of these things will actually come to pass.

Another New Frame by Frame Video – Batman v Superman

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder on the set of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Curt Bright and I have really been pumping these Frame by Frame videos out – three in the last week alone! This time around, it’s the new Batman v Superman movie, directed by Zack Snyder, on which I have real reservations. As I note in the video commentary, this seems like reaching for the end of the franchise waaaaaay too soon – the comparison I make is Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), which spelled the beginning of the end for the classic Universal monster series, and led to the “monster rally” films House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), before the entire franchise collapsed in parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman has much the same basic plot arc as Superman v Batman, but with Snyder’s film, it proved necessary to turn Superman into something of a villain, seemingly out of control, thus forcing Batman to travel to Gotham City to challenge Superman, who is suddenly seem as a threat to humanity, rather than a savior, his more traditional role.

As Snyder told Katie Roberts when he undertook the project, “after Man of Steel finished and we started talking about what would be in the next movie, I started subtly mentioning that it would be cool if he faced Batman… You’re in a story meeting talking about, like, who should [Superman] fight if he fought this giant alien threat Zod who was basically his equal physically, from his planet, fighting on our turf… You know, who to fight next?… But I’m not gonna say at all that when I took the job to do Man of Steel that I did it in a subversive way to get to Batman. I really believe that only after contemplating who could face [Superman] did Batman come into the picture.”

Which is all very well, but what’s the next act? And with Wonder Woman thrown in as an extra added attraction, along with DC superheroes Aquaman and Cyborg, all in their first live action big-screen iterations, it would seem to me that this is becoming more and more like a series ender, rather than a franchise extender. If you’re setting up this conflict, even if everything turns out all right in the end, which of course it will, you’ve nevertheless created a mash-up which could easily lead to parody, rather than an extension of the DC Universe.

Really, all of this is rather inconsequential in the long run, at least for me, but for fans, I think this is starting down the road to a series of films with endless cataclysmic fights, explosions, and violence, rather than character development, in which the members of the DC universe are shuffled on screen for some marquee time, and then moved off into the shadows, waiting for the next franchise entry. But we’ll find out soon enough whether or not it works. And meantime, when is the Wonder Woman film going to come out – were going to have to wait until 2017 for that – long overdue!

Coming in March 2016 to a theater near you: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

New Frame by Frame Video – Comic Book Movies

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

I have a new video out today on comic book movies in the Frame by Frame series.

Working with Curt Bright, I have a new video out today on comic book movies – specifically, where they’re headed in the next five years. Disney, DC, and Marvel (which Disney owns) are all battling each other at the box office to create the most effective brand domination, but as you will see from the video, I think Marvel has a real head start, and probably will remain the major force in comic book films for the immediate future – even if DC is planning out to 2020. I just don’t think DC has the depth of characters that Marvel has in their “universe,” and that’s really where the problem starts – at least for DC.

With DC, you have Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and that’s about it – and a sure sign of this early exhaustion of possibilities is that DC is already reaching into the ranks of their villains for the upcoming Suicide Squad, which is an attempt to broaden their character horizons. The next stop after that is parody, and we’re already perilously close to that with some of the current crop of superhero / comic book films, such as the recent Green Lantern film, which did little to help the franchise, to put it kindly.

For the most part, though, it seems all too predictable – another Star Wars film every year for the next fifteen years from Disney, DC dutifully rolling out their own product, while Marvel does the same. And now Disney is doing a live-action Winnie The Pooh reboot, to be written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, while Godzilla is also being ramped up for yet another go-round, and the Maze Runner series, as well as the Hunger Games series, continue on for what is supposedly their final films – but are they really? Franchises exist to be extended interminably – just ask James Bond.

We’ll just have to wait and see- check out the video here and see what you think!

Terence Stamp – An Actor’s Unusual Life

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in the 1967 version of Far From The Madding Crowd.

Though most people know him today almost solely as General Zod in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Terence Stamp has had a long and deeply varied career. On March 12, 2015, Stamp sat down with Andrew Pulver of The Guardian for a detailed interview, which makes for fascinating reading, both as an overview of the actor’s life, but also as a reminder of the whimsical nature an acting career – one moment you’re hot, the next moment, nothing.

As Pulver notes, “It’s funny how things work out. Now 76, Stamp had a fantastic 1960s, during which he starred in a handful of imperishable classics (Billy Budd, Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, Pasolini’s Theorem) and consorted with some of the era’s most beautiful women (Julie Christie, Jean Shrimpton, Brigitte Bardot). His career fell off a cliff at the start of the 1970s, the drought ending with an improbable offer to play General Zod in the first two Superman movies.

