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Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes on the set of Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear.

Here’s a beautiful little film that needs much more attention; it opened and closed in a matter of weeks, but it’s one of the best American films of the year; tender, daring, accomplished, with some terrific acting by the leads, as well as the supporting cast. In a detailed interview with San Francisco’s public television station KQED, the interviewer asked “what if you could go back in time to one of those moments that presaged your parents’ temporary separation or ugly divorce?

As an adult, what exactly do you remember about the fights they had, the struggles they went through to take care of their own lives and put food on the family table? Would you be more sympathetic to their flaws and failings if you could overhear those heated conversations and arguments? Could you forgive them, at last, after all these years?

Maya Forbes stages and recreates those moments in her debut feature film Infinitely Polar Bear [child speak for "infinitely bipolar"]. Like Kramer vs. Kramer and Shoot the Moon — films that depict marriages in turmoil — Forbes’s movie is generously empathetic to all the players involved, if not especially so to the character of her manic depressive father, as played by Mark Ruffalo.

For Forbes, the impulse to make the film was rooted, lovingly, during a moment of her childhood when her father was, briefly, the primary caregiver: ‘When I was little, I just so wanted to fix everything and solve everything and make everything okay.’ For 90 minutes, in her own cinematic way, she has.”

As Forbes herself noted, “My mother wanted to be a theater producer, and she was for a while. But then, when my father had his breakdown, she had to figure out how to make a living. A theater producer wasn’t going to pay the bills — it was like being an independent filmmaker. I saw that decision as a double sacrifice. She was doing this because she really wanted us to have an education, and she was giving up her dream of being in the world of arts, which is where she wanted to be.

She was very successful, but I saw the sadness in that, which was compelling to me. When I got older, because I knew I wanted to be an artist, I also had this conflict about motherhood and career and ambition. Career and ambition are often not even the same in some ways. I had a really good career as a Hollywood writer. But I wasn’t fulfilling my ultimate ambition, which was to make a movie that was very personal . . .

I didn’t want to do something that was either cartoonish or overly dangerous. My father certainly had a temper. He also had the ability to apologize. He had a lot to apologize for and he apologized a lot. Somehow, that was something he could do, which isn’t to say he could get away with all sorts of terrible things.

What was so fascinating to me was this period of stability for him. The only stable time of his life, really. My mother knew that he was a very loving father and I think she also knew that he needed responsibility, he needed some kind of anchor and he was better when he was with the family. He was better when she wasn’t around because then he was the responsible adult. When there’s another responsible adult there, you can be the crazy one . . .

My father died in 1998 so I was saying goodbye to this experience of being with him. What I also realized was, of course, that all he wanted was to take care of us. At the same time, all he was ever trying to say to us was, ‘You go out into the world and conquer.’ He was a feminist too and he had that conflict in him. That’s the whole sacrifice he has, which really hurt. I feel that every time thinking about him.”

You can read the entire interview here; this is a superb film, that should not be missed.

How To Turn Off A Reporter With Just Five Words

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Here’s a great post from Maria Perez of PR Newswire / Profnet on how to alienate the media.

As Perez reports, “if you were on Twitter yesterday, you may have seen tweets with the hashtag #sourcefromhellin5words. The brainchild of Linda Formichelli, co-founder of The Renegade Writer and, the hashtag gave writers the opportunity to share five-word phrases that make them never want to interview a source again. Here is a roundup of some of the top phrases shared by writers:

  • “Can I review before publishing?” (@joyfc)
  • “I must approve final draft.” (@write4income)
  • “Oh, don’t use my name.” (@seanfdriscoll)
  • “It’s all off the record.” (@lisarab)
  • “Don’t quote me on that.” (@Steph_Steinberg)
  • “Hey don’t use this, but…” (@josephcurrency)
  • “Don’t use any of this.” (@seancolahan)
  • “Has this been published yet?” (@urbanmusewriter)
  • “Make me sound good, okay?” (@sheehanwriting)
  • “Just quote from my book.” (@gwenmoran)
  • “Read Chapter 7 of my book.” (@urbanmusewriter)
  • “Answers are in my book.” (@caroleenoury)
  • “It’s all on my website.” (@anngol)
  • “Just get quotes from my website.” (@write4income)
  • “Can’t you just email me?” (@urbanmusewriter)
  • “Just email me the questions.” (@clarionev)
  • “Totally forgot about our interview.” (@savvysuburban)
  • “My idea’s better than yours.” (@cassiemccorvey)
  • “My lawyer has to approve.” (@mariannevill714)
  • “We’re creating a new paradigm.” (@lformichelli)
  • “That publication isn’t big enough.” (@willieshamorris)

And, my favorite (albeit more than five words): “Write the story, let me read it, and then I’ll decide if I want to be interviewed.” (@annielogue).” One question: what does “we’re creating a new paradigm” even mean? Fascinating stuff, and completely true. Honestly, it’s really hard to believe – no, I take that back, it’s easy to believe – that people would lead with these phrases. So the next time the media contacts you, don’t start with this – it doesn’t work!

