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Criterion Archivist Phoebe Harmon on “The Beep” in Il Sorpasso

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster brought this to my attention – one of the many surprises of restoring films.

Although it’s now obsolete with the advent of digital cinema, during the filmic era, which comprised most of the 20th century since the inception of the cinema, academy leader “countdowns” were part of every film, usually on every 1000′ reel of a 35mm film print. The leader would count down the final ten seconds of leader before the first image appeared on the screen, ending with a “beep” at the 2 second mark, alerting projectionists when to switch from one reel to the next.

Before the advent of digital projection, working in a projection booth was a very labor intensive affair; even with two 1000′ (ten minute} 35mm reels spliced together into a 2000′, twenty-minute section, the most footage a standard 35mm projector of the era would hold, that gave the projectionist just 20 minutes to load up the next 2000′ section on the second projector, set up the automatic changeover so that the film would be screened without an interruption, and to keep on doing this all day long.

With the introduction of “platter” projection in the 1990s, an entire 35mm film could be spliced together a huge platter in an endless loop, and run through a 35mm projector without a break, but one still had to monitor the process very closely, as 35mm film could often get tangled, or ripped, and projection remained a very delicate job.

Of course, we’re only talking about so-called “safety film” here – this doesn’t even begin to take into account the perils of projecting cellulose nitrate film, the standard for 35mm projection before 1950, which was best described as “eagerly” flammable, and projection booth fires with films from the 1890s up through the early 1950s were a regular occurrence when film got jammed in the projector gate.

In any event, since countdown leader was a part of every film of the “filmic” era, in many cases, the labs that prepared the prints would prepare their own individual leaders, such as this one for the Italian film Il Sorpasso. As Criterion archivist Phoebe Harmon writes, “as a restoration artist, I am often responsible for the initial assembly of a film. This means putting all the reels together and removing each reel’s heads and tails (also known as leader).

I always find it interesting to see what’s on the leader. For instance, the ‘China girls,’ [also known as China dolls] which are images (usually of women) that were historically used to calibrate color, can clue you in to when a movie was made—based on the style of their clothes, hair, and makeup—and the countdowns are always different.

I was assembling 1962’s Il sorpasso [directed by Dino Risi] in November 2013 when I saw the beep. The design is aesthetically brilliant, and I love that it comes from a time when nothing was digital; someone actually made that by hand. All the elements on leaders are functional. They are not meant to be seen by the consumer. So this beep is like a little message coming through history, sent from behind the scenes to projectionists and technicians of the future.

There is no reason it needs to look so cool, but it does. It’s a nice reminder that film, at its heart, is truly an art; even though the way it’s created (and preserved!) can be very technical, all of us who work on a film get to be a part of a collaborative creative process.”

Thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for this tip!

Barbara Flueckiger on Restoring Color Films

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

Restoring color films – shot in a variety of processes – is painstaking, delicate, and essential work.

As Peter Monaghan writes in the absolutely essential online journal Moving Image Archive News, “Barbara Flueckiger has run a series of projects to figure out how best to determine the original colors of films, throughout cinema history. She is developing means to more accurately replicate the colors in digital restorations. It’s a huge technical challenge: to understand not just the chemical and physical properties of film colors, but their origin in complex cultural predilections for certain color palettes. Her work promises to provide new shading to film interpretation and film history.

A 2014 state-of-the-art restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has been doing the rounds of art-house film venues, the result of work performed at L’Immagine Ritrovata, in Bologna, under the supervision of Anke Wilkening, of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, in Wiesbaden. It’s a model collaborative project, and among those who worked on it was Barbara Flueckiger, whose applied research promises to be particularly important to the future of film appreciation and study.

Efforts had been made regularly since 1984 to restore Robert Wiene’s classic German silent film from 1919, which portrays an insane hypnotist who provokes a somnambulist to commit murders. Restorers had faced a quandary; it’s one that restorers always confront: How could they replicate the colors of the original? That is far from a simple challenge.

Even when restoring black-and-white classics, technicians have to deal with color complications. Early films had visual qualities that depended not only on the lighting used during the filming, but also on what film technicians — directors, art directors, film processors – did to the original camera negatives: how they tinted and toned them, or in some cases colored them by hand.

During the course of film history, explains Barbara Flueckiger, a professor of film studies at the University of Zurich since 2007, hundreds of cinematic color processes have emerged, many with roots in nineteenth-century still photography. But figuring out what those original colors and visual qualities were is no easy task. Yet, no comprehensive guide has existed to connect each color’s technical inputs to its contemporary reception and aesthetic and narrative uses.

As Flueckiger says, ‘film color is an issue that few film viewers think about consciously even though the material of film and the nature of color information play a key role in how we perceive film.’” This is essential reading for all who want to understand the ephemeral nature of film, and why it needs constant, unceasing preservation. It’s work that must continue, or the entire visual history of the 20th century – much of it missing already due to archival neglect – will cease to exist entirely.

A fascinating article – absolutely worth reading by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jeffrey Fleishman on Marketing Hollywood Films Abroad

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Foreign playdates account for 70% of the Hollywood box-office take, but you have to know how to do it.