A peripatetic revival followed, with occasional juicy roles (The Hit, Wall Street, The Adventures of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, Song for Marion) alternating with pay-the-bills Hollywood (Young Guns, Elektra, Wanted). Retro fetishism started in 1999 with the Steven Soderbergh-directed The Limey, in which Stamp played a Get Carter-ish avenging gangster, and has continued to the present day, with Stamp currently lionized by another 60s-fetishising film-maker, Tim Burton, with roles in Big Eyes (as a snooty art critic) and the yet-to-be-completed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

But cinema has a habit of folding back on itself; this week sees the reissue of one of those imperishable 1960s films, Far From the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, in which Stamp plays the coldly raffish Sergeant Troy opposite Julie Christie’s Bathsheba. Spruced-up and spring-cleaned, and just less than half a century old, Far From the Madding Crowd is something else: they really don’t make them like this any more.

Almost three hours long, smeared with mud and sheep dung in its grimly realistic recreation of early 19th-century Dorset, and benefiting from performances from actors at the top of their games, it glows on the screen exactly the way it must have when first released in 1967. At the time, however, it was considered a disaster: poor reviews, especially in the US, and a general inability to see past the with-it celebrity personas of Stamp and Christie, translated into underwhelming box-office and a severe career misstep for its director, John Schlesinger.

These days, Stamp is sanguine about the film, which has regained some cultural currency with the impending release of another adaptation, featuring Carey Mulligan in the Julie Christie role and Tom Sturridge in Stamp’s. [Said Stamp,] ‘It was the first really commercial project I got involved with, and I was rather shocked by the reaction. I thought it had everything.’”

An excellent interview; read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Frame by Frame on Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I have a new Frame by Frame video on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Amazingly, this episode in the Star Wars series will actually be shot on film, rather than digitally. As director J.J. Abrams told Ben Fritz of The Wall Street Journal, “I appreciate how that technology opens the doors for filmmakers who never had access to that level of quality before. However, I do think film itself sets the standard for quality. You can talk about range, light, sensitive, resolution — there’s something about film that is undeniably beautiful, undeniably organic and natural and real.

I would argue film sets the standard and once it’s no longer available, the ability to shoot the benchmark goes away. Suddenly you’re left with what is, in many cases, perfectly good but not necessarily the best, the warmest, the most rich and detailed images. Especially on movies like Star Trek and Star Wars, you have so much that will be created or extended digitally, and it’s a slippery slope where you can get lost in a world of synthetic. You really have to keep away from that, especially with Star Wars, which I wanted very much to feel like it is part of another era.

I’m very grateful to Kodak for keeping the lab open for now. As a filmmaker, you want to have every tool available. That doesn’t mean digital doesn’t have huge advantages, nor that I wouldn’t want to experiment and shoot digitally on something. I would hope filmmakers who are just getting started will be able to have this as an option as they continue in their careers because movies are nothing if not a romantic experience and film is a big part of that.”

The result should be quite interesting; slated to open December, 2015.

New Book Published – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

I have a new book out today from Rutgers University Press – Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

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.

My thanks to all who helped with this very complex project.

Russell Hicks – Hollywood Professional

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

“I want to show you I’m honest in the worst way!” – Russell Hicks in The Bank Dick

Russell Hicks, the consummate Hollywood professional character actor, is seen above in one of his most memorable roles as the astonishingly corrupt con man J. Frothingam Waterbury in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940, directed by Edward F. Cline), who successfully unloads some worthless shares in “the Beefsteak Mines” (whatever that is) on Fields in a rundown bar with some memorably shady hard-sell dialogue.

As Waterbury tells his mark, Egbert Sousé (Fields) in the film, “Waterbury’s my name, J. Frothingham Waterbury. I’m in the bond and stock business. Now, I have five thousand shares of the Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada, that I want to turn over to your bank. I like this little town and I want to get some contacts. I think you’re the very man.

Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share. The telephone company once sold for five cents a share. These shares are twice as expensive, therefore, consequently they’ll be twice as valuable. Naturally, you’re no dunce. Telephone is now listed at one seventy-three and you can’t buy it. Three thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars for every nickel you put into it.

It’s simple arithmetic — if five’ll get you ten, ten will get you twenty. Sixteen-cylinder cars, a big home in the city — balconies upstairs and down. Home in the country — big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate. Warm Sunday afternoon, fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice-cold beer.  And then this guy comes up the shady drive in an armored car from the bank, and he dumps a whole basket of coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in your lap.

