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Norman McLaren’s Pas de deux (1968) – A Forgotten Classic

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Norman McLaren’s classic short film Pas de deux deserves a wider audience.

Growing up, this film was everywhere, and now it seems to have vanished from our collective memory. It’s a superb short film by the gifted animator Norman McLaren, created near the end of his long career at the National Film Board of Canada. As the NFB notes, in this hypnotic film McLaren uses “cinema effects that are all that you would expect from this master of improvisation in music and illustration. By exposing the same frames as many as ten times, the artist creates a multiple image of the ballerina and her partner (Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren).” Pas de deux received 17 awards, including the 1969 BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film and an Academy Award nomination.

This is just another of the many, many brilliant short and feature films that have been plowed under by the relentless onslaught of mainstream multiplex fare; and while there are numerous bootleg copies of this film circulating on the web, even one with a supposedly “enhanced” music track, which one commenter rightly noted was “an insult to McLaren,” this is the original version, as uploaded by the NFB to Vimeo, and thus available to all to watch, and marvel at. Pas de deux was made near the end of the photochemical era of moving image production, and McLaren and his associates push the limits of conventional optical printing to their absolute edge in this film, which remains as entrancing as it was when first created.

There really isn’t much more to say; I’ll let the film speak for itself.

The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Our Attention Span is Now Shorter Than That of a Goldfish

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Yes, we’re so distracted by digital media, that we now can’t pay attention for more than 8 seconds.

As Meredith Engel writes in The New York Daily News, “Humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish — and we would write more, but you’re probably clicking somewhere else already. The new finding — by, of all companies, Microsoft — suggests that the little fish can concentrate for nine seconds compared to eight for humans.

The researchers looked at three different types of attention: Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one task continuously; selective attention is the ability to respond when distractions come up; and alternating attention is multitasking. To get a measure of focus levels, the researchers asked 2,000 Canadians to take online surveys, play games and have their brain electricity measured.

The researchers found that increased use of digital devices lessens our sustained attention, doesn’t affect our selective attention, and actually improves our alternating attention. That means we are less able to focus on one task, but are getting better at doing multiple tasks at once. The report says that the human attention span has decreased by four seconds since 2000 — and that tech innovations may be blame.” You think?

Maybe that’s why movies are so hyper-edited these days – or maybe they’re part of the cause.

Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Andrew Wallenstein on The New Video Ecosystem

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Our viewing habits have changed dramatically, as Andrew Wallenstein notes in Variety.

As he writes, “watching TV used to be so simple, or at least it seems that way in retrospect. First there were just a handful of networks. Then broadcast TV gave way to cable. But even as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, it was all still easy to understand, not to mention incredibly profitable: The combination of advertising and affiliate fees delivered approximately $90 billion annually to a small group of content companies.

That was then, this is now: Advertising revenues and multichannel subscriptions are endangered by significant ratings declines across the cable TV landscape as audiences — particularly younger viewers — get bombarded by a dizzying array of cheaper programming choices delivered over the Internet. Some, like Netflix, charge viewers a monthly fee; others, like many of the ventures pitching advertisers at this week’s NewFronts presentations in New York, are as free as broadcast television.

Many of these ventures are backed by the biggest companies in the tech sector. Which isn’t to say the incumbent entertainment conglomerates are simply sitting on the sidelines while the challengers eat their lunch. To the contrary, Hollywood’s participation in the likes of Sling TV and HBO Now is something akin to baby Kal-El launching out of planet Krypton in Superman: A culture facing the threat of extinction is seeking to find life for itself elsewhere in the solar system.”

A fascinating article, with superb graphics and excellent detail – click here, or above to read it all.

Frame by Frame Chosen As Blog of the Month By ProfNet

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Frame by Frame has been chosen as Blog of the Month for May, 2015 by ProfNet.

ProfNet, the academic news professional network, has chosen Frame by Frame as the Blog of the Month for May, 2015. As Melissa Ibarra, writing for ProfNet, noted when she interviewed me about the Frame by Frame blog, every month “I’ll be highlighting one successful blogger on The Blog Blog. By ’successful,’ I mean someone who has been blogging for at least three years and has seen their audience engagement grow significantly. For this month’s feature, we conducted a short interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon, creator of Frame by Frame, a film and media blog:

1. What is your name and title?

Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

2. What is the name and URL of your blog?

Frame by Frameblog.unl.edu/dixon/

3. Which audience does your blog cater to?

People interested in film history, theory, and criticism; media trends; streaming; film preservation; trends in viewing; cultural studies; pop culture; and classic films.

4. What inspired you to create your blog?

It offers a daily outlet to comment on the current film and related media subjects of the day. I keep it loaded with new material on a nearly daily basis. It seemed like there was nothing quite like it out there, and still isn’t.

5. What makes your blog so unique?

I cover everything related to film, television, the Web, streaming, changing patterns of distribution, classic cinema, from an informed perspective rather than a fan based one. It’s academic, but accessible, with multiple links to related materials. And best of all, it’s ad free.

6. What is your ultimate blogging goal?

To keep blogging and writing for as long as I can.

7. If you could choose one piece of advice to give to new bloggers, what would it be? Have you made any mistakes and learned from them?

