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Dorothy Arzner Retrospective in Melbourne – Interview

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Recently, I was interviewed on the Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at the Melbourne Cinematheque.

Click here, or on the image above to hear the podcast, and as the site notes, “the Melbourne Cinémathèque hosts a season dedicated to the zesty, irreverent films of Dorothy Arzner, a pioneer female filmmaker whose career spanned the silent era into the 1940s.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is a film critic who has written an essay accompanying the season for the Senses of Cinema online journal on her 1932 film, Merrily We Go to Hell. He places Arzner in the pantheon of early women whose role as pioneers is still under appreciated.”

The interview was conducted by Jason Di Rosso, for his show The Final Cut, and he did a superb job with the editing – cutting in sound bites from several of Arzner’s films to really drive the point home – and the entire event was a distinct pleasure – with a sound link via telephone to Melbourne that was as clear as a bell.

I’m thrilled that Arzner is finally getting some measure of the international respect she so clearly deserves; my thanks to Jason, to Senses of Cinema, and of course, hats off to the Melbourne Cinematheque for making the retrospective an event not to be missed. Now, how about a box set of her work on DVD?

Here’s a chance to see a classic film on the big screen, the way it was meant to be shown.

Reel Film Day – March 5th, 2017

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Support Reel Film Day – films screened the way they were meant to be seen.

As The Alamo Draft House theatre chain announces, “mark your calendars, cinephiles! 35mm film will be alive in all its glory on March 5th — or 3/5. A collaborative initiative from Alamo Drafthouse and Kodak, the first-ever Reel Film Day will champion the beauty of cinema’s richest and most enduring format with celebratory screenings at Alamo Drafthouse and independent theaters across the U.S.

‘There is nothing like experiencing actual 35mm projected film,’ said Steve Bellamy President of Kodak Motion Picture Film and Entertainment. ‘I don’t care if it is the greatest 8K projector in the world, 35mm is a radically different thing and there is simply no comparison. Projected film is watching light blast through dozens of layers of color dye clouds and emulsion, 24 times per second.

A film projectionist is a master craftsman and seeing his or her work is akin to performance art. While the world has largely migrated to the utility of video projectors, there is a massive growth in consumers who understand the experience of film projection. This is why theatres projecting film are coming back so strongly and doing so well!’

As a true celebration of the wide-ranging scope of cinema, Reel Film Day programming will be deeply eclectic, featuring classics including Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil rubbing reels with cult favorites like W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

At press time over 25 screenings are taking place, and it is expected that ultimately hundreds of theaters across the country will join in. No matter the location, the unifying factor is that all films will be presented large and lustrous from 35mm film.

‘Less than 5% of our film history exists in a high-definition digital format,’ says Alamo Drafthouse CEO and Founder Tim League. ‘If you really love film, then join us to recognize, celebrate and support film screenings in independent theaters everywhere. This scrappy group of fellow cinephiles is truly preserving film history. Support your local theater, support 35mm (and 70mm) film on 3/5, the first annual Reel Film Day.'”

‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee would say. Support Reel Film Day at a theater near you!

Manohla Dargis on “The Race to Save the Films We Love”

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

Manohla Dargis has an excellent piece on the race to save classic films in today’s New York Times;

above, a scene from Lewis Milestone’s Seven Sinners (1925), before and after restoration.

This, of course, is a subject I have been hammering home for years, writing in The Moving Image Archive News, on this blog, and elsewhere, that as the saying goes “nitrate won’t wait.” All films before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which is highly, even eagerly flammable (as the image below of a nitrate projection booth from the 1920s in Great Britain aptly demonstrates), and if not properly stored, nitrate film rapidly begins to decompose into a sticky, gelatinous goo in a process which is impossible – or nearly impossible – to reverse. Today, nearly all motion pictures are shown digitally, and film itself has disappeared.

I have had the great privilege of screening a nitrate print of Terence Fisher’s sharply observed matrimonial comedy Marry Me! (1949) at the British Film Institute in London, and I remember vividly how the Steenbeck flatbed viewing machine was situated in a separate room on the roof the the archive’s building in a small, somewhat claustrophobic room, with fire extinguishers and buckets of sand regularly placed around the room at strategic intervals.