And he says, ‘Sign here, please, on the dotted line.’ And then he’s off, to the soft chirping of our little feathered friends in the arboreal dell. That’s what these bonds mean. I’d rather part with my dear old grandmother’s paisley shawl or her wedding ring than part with these bonds. Gosh! Oh, pardon my language. . . I feel like a dog. But it’s now or never. It must be done. So take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it!” Fields responds, thereby setting off a chain of events that makes The Bank Dick one of the handful of films that has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But Hicks’ work in The Bank Dick is just one of more than 320 feature films and television programs the actor appeared in, including, among many other projects, such significant films as Scarlet Street,  Blood and Sand, The Great Lie, Sergeant York and The Black Arrow, racking up no less than 19 credits in 1942, and another 25 films in 1941.

For all of this, Hicks received comparatively little remuneration, as this employment card from for The Little Foxes from 1941 shows; he was a day player, with a rate of just $150 per day with a weekly guarantee for $600, and remained in constant demand because of his absolute professionalism, the fact that he could remember reams of dialogue and almost never blew a take, and could be relied on to essentially “direct himself,” so that even when the film he was appearing in fell apart, or the director had no idea what he was doing, Hicks would emerge unscathed, ready for his next assignment.

Russell Hicks’ employment contract for The Little Foxes, dated May 1, 1941.

Hicks worked right up until his death, and as you can see, he had to; for his entire professional career, Hicks was a perennial freelancer, moving from studio to studio, from the majors to the minors, without hardly missing a beat. With his sonorous voice, photographic memory, and dignified bearing, Hicks could move from playing a shady mob lawyer (in Hold That Ghost), to a judge (Tarzan’s New York Adventure), or an army colonel (They Died With Their Boots On), or a CIA “handler” (The Flying Saucer) without missing a beat.

Amazingly, he even took on the role of an aging Robin Hood – surely a stretch – in the 1946 film The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, and managed to pull it off in style. Some of his roles took just a day; others a week or so, but Hicks could always be relied to show up, say his lines, and wrap up his portion of the project with smooth assurance.

Indeed, his career stretched all the way back to 1915, and his work on D. W. Griffith’s horrifically racist Birth of A Nation, as well as Intolerance in 1916, and he was never out of work for more than few weeks before the next job came along.

Hicks’ last work was in Betty White’s pioneering television fantasy sitcom Date With The Angels in 1957; he died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 61 that same year. So his career truly spanned cinema from almost the medium’s inception straight through until the modern sound era. It’s always fun to watch him at work; no matter how small the part, he never disappoints, and plays each new role with conviction and style.

Trailblazing Women Directors on TCM in October

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Here’s an amazing series of films that you simply can’t miss.

As Cynthia Littleton reports in Variety, “Turner Classic Movies has teamed with Women in Film, Los Angeles, for a programming initiative designed to highlight the work of women behind the camera in the movie business.

In the month of October, actress-director Illeana Douglas will host a twice-weekly Trailblazing Women series featuring movies directed by women. Douglas’ wraparound segments will feature interviews with filmmakers and discussion of statistics compiled by Women in Film about gender disparity in the film business, notably the 5-to-1 ratio of men working in film production compared to women.

TCM and WIF LA are building out a dedicated section of the TCM website focusing on the history of women in the film biz, WIF LA’s studies on gender issues and links to various resources for aspiring female filmmakers.

Trailblazing Women grew out of TCM’s effort to curate a month’s worth of movies directed by women. The idea was sparked when Charlie Tabesh, TCM’s senior VP of programming, saw that TCM had obtained rights to 2008’s The Hurt Locker, the movie that made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win an Oscar for directing.

‘We were pondering what preceded Bigelow and The Hurt Locker,’ TCM general manager Jennifer Dorian told Variety. ‘Our job at TCM is to think about the long view and the entire spectrum of film history. (Tabesh) put together a look at women pioneers going back to 1906.’

As the package came together, Dorian realized that there was an opportunity to add a ‘pro-social’ layer to the effort, which prompted her to reach out to Women in Film LA. ‘We recognized that this is a timely and topical issue, and that we could not only create awareness of women’s historical contributions but shine a light on today’s issues and bring resources and information to today’s generation of filmmakers,’ Dorian said.

