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The Chinese Cinema Explosion – 22 New Screens Every Day

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The theatrical film experience in China is absolutely exploding.

As the CBS News program 60 Minutes reports, “The movie business is booming across China. Shopping malls have popped up everywhere, and with them, theaters. Twenty-two new movie screens open every day, that’s right, every day. In the last five years, box office receipts have grown a staggering 350 per cent . . .

In February, the Chinese box office brought in over a billion dollars for the first time ever, beating the U.S. and Canada. China, with its 1.3 billion people, is expected to become the biggest movie market in the world as early as next year. Hollywood has taken notice, partnering with Chinese studios and making blockbusters as much for Chinese audiences as American ones. But the U.S. film industry is also facing competition from Chinese moguls and movie stars with big ambitions . . .

Chinese studios produce over 600 features a year, action movies, sci-fi, thrillers . . . [Said one seasoned observer of the Chinese film industry] ‘they are smart. They understand storytelling. They are super well-versed in what works in their own country. They are super well-versed in what works globally. I couldn’t be more excited. So I would say– you know, Hollywood, watch out.’”

This is a fascinating story – read the entire piece here, with videos.

New Article – Slaves of Vision: The Oculus Rift

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

I have just published a new article on the advent of the VR device, the Oculus Rift.

As I note in the article, the “Oculus Rift [VR headset] is a completely immersive experience, blocking out anything but the fantasy world that it provides for the viewer. There’s no one else in this Oculus world except for the game player, and the digital characters conjured up by the game makers – the rest of the real world has been effectively shut out. Thus, it doesn’t matter where you are in a genuine physical sense with Oculus Rift – you’re no longer part of actual existence, having traded it in for a fantasy world.

While it’s a predictable step in the evolution of digital technology – indeed, even in the evolution of cinema, was has sought to be an immersive and overwhelming medium since its first inception – I view a world in which a significant portion of the population are living in an alternative universe rather than contributing to the real one with some alarm.

It may be that life in 21st century, with its endless procession of terrorism, wars, famine, and ecological collapse is too much for the human mind to handle, and escape is the only option. The damage that we have done to the planet since 1950 is more than all the previous centuries of human existence combined, and in such an uncertain world, the urge to ‘check out’ is certainly understandable.

But, of course, it’s one more step in the direction of total human compartmentalization, something that started, arguably, with radio – so people didn’t have to go out to see performances of plays, operas, or symphonies or jazz bands – but reached its early apotheosis with the invention of television, which significantly cut down on human interaction on a local scale, as people could sit at home at and watch images that moved in their living room rather than trekking out to the local theater.

The web has only intensified this, as we spend more and more hours transfixed in front of our computer screens, whether through necessity as part of employment, or paradoxically, seeking escape from the everyday world. For the 21st century, it’s total immersion – and thus total escape from the real world – that really draws the spectator. Yes, VR is absolutely going to be addictive, and the proof is already right in front of us. What will happen when a large portion of society, increasing exponentially daily, is ‘tuned out’ from reality? We’ll have to wait and see – but I don’t think we’ll have to wait that long.”

Charles Eric Maine’s novel Escapement is my jumping off point here – required reading for the VR era.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Christophe Folschette on Visual Listening

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

Christophe Folschette of Talkwalker has some interesting thoughts on the way we process images.

As Folschette told Richard Sunley in the journal Social Media News, “visual listening is like social listening but for visual content. Up until now, social listening has mainly focused on text content like the text of tweets or the text of a blog post. Visual listening goes one step further and allows you to track logos within images and photos posted on social networks and online. From here, you can apply all sorts of advanced analytics to understand how a post spreads across the web, which images are trending at the moment, the top influencers posting photos of your products and much much more.

Over recent years the use of visual content – that’s photos and images – has exploded on all social networks and across online media channels. Reports suggest that almost two-thirds of all content posted on social channels includes an image. When you think that on Twitter alone, people are sending around half a billion tweets every day, that’s an enormous amount of visuals that audiences are consuming. Studies have also shown that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text which gives some indication as to why this type of content appeals to us so much.”

Folschette is concentrating on marketing here, but the same theory applies to the way we process images in art, or the visuals we see on the many screens we view everyday, as well as in daily  existence. Just one frame of film or video contains a multitude of information that has to be decoded if one if going to arrive at any reasonable approximation of the what that image really conveys.