Great post, Linda and Maria!

Fragment of Lost Novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald Found

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Another “lost” manuscript by F. Scott Fitzgerald has turned up – a fragment of a proposed novel.

As Ron Charles reports in The Washington Post, Andrew Gulli, editor of the Strand mystery magazine, has discovered what appears to be the beginning of an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Princeton University archives. As Charles notes, “now comes tantalizing word of another novel — alas, unfinished — that’s been sitting in a box in the Princeton University library for decades — catalogued but apparently ignored.

Initially, he thought that he’d stumbled upon a lost short story, like the Fitzgerald story he found and published in the Strand a few weeks ago called Temperature. ‘There was a scene that could have stood solely as a short story,’ he says, ‘but then it went on one more paragraph, and then it just ended abruptly. And I realized, “Oh my God . . . it’s a novel.”‘

The fragment — about 2,500 words — seems to be the beginning of Ballet School — Chicago. Gulli says he knows Fitzgerald ‘was thinking about publishing this as a book’ because he also found a ‘whole outline of several chapters. I really liked it. It’s romantic. There’s a ballerina trying to make her way in Chicago. She has an attraction to a wealthy neighbor because he can get her out of this tough existence . . . and she can have a happy life with him. The story goes into the very hard training for ballet dancers. But then something quirky and unsuspected happens that changes her impression of him.’

The story may be informed by Fitzgerald’s experience with his wife, Zelda, who developed a passion for ballet as a child and pursued it throughout much of her life. Even this short fragment demonstrates Fitzgerald’s poetic care with his style. ‘He was like a real lunatic about going over things,’ Gulli says. ‘He would scratch out whole paragraphs, and in his cursive make things more economical in pencil. He was obsessive about trying to find a shorter way. He was always trying to streamline.’

Gulli says the fragment, told in the third person, ‘is just enough to feel that he was really going somewhere with the character, and he had all the other characters outlined, too. The thing that makes this so novel — forgive the pun — is that he wrote so few novels. So he must have really been captured by this idea to the point that he outlined it fully.’

Just to add a little frisson to this, here’s another recently published, previously unknown Fitzgerald story presented in The New Yorker on August 6, 2012, entitled Thank You for The Light, which you can read by clicking on the link right here.

Anything by Fitzgerald is valuable; let’s hope this sees the light of day.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Downey Jr. on Growing Up With This Father

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Sam Jones has a great web series entitled Off Camera – and here’s an interview with Robert Downey Jr.

As readers of this blog will hopefully know, I am a longtime friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr. - Robert Jr’s father – who made such brilliant films as Putney Swope, Too Much Sun and Chafed Elbows. In this intimate, warm chat with Sam Jones, Downey Jr. describes what it was like to grow up in the Downey household, where his mother and father were constantly making one film after another, “spitballing” ideas for new projects, and trying to top each other with one liners, especially after Downey Sr.’s film Putney Swope came out. It’s a fascinating and contemplative chat session, well worth watching, which gives you some idea of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s in the world of experimental cinema – a world now lost forever, but not lost to authentic recall.

View the clip by clicking here, or on the image above.

The AP Video Archive is Now on YouTube

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

The Associated Press puts up 17,000 hours of news film and videotape on YouTube – click here to see!

As Todd Spangler reported in Variety on July 22, 2015, “The Associated Press is uploading more than 550,000 video clips to YouTube — covering news events dating back to 1895 — which the news org said will be the largest collection of archival news content on the Google-owned platform to date.

AP, together with newsreel archive provider British Movietone, will deliver more than 1 million minutes of digitized film footage to YouTube. The goal: to provide high-profile, searchable repositories that let documentary filmmakers, historians and others find news footage, and to promote licensing deals for rights to use the video.

The archival footage includes major world events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Celeb footage includes Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modeling fashions of the 1960s, as well as segments on Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Brigitte Bardot and Elvis Presley.