You must put up fresh material every day. Every. Single. Day. You can take a day or two off for vacation, but you should keep abreast of current media and cinema trends, and blog on them as often as possible. Also, rather than always offering my opinion on something, my real goal is to expose people to as many new and interesting films as I can.

8. How successful has your blog grown to become versus when you first started it? If you could provide simple metrics, that would be great.

I started with only a handful of viewers; now I am used as a source throughout Wikipedia; there are multiple links to my blogs in various other articles; and on good days I get up to 20,000 hits on various stories.

9. How does blogging benefit you?

It provides me with a platform to get my ideas and concepts out on a regular basis, without having to go through regular editorial schedules, in a timely and positive fashion.

10. Any other interesting stories or information you would like to provide?

I’m both surprised and pleased at the success of the blog. It’s listed on blogrolls in major newspapers throughout the world, and I regularly get requests to comment on news stories from members of the traditional media.

Dixon took his expertise in film and media and transformed it into a successful blog. Not only is he extremely knowledgeable in his field, but his passion keeps his blogging fire burning. It’s great to find inspiration through the success of others.

Thanks, Melissa, and all those at ProfNet – much appreciated!

Falling Falling – Mesmerizing Video Art

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Want to see some truly mesmeric video art? Then just click here, or on the image above.

How We Watch TV Today, According to Nielsen

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Neilsen is out with a new report on how we watch TV and web programming today.

While this study concentrates on viewers in New Zealand, as is readily apparent, Nielsen extrapolates the results on a world wide basis. As Tony Boyte, Research Director at Nielsen, the ratings company, writes, “our viewing patterns are shifting and can now watch where we want, when we want. The explosion of devices has given us more access to content and brands than ever before. While the television is still the screen of choice for viewing video content, device proliferation and social-media interaction is shifting the power from the provider to the people.

Two-in-five New Zealanders (40%) say video programs are an important part of their lives, but when it comes to the way we like to watch video programming, size does matter. Over half of respondents (51%) think bigger is better when it comes to screen size, but they also appreciate the convenience and portability of mobile devices. Nearly four-in-10 respondents (37%) think watching video programming on their mobile device is convenient. In addition, the same number (37%) say a tablet is just as good as a PC or laptop computer for watching programming.

Real-time conversations on social media are replacing physical gatherings around the water cooler to talk about our favorite TV show. Live TV has become a social event that goes way beyond the confines of our living rooms. Nearly a third of [New Zealand viewers] (30%) said they like to keep up with shows so they can join the conversation on social media, and a fifth (21%) say they watch live video programming more if it has a social media tie in. Thirty percent of respondents say they engage with social media while watching video programming. And nearly half of respondents (47%) say they browse the Internet while watching video programming.

Social media can increase program awareness, make the experience more enjoyable and keep viewers engaged. Second-screen strategies should include an interactive component that allows users to take part – making them feel involved and deepening their connection to the program. But the content needs to be fresh to maximize time spent and to drive repeat visitation. Designers can not focus on one screen, they need to ensure accessibility wherever users are and that the user experience is enjoyable across all devices.

Whether it is watching a sporting event, news show, documentary or movie, TV remains at the center of video consumption. It is the most frequently cited device for watching nearly all types of programming genres included in the survey—by a wide margin. The exception: short-form video (typically less than 10 minutes long), which is cited as more commonly viewed on computers, mobile phones and tablets.

A computer is the second-most commonly mentioned viewing device for nearly all genres, and it tops the list of devices used to watch short-form content. A smaller, but notable, proportion of consumers watch video content on a mobile phone or tablet, while viewing on e-readers and/or gaming consoles has not yet gained traction.”

You can read the rest of this fascinating article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Web Changes Everything for Indie Films and TV Series

Monday, April 13th, 2015

This is a key moment – Netflix and other web providers are producing both “TV” series and theatrical films.

As Dina Gachman reports in Studio System News, “Netflix is buying feature films, Woody Allen is making an Amazon show, and A-list Oscar winners have no problem taking a role in a TV show or miniseries, even at the height of their career. In other words, it’s an exciting time for television. The landscape is changing so rapidly it’ll give you whiplash.

That’s all great news for actors, writers, and producers – and maybe not-so-great news for theater chains, whose owners were recently up in arms about Netflix buying Cary Fukunaga’s feature film Beasts of No Nation for a reported $12 million. Features and television are experiencing an indie revolution – just look at the Best Picture Oscar nominees this year. The vast majority of the nominees were made outside of the studio system, with Warner Bros. American Sniper being the oft-cited exception.

In television, the traditional process of getting a pilot made is still the norm, but there are more channels, more online platforms, and more opportunities for writers and producers to get their project made than ever before. Going the independent route and shooting the pilot yourself is one option, and the stigma of making a pilot DIY-style is quickly becoming a thing of the past [and] while it hasn’t become the norm, indie pilots are definitely becoming an increasingly common route for creators who want to get their passion project off the ground, by any means necessary.

Former House EP Katie Jacobs and veteran indie producer Nick Wechsler (Drugstore Cowboy, Reservation Road, Magic Mike) have recently teamed to produce an independent pilot called Dr. Del, with John Hawkes starring and John Sayles writing. They’ll shoot the pilot on their own, with total creative freedom, and then take it to cable and broadcast network.”

As she puts it, “there really is no excuse not to make your pilot anymore.”

New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

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 wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/