This is why analytical viewing is such an essential part of film and video studies – more so today than ever – because the images we are confronted with are often so resolutely commercial, and we need to understand how they are trying to manipulate us. In short, we can’t be passive in the face of the images that inundate us – we have to strive to understand them. Otherwise, we’re simply letting these images enter our consciousness without thought – as Jean-Luc Godard famously observed, “it’s not a just image – it’s just an image.” An image we should seek – always – to understand.

Something to think about as you see more and more images – all carefully constructed – everyday.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

Martin Chilton: Fifty Great Quotes About Acting

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

From Roger Moore to Eddie Murphy to Meryl Streep, click here for 50 thoughts on the craft of acting.

Writing in The Guardian, Martin Chilton has compiled a photo gallery – some of the images are above – of really sharp thoughts on an actor’s life and work from the most famous film and theater actors who’ve ever graced the screen or stage. Some of the comments are centered entirely on money; some on the trials and tribulations of fame; others on how to appear natural on screen; still other actors chafe at the demands of directors they’ve worked with, or actors they didn’t get along with.

Whatever the comment, it makes fascinating reading, and you can read through all 50 quotes by clicking on the image above, and then the next, and the next, and so on – it’s a remarkable and revealing cross section of what makes actors tick, how they feel about themselves, and how they regard their public. Some of these actors are working today, while others are giants of the past – whatever the era they worked in, they have some really perceptive insights on what they do for a living. Performances, auditions – it’s all grist for the mill.

Most are grateful for the opportunities they’ve had, and of the entire group, George Clooney perhaps sums it up best when he notes that “I cut tobacco for a living in Kentucky. That was hard work. I sold insurance door-to-door. That’s hard work. Acting is not hard work. If you’re lucky enough to be sitting at a table like this, you’ve been very lucky in your life. You caught the brass ring somewhere along the way.”

Or, as Sir Michael Caine put it, “first of all, I choose the great roles, and if none of these come, I choose the mediocre ones, and if they don’t come, I choose the ones that pay the rent,” commenting further on his appearance in the film Jaws: The Revenge (1987) that “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” And that, folks, is what acting is all about – taking the work when you can get it, and shining even in a film, or a play, that doesn’t work at all.

Fascinating reading, and a great set of personal insights – check it out.

Nothing Is Real – Hollywood’s Digital Facelifts

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Yes, Hollywood has found the “flawless” Fountain of Youth.

As Stephanie Merry writes in The Washington Post for March 18th, 2016, “Pee-wee Herman hasn’t changed a bit. It’s been three decades since his heyday, when he hammed it up in a snug gray suit for TV watchers every Saturday morning. But take a look at his new Netflix movie, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, and prepare to be stunned. Has actor Paul Reubens — who first played the bowtied character in 1979 — found the fountain of youth? Sort of.

The Peter Pan-ish Pee-wee was never meant to age, so tech wizardry intervened. In postproduction, artists digitally retouched his face to turn back the clock. It’s called beauty work, and it’s been around for more than a decade. But it’s a hidden craft, practiced by artists who make every frame look sublime by toiling for long hours — while remaining invisible. ‘In a perfect world, you will never see our work,’ says one expert, Howard Shur, who started the Los Angeles-based digital effects company Flawless FX three years ago. ‘It will just look natural and normal.’

In the early days, the effects niche was reserved for music videos, to make pop stars pop. But over the years, business boomed as commercials, movies and TV got on board. Now, plenty of actors have beauty work written into their contracts. Maybe you can guess which ones, but you won’t get confirmation from the people who fix A-list flaws.

Non-disclosure agreements are the norm. Unless it’s a conspicuous part of the story, like Brad Pitt aging in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or the flashback in Ant-Man that shaved 30 years off Michael Douglas’s face.

Click here to see Flawless Fx’s truly amazing demo reel – you’ll feel ten years younger!

Or if an actor like Reubens admits it, as he did in a New York Times profile, exposing this little-known — and pricey — process. ‘I could have had a facelift and we would have saved $2 million,’ he said in the interview. Commercials and music videos tend to get more treatment than movies and television, according to Culley Bunker, who runs Skulley Effects in Los Angeles. In the former case, ‘they’re selling you an image, they’re selling you a product,’ he says. ‘Movies are more artistic.’

One of Flawless’s specialties is fixing continuity errors — minor adjustments that result from fast shooting schedules or tight set budgets. Let’s say an actor has a cold sore for two days of his 10 on set. Because movies are generally shot out of order, viewers might be distracted if the blister vanished and then reappeared.