The content is available on two YouTube channels: AP Archive and British Movietone, whose collection spans from 1895 to 1986. Last year, U.K. newsreel archive company British Pathé uploaded its entire 100-year library of 85,000 historic films in HD to YouTube, comprising some 3,500 hours of footage.

Much of the material AP is putting on YouTube is already searchable and available to preview on Alwyn Lindsey, AP’s director of international archive, said putting the content on the world’s biggest Internet-video platform will increase the exposure of the collection. ‘We found documentary filmmakers tend to start their searches for footage on YouTube, and this gives them a route back to AP,’ Lindsey said.

‘The AP Archive footage, combined with the British Movietone collection, creates an incredible visual journey of the people and events that have shaped our history,’ Lindsey said. ‘At AP we are always astonished at the sheer breadth of footage that we have access to, and the upload to YouTube means that, for the first time, the public can enjoy some of the oldest and most remarkable moments in history.’”

An amazing event, which could only happen in the digital era!

Francesca Catalano – A Brilliant New Director of Cinematography

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Francesa Catalano is a new talent to watch – literally!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In this deeply trying time in our nation’s struggle for basic human rights, this is a key film.

Spike Lee is, of course, the most important and influential African-American filmmaker working today, and one of the most important and influential filmmakers working today, period. In 1997, Spike Lee created a brilliant and moving documentary on the horrific September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lee had first intended to create a dramatic reproduction of the incident, but decided that would not be the best approach. He shifted to a documentary. Once he secured funding, Lee went to Birmingham with a small skeleton film crew. He wanted to have the families be as comfortable as possible. Ellen Kuras was the Director of Photography and Sam Pollard the producer/editor.

Kuras said of her desire to shoot 4 Little Girls, ‘I was really interested because my background is in political documentaries . . .I always felt that one of the reasons that I had got into filmmaking was that I wanted to use my craft to be able to say something about the human condition, however I could, in my own humble way. For me this was an opportunity to make a small contribution.’

The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy.

People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.

A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.”

No, it’s very clear that “some aspects still haven’t changed” at all, as the brutal massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 has more than aptly proved.

The subsequent campaign to remove the confederate flag from various public places, license plates, and the ban on such merchandise by Sears, Walmart, Amazon and Ebay – something that should have happened a long time ago – is one outcome of this senseless series of murders, but the cost of creating such change is much too high. Nine people were killed, including the senior pastor and state senator from South Carolina, Clementa C. Pinckney.

As I write this, these events are still unfolding, and it’s too early to tell if any real positive change will occur as a result of this senseless violence. I know that it has profoundly shaken me,  as well as all people of conscience, in the United States and around the world, and I can only be heartened that perhaps something will come out of this terrible tragedy that will move us all to a better place.

In the meantime, let us remember that the struggle for basic human rights for all goes on day after day, year in and year out, and is never really full accomplished. All we can do is continue to move towards the light, and a better tomorrow.

Spike Lee’s brilliant movie is a reminder of that struggle; if you have not seen it, do so now.

US Census Bureau – 74% of STEM Grads Do Not Work in STEM Occupations

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

The US Census Bureau has some surprising statistics.

According to their report of July 10, 2014, “The U.S. Census Bureau reported today that 74 percent of those who have a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering and math — commonly referred to as STEM — are not employed in STEM occupations.

In addition, men continue to be overrepresented in STEM, especially in computer and engineering occupations. About 86 percent of engineers and 74 percent of computer professionals are men.

‘STEM graduates have relatively low unemployment, however these graduates are not necessarily employed in STEM occupations,’ said Liana Christin Landivar, a sociologist in the Census Bureau’s Industry and Occupation Statistics Branch.

According to new statistics from the 2012 American Community Survey, engineering and computer, math and statistics majors had the largest share of graduates going into a STEM field with about half employed in a STEM occupation.

Science majors had fewer of their graduates employed in STEM. About 26 percent of physical science majors; 15 percent of biological, environmental and agricultural sciences majors; 10 percent of psychology majors; and 7 percent of social science majors were employed in STEM.

Approximately 14 percent of engineers were women, where they were most underrepresented of all the STEM fields. Representation of women was higher among mathematicians and statisticians (45 percent), life scientists (47 percent) and social scientists (63 percent). The rates of mathematicians and statisticians, and life scientists are not statistically different from each other.”

Click here, or on the image above, to see an interactive chart that explains this in detail.

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

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