Only one reel at a time was brought up to me for screening; that way, if one reel caught fire, at least the rest of the film might be saved, the archivist told me. I was not to stop the film in the Steenbeck once it started running, for fear that the projector bulb might ignite a frame of the film, which would then instantaneously spread to the rest of the reel. And as each reel was finished, I was told to press a bell. An attendant would appear, take the finished reel of film with him, and appear with the next reel, in 1000 ft. (10 minute) chunks, until I had seen the entire film.

Visually, the experience was dazzling; I remember reading that Jean Cocteau complained that safety film prints (which replaced nitrate prints entirely in theaters around the world) of his film Beauty and The Beast (1946) in no way matched the luminous, silvery sheen of the original nitrate prints, but recognized the dangers and inherently instability of the nitrate medium, and so acquiesced to safety film screenings of one of his most sensual and visually lavish works, with remarkable cinematography by Henri Alekan.

A British nitrate film projection booth in the 1920s; the same precautions would have to apply today.

Ms. Dargis also relates some truly appalling horror stories from the long period in cinema history when the studios simply didn’t value the films they made, including this shocker from the history of Universal Pictures,

“In 2011, the historian David Pierce gave a talk on silent films at an annual event in Los Angeles called the Reel Thing. At one point, he showed a 1925 photo of a few dozen Universal Pictures stars next to a stack of crates holding that season’s negatives. He asked if anyone recognized these stars and was met with mostly bafflement. We soon found out why.

Twenty years after this photo was taken, Universal sent a letter to its East Coast lab ordering the destruction of all but 17 of its silent-film negatives. The studio had already lost numerous older titles in fires, and now it was junking the rest of its silent features — hundreds — having decided that most were not worth keeping. It’s no wonder that those stars were unfamiliar: Their own studio destroyed their legacy.”

That said, most of the article deals with the restoration of several classic films, even going to the extent of replacing lost dialogue by hiring actors to mime the voices of the performers in one film where the soundtrack has been destroyed, and points out that while 99.9% of all “movies” today are actually projected digitally – something I’ve discussed in this blog time and time again – a few film booths, and even one nitrate booth at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, still survive. Films aren’t really films unless they’re shown on film; it’s that simple.

And it’s also worth nothing, as Dargis does, that “even as major studios have stopped distributing film prints, they make film copies of the elements of their new releases, including those shot on digital. Studios like 20th Century Fox may maintain digital archives of their current releases, but the ‘analog solution,’ in the words of Schawn Belston, its executive vice president, media and library services, ‘is still the most trusted and has well-established archival longevity.'”

With so many films already lost and beyond recall, all we can do is desperately try to save those that still exist. And the film medium, whether on nitrate or safety film, remains one of the most evanescent artistic mediums in human history. If I take a book, throw it on the floor, deface it, mark it up, even tear up pages, just as long as the book can be reconstituted so that it’s legible, new copies can be created be re-setting the type, and reprinting the book. Not so with film; there’s just one negative, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone who loves films; check it out by clicking here.

Steven Spielberg on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Steven Spielberg argues that movies shot on film are superior to digital cinema – and I agree with him.

Recently, I was reading an article by Hugh Hart in the Summer 2015 issue of the DGA Quarterly, which discussed film vs. digital cinema, a topic which has been much examined of late. While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – the article highlighted a new phenomenon – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would agree with this movement, and argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks. And indeed, there are many within the industry who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema, both on an indie and a completely commercial level. As proof of this, one can cite J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceall of which are shot on film.

In an interview with Michael Rosser published on December 3, 2015 in Screen International, Steven Spielberg argues that “if it is a straight story, without any benefits of new technology, there’s no reason to shoot anything digitally. The outcome digitally looks like the difference between a painting with acrylics and a painting with oils. Film is textural and had a kind of velocity in the grain count alone where digital is as clean as looking through a pane of glass at the outside world and to me it’s almost too vivid, too vibrant, too real.

Especially in historical films, there needs to be a bit of a veil between the here and now and something that happened way back when. That veil is almost unconsciously provided when you shoot on celluloid but is lost when you shoot it digitally. As long as we have film, why not shoot with the real stock?” When asked if George Lucas, a long time fan of digital cinema, ever tried to change his mind, Spielberg replied that “he used to, but he could never get me to do that.”

I think he’s absolutely right, and that this burgeoning movement is a return to the real.