Of course, it’s not always about continuity. According to multiple artists, a popular job is to take care of those pesky eye bags. Artists can also add muscle definition, zap blemishes, fix teeth and tame rogue strands of hair. The request can come from a record label, a director, a producer or a movie star, depending on the situation.

It’s not easy, nor is it quick. Each frame is digitally hand-painted. New York-based visual-effects artist Nathaniel Westveer, who works mainly on music videos, estimates that it takes him an hour to work on 24 frames one second of footage.”

Read the whole article here – all is an illusion – especially in Hollywoodland.

Tom Cabela – UNL Film Studies Alumni – Builds Major Career

Friday, March 4th, 2016

Tom Cabela, a UNL Film Studies Alumni, has built himself a brilliant career in Hollywood.

As Erin Chambers writes on the UNL English Department website in an article posted today, “Tom Cabela was one of the first Film Studies Majors at UNL in the late 1990s, and has since gone on to a stellar career in Hollywood, with great personal and professional success.

Interested in film since childhood, Cabela started making his own films in while attending Lincoln Southeast High School, where he helped found Southeast’s first film program. He soon realized he wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking, and decided to come to UNL after graduating.

Cabela joined the Film Studies Program at UNL, where Professors Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon helped shape the way he viewed and analyzed cinema. They also helped prepare him for the rigors of the industry and in finding his own artistic voice.

‘Professor Foster was always so encouraging and supportive, and really helped shape me intellectually and as a person,’ says Cabela. ‘Thanks to her I was one step ahead on post-modern and feminist film theory when I got to the University of California. Professor Dixon also helped prepare me for the demands and high expectations of the industry. His lessons have always held me in good stead.’

After graduating from UNL in 2001, Cabela moved to Santa Cruz and completed the production program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked briefly for production designer Jennifer Williams. Williams introduced him to a friend, Oscar nominated editor Peter Honess, who soon hired Cabela as a Post Production Assistant.

Honess and his team trained Cabela, got him into the union, and brought him up to assistant editor. As a part of that team, Cabela worked on films like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Aeon Flux, and Poseidon. He also worked on Blades of Glory, Get Smart, and Red Dawn under editor Richard Pearson.

Eventually he went to work for James Cameron’s company C.P.G., where Cameron and his partner Vince Pace trained him as a stereo (3D) picture specialist. There, he worked on Transformers 3, Sin City 2, Walking with Dinosaurs, Cirque Du Soleil, and others.

However, the 3D ‘bubble’ soon burst, and he found himself looking for work elsewhere. His background in 3D/VFX as well as editorial made VFX Editing a perfect fit. Since becoming a VFX Editor, Cabela’s editing and visual effects work has appeared in Entourage the Movie and the new Todd Phillips film War Dogs.

He continues to make his own films, which have shown at festivals like Mill Valley, Sarasota, and South by Southwest. You can view samplings of his work on Vimeo. But for Cabela, this is only the beginning. “Who knows what the future holds?” Cabela wonders. “The possibilities are limitless.”

Indeed they are – this is just the beginning for Tom – who knows what will come next?

CBS News Video: MoMA’s Race to Preserve Classic Films

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

The Museum of Modern Art has one of the world’s largest film archives - click on the video above, and see.

In this CBS news video, Anthony Mason reports that “important work in film history is being done by Museum of Modern Art in New York. A team of film technicians has earned an Oscar of their own. They find and preserve classic films, many of which were made 100 years ago.” And indeed, MoMA’s work is invaluable, in saving the works of the past, in a format which is becoming increasing fragile.

Here, MoMA works on preserving the silent film Rosita, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1923, restored under the supervision of Katie Trainor, film collections manager at the Museum. In this case, this is the only surviving print of the film, which was recovered from a Russian archive in the 1970s. Trainor supervises the 4K scanning of the film, and then sees that Rosita is returned to film – not stored digitally, so that it can be projected in its original 35mm format.

Working under the supervision of Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film and Dave Kehr, Curator, Department of Film, Trainor and her staff are bringing the film back to life as part of the continuing work of the museum, which has a long and celebrated history.

As MoMA’s website notes, “in 1932 Alfred Barr, the Museum’s founding director, stressed the importance of introducing ‘the only great art form peculiar to the twentieth century’ to ‘the American public which should appreciate good films and support them.’ Museum Trustee John Hay Whitney—who, in addition to collecting modern painting, produced films in partnership with Hollywood’s David O. Selznick—was chosen as the first chairman of the Museum’s Film Library, a distinguished position he held from 1935 to 1951.