As Jeffrey Fleishman reports in The Los Angeles Times, “like many in the film distribution business, Mimi Steinbauer has a story — ‘funniest example ever’ — of the ingenious sleight of hand in marketing American movies to foreign lands. In her case it was Machete, a picture by Robert Rodriguez about a Mexican drug lord, an ex-federal agent and a racist Texas senator. With comedy, satire and caricature, the film was a violent and outlandish comment on America’s immigration debate.

Buyers in Thailand, however, weren’t interested in political overtones. ‘The Thais called it Machete: Splatter Blood and there was blood all over the poster,’ said Steinbauer, president and chief executive of Radiant Films International in Los Angeles. ‘I said, “You can’t call it that.” But they said it would work and it did. It wasn’t a lie per se. It wasn’t a slasher film, but they knew their audience.’

Distributing and marketing American films to other countries is a game of deciphering aesthetics and culture. What appeals to one nation may turn off another. Europe prefers sex to shootouts, while Asia and the Middle East are rapt by action and violence. Italians recoil at science fiction, Argentines drift toward the intellectual, Russians adore Minions but are cool to interracial love stories, and one distributor described American dramas as ‘the big dirty word in our business.’

Race, politics, religion all factor into how films are packaged. Steinbauer and other U.S.-based film distributors are intimate with local markets and how an American distribution campaign may have to be recast — at times dramatically so — to resonate abroad.

Understanding international preferences is crucial as Hollywood and independent filmmakers reach for larger global shares. World-wide ticket sales reached a record-breaking $38.3 billion last year. More than 70% of the film industry’s box office is generated overseas, a figure that is increasingly driving strategy and financing decisions.

Tapping into the fascinations of audiences from Beijing to Brussels is a high-stakes alchemy of language, allure, censorship, the style of a trailer, the background color of a poster and the bankability of a star such as Nicolas Cage, who despite a declining career is still a good bet in Asia. Such calculations require people with on-the-ground knowledge of specific regions — the kind of innate sensitivity you can’t learn in Hollywood.”

A fascinating article, about a topic which merits more discussion; read it by clicking here, or on the image above.

From Criterion Current: Agnès Varda Is Everywhere!

Friday, April 15th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster alerted me to this – a new film by the great Agnès Varda! See it here on Vimeo!

As the blog Criterion Current noted on October 9, 2015, “Agnès Varda keeps popping up in the most unexpected places. The indefatigable eighty-seven-year-old filmmaker stopped by our offices this week, along with her daughter, Rosalie, to say hello and fill us in on what she’s been up to. We’re happy to report that this legend of the French New Wave—and beyond—shows no signs of slowing down.

Varda was especially delighted to talk about a short film she had recently made for Women’s Tales, an online series produced by the Prada brand Miu Miu (other directors in the series include Lucrecia Martel, Ava DuVernay, Miranda July, and So Yong Kim). Varda’s magical contribution, Les 3 boutons (The 3 Buttons), which also showed at the Venice Film Festival in September, was shot in the village of Bonnieux, in southeastern France, as well as on rue Daguerre in Paris, where Varda has lived for half a century.

A wry commentary on girlhood and fashion with a fairy-tale feel, the film traces the whimsical adventures of a country girl who receives a mysterious package. Varda excitedly told us about this lush production: ‘Given the budget, I was free to make whatever I wanted.’ And she was especially tickled by the resources she was given for one particular shot, in which a button floats down a stream before disappearing beneath a sewer grate: ‘Can you imagine having a grip for an afternoon to shoot a button traveling in the water? I felt so blessed to have the money to do that, most of the time I don’t have money to do a third take!’

Varda also discussed her next project, and it’s an exciting one. She is teaming up on a film with the French artist JR (pictured at top), who is well-known for his gigantic photographs of people, which he installs in public spaces—on the exterior walls of buildings and on outdoor stairways, for instance. (They are not unlike the murals Varda documented in Los Angeles for her 1981 film Mur murs.) After being invited to JR’s studio, where she came face-to-face with a large photograph of herself that was taken in 1960, Varda knew immediately that she wanted to work with him. This past summer, the pair crowd-sourced funding for a film, now in preproduction, to be shot in Provence.

We also had to share one last thing with you that Varda shared with us. Fashion designer Agnès B. has been commissioning posters from artists for years for a journal she publishes, called Le point d’ironie. For its fifty-seventh issue, Varda designed the cover, using an image of a mailman in Bonnieux, who is featured in Les 3 boutons, beside an enormous photo of him by JR. It’s Varda’s big world—we just dance in it.”

Varda has managed to outlast all of her contemporaries in the world of French cinema since the 1950s, and as far as I’m concerned, is clearly the first and foremost founding member of The Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave, whose more celebrated members include Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. During the heyday of The New Wave, many of Varda’s most beautiful films were shunted to the side, and didn’t really achieve the success they so clearly deserved – but now, through sheer tenacity and longevity, Varda is at last placing herself at the center of the movement she was instrumental in creating.

You can watch Varda’s magical film right now on Vimeo – click here, on the image above.

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.

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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