Trailblazing Women will be a multi-year project for TCM, with a similar monthly showcase planned for 2016 and probably 2017, Dorian said. The inaugural effort is focused on the work of female directors, but future showcases will delve into other disciplines such as writing and producing.

The series launches Oct. 1 and will air Tuesdays and Thursdays in primetime, encompassing more than 50 films. The series begins with film historian Cari Beauchamp discussing the work of pioneers including Alice Guy-Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda and Lina Wertmuller. Other directors who will co-host nights alongside Douglas are Allison Anders, Julie Dash, Connie Field, Amy Heckerling, as well as producer and WIF LA president Cathy Schulman.”

This is an something really special – get the schedule by clicking here, or on the image above.

Alex Ross Perry on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

L to R; Alex Ross Perry and DP Sean Price Williams on the set of Queen of Earth – shooting film.

In the continuing debate between film vs. digital, director Alex Ross Perry, and his superbly gifted DP Sean Price Williams weigh in on why shooting on film gives you an undefinable edge over the rest of the field – provided, of course, that your film has some actual content. As Perry notes in an op-ed piece in Indiewire, in part:

“It is quite simple and affordable to shoot a movie of almost any budget on actual, honest to god celluloid. Perhaps I’m not the best authority on the subject; I have never actually shot a film on a digital format. Queen of Earth is my fourth film; the first, Impolex, was made in 2008 with a $15,000 budget and shot on Fuji 16mm film. So ever since then I’ve been getting asked, and really earnestly explaining in the hopes that my words mean something: how?

Impolex was shot in seven days. I think we bought 40 rolls of film. However many it was, the total was something like $2,500 and processing was another $3,000 or so. We got the Aaton camera for free because my cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, worked for the late great Albert Maysles and the company had all this older equipment just sitting around that nobody used or cared about. This is an important thing to remember when planning to shoot on film: practically nobody else wants that equipment so if you can’t get it for free, you should be able to get it for basically nothing.

The same cannot be said for whatever new Red camera is in high demand – if you won’t pay $500 a day for it, somebody else will. For a 16mm camera, I’d be surprised if anybody paid $500 for a whole week. So if you are making a small independent film with a shoot of about two weeks, the film stock, camera package and processing could be as low as five to six thousand dollars . . .

The numbers we landed on for shooting film on Queen of Earth were partially borrowed from producer Joe Swanberg’s identical production budget and model for his own Super 16mm film Happy Christmas . . . we bought $11,000 worth of Kodak Super 16mm and then paid close to $15,000 to develop and scan it.

Our camera and lighting package was about $10,000 but you’d absolutely be paying the same if renting a fancy pants HD camera and also you have to buy a bunch of hard drives and have some person on set whose sole job is to move stuff off of memory cards or whatever and deal with the footage all day.

That’s a whole extra mouth to feed, bed to rent, seat in the van, and so on. It adds up and the ultimate difference between film and digital on a production of this size isn’t 5:1. It’s probably more like 4:3 when you factor in all the nonsense you are paying for regardless.

Color correction will cost the same. Once the footage is scanned and edited, it doesn’t matter what the origin was, except now you aren’t paying some tech nerd in a post house several thousand dollars to press buttons and adjust knobs in order to retroactively add an visual aesthetic to your movie that realistically, you could have just spent the same amount of money on set and had that texture and experience be genuine instead of inauthentic.

Generally people really don’t seem to connect with that process, and it doesn’t matter if you shot on old converted 35mm lenses either.

The eye won’t connect with digital trickery the same way it will with tried and true imperfect film grain. It may look great and interesting in its own way, as many filmmakers have proven starting, for me, with Zodiac, but at these budget levels, you essentially are saving a little money on the format and then spending it later on somebody who works on your movie for like three days and probably gets paid more than most of the crew who woke up at seven am and worked for twelve hours.

My point is that shooting on film is like anything: if it is of importance you will find a way to make it happen. Nobody will know that you were able to buy an extra two days of filming by shooting on an Alexa but they will know if you are the rare independent film that was shot on actual film. You definitely will have to make a compromise or two but what you get in return is an instant and overwhelmingly present aesthetic that will do more in carrying the audience to whatever place you want them to be than just about anything else money can buy.”

An interesting take; you can read the entire piece by clicking here.

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 or

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • Frame by Frame: Science Fiction Futurism
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the 2015 Ridley Scott film "The Martian," and the accuracy (and often inaccuracy) of science-fiction films at predicting real advancements in science and technology. […]
  • Frame by Frame: Batman v Superman
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the genre of comic book movies in the context of "Batman v Superman."  […]

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