Whitney knew the collection could be assembled only by those who made the movies. He sent film curator Iris Barry to Hollywood to persuade industry leaders to donate prints, a radical concept that startled stars and producers alike. At a reception and screening in the Hollywood’s famous Pickfair mansion, Barry illustrated film’s brief but important history, demonstrated the fragility of the medium, and argued that it should be safeguarded. Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century–Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Walt Disney, William S. Hart, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and David O. Selznick, among others, soon responded with donations of prints.

In 1936 Barry traveled through Europe and the Soviet Union to acquire international films and meet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. So successful was this initial assembling of the collection that in 1937 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences commended the Museum with an award ‘for its significant work in collecting films . . . and for the first time making available to the public the means of studying the historical and aesthetic development of the motion picture as one of the major arts.’

In 1939, the same year Whitney and Selznick’s Gone With the Wind premiered, The Museum of Modern Art opened its permanent home on Fifty-third Street in Manhattan and launched the first film exhibition program in America. With crucial assistance from Lillian Gish, D. W. Griffith had been persuaded to deposit his films and papers at the Museum, facilitating the first major retrospective of a film artist—an exhibition that set the standard for the presentation and analysis of the masters of this new art form.

Today the collection includes more than 25,000 titles and ranks as one of the world’s finest museum archives of international film art. Works by the inventors of film language—the creators of its form, genres, and technology—form the cornerstones of the collection. Every major artist of the silent era is represented: Griffith, Porter, and Ince; and the Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph studio filmmakers; Lumière and Méliès from France; Chaplin and Keaton, DeMille and Fairbanks, Dreyer and Stroheim, Eisenstein and Flaherty.

The innovators and masters of the sound era are represented, too: Warner Bros., Fox, and Selznick studios; Walt Disney and Lubitsch; Ford, Walsh, Wyler, and Capra; Sternberg, Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and Renoir; Rossellini and Ophuls; Kurosawa and Ozu; Truffaut and Bergman. Films by artists Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, László Moholy-Nagy, and Paul Strand enrich the collection, as do the works of animators and contemporary experimental filmmakers such as Jane Aaron, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor, Ken Jacobs, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol.

In recent years, directors such as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, John Sayles, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim Burton and producers such as Ray Stark, Albert Broccoli, Irwin Winkler, Edward Pressman, and Joel Silver have donated films to the collection. The Turner Entertainment Company has donated original materials of RKO and Warner Bros. films of the 1920s through the 1940s, to the tune of more than 629 features, including Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

American classics like It Happened One Night, Dodsworth, Nothing Sacred, Love Affair, Meet Me in St. Louis, Notorious, My Darling Clementine, On the Waterfront, Bonjour Tristesse, and Taxi Driver have been preserved in the course of collaborations with studios and distributors to safeguard surviving materials and restore damaged films, enabling new and international circulation of major examples of American film.

The collection allows the Museum to sustain an unparalleled study and exhibition program for the public, scholars, and filmmakers. This program in its varied forms has provided an education for modern artists in all mediums, and individual films have been studied by filmmakers at every level, from writers, directors, and producers to costume designers, production assistants, and grips.”

There’s no other museum quite like it in the world; MoMA is leading the race to save film history.

Children’s Best Picture Oscar Summaries – Totally Accurate!

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

As Riyad Mammadyarov reports in Indiewire, these kids have it all down on this year’s Oscar contenders.

As Mammadyarov notes, “kids sure do have wild imaginations. And Fandango Movieclips takes full advantage of their outrageous lateral logic thinking in yet another edition of Reel Kids, which take a group of young, precocious children and let them intellectually loose. As we begin the countdown to this weekend’s Oscars, some ‘Reel Kids’ take their sweet, indecisive time to spell out what they think each Best Picture nominee is really all about.

As the children fumble over their words and wildly change their pitches to describe what each movie is about, the host, Dan, riffs with the various children to flush out their hilariously cute ideas. One explains that The Big Short is really nothing more than a rip-off of the Schwarzenegger-DeVito buddy flick, Twins. Another suggests that Mad Max: Fury Road is a simple and touching tale of a young man’s harrowing journey to take a quiet and restorative nap. The Revenant? Obviously a fun-loving story about Revenant the Elephant.”

Personally, I’d rather see their versions of these films!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

In The National News

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

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