Video: Frame by Frame on Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Click here, or above, to see my new Frame by Frame video on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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

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

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

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

Reset! More Than 700 Posts On This Blog! Back To The Top!

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

There are more than 700 entries on this blog. Click on the button above to go back to the top.

Frame by Frame began more than four years ago with a post on Nicholas Ray– now, with more than 700 posts & much more to come, we’re listed on Amazon, in the New York Times blogroll, and elsewhere on the net, as well as being referenced in Wikipedia and numerous other online journals and reference websites.

With thousands of hits every day, we hope to keep posting new material on films and people in films that matter, as well as on related issues, commercial free, with truly open access, for the entire film community. So look back and see what we’ve been up to, and page through the past to the present.

There are also more than 70 videos on film history, theory and criticism to check out on the Frame by Frame video blog, arranged in carousel fashion to automatically play one after the other, on everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to film aspect ratios, to discussions of pan and scan, Criterion video discs, and a whole lot more.

So go back and see what you’ve been missing – you can always use the search box in the upper right hand corner to see if your favorite film or director is listed, but if not, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can’t do something about it. We’ve just updated our storage space on the blog, so there will be plenty more to come, so check it out – see you at the movies!

Click on the image above & see what you can find!

Film Vs. Digital – The Battle Continues

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

As Hugh Hart reports in the Summer 2015 issue of The DGA Quarterly, the battle is far from over.

Writes Hart, “Even after Richard Linklater shot his DGA Award-nominated movie, Boyhood, on film, the Austin-based director had no qualms about switching to digital video for his upcoming ’80s-era comedy, Everybody Wants Some. ‘I’m not an absolutist so I’ve never really bought into digital versus film,’ Linklater says.

‘Film history is full of these little bursts of, “Oh there’s a huge paradigm shift!” and then it kind of recedes back to what filmmaking is at its core—storytelling. And behind that storytelling is a director and a creative team making aesthetic choices: What should the movie look like? What should it feel like? To me, that’s the director’s job.’

And those aesthetic choices continue to include the option to shoot on film thanks in part to Christopher Nolan’s advocacy. The British-born filmmaker, who’s shot all of his movies on film stock, has no interest in imposing personal taste on other artists. Instead, he wants to fortify the integrity of the director’s voice. ‘I’m not anti-digital in any way, but I’m absolutely committed to getting this choice back into the hands of the director. I don’t want anyone telling any filmmaker they can’t shoot on film any more than I want anyone telling David Fincher or Steven Soderbergh that they can’t shoot digital. It’s the director’s right. It’s their choice.’

Nolan became alarmed about the future of film last summer when Eastman Kodak Company, the only remaining manufacturer of 35 millimeter stock, threatened to shutter its photochemical film business. Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke explains the company’s dilemma: ‘We used to make prints for tens of thousands of theaters but over the past eight years, we went down 96 percent, from roughly 25 billion linear feet of film a year to half a billion.”

Faced with the prospect of stopping film production at the company’s upstate New York factory, Clarke decided to visit Los Angeles and meet with his customers so he could gauge Hollywood’s interest in the future of celluloid. As he visited studio executives, Clarke also sat down with Nolan.

‘The heads of postproduction and production at the studios had all basically told Jeff to buzz off: film’s dead, digital’s everything,’ Nolan recalls. ‘I turned around and said, “You need to be talking to a higher level because nobody running a Hollywood movie studio is going to want to oversee the death of a technology which not only is a prized part of our history; it’s also something we absolutely need for the future.”

Though he was deep into postproduction on Interstellar, Nolan got on the phone with filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Bennett Miller, and Judd Apatow. They, in turn, called the studios and lobbied for a continued commitment to the medium of film. Clarke recalls, ‘Within 48 hours of having lunch with Christopher Nolan, I’d gotten calls from five of the six major studios and a dozen of the most important filmmakers. At that point we were able to build a coalition.’

Martin Scorsese was another director who supported the Keep-Kodak-Open campaign. ‘Filmmakers should have the choice of whether they want to shoot on film, it’s important to have the option,’ he says. ‘Film has a history, and that history doesn’t begin with digital formats, it begins with film. … And that’s part of the art form—the light meets the emulsion and extraordinary things happen. So yes, I believe it is essential to preserve that choice.’ As a result of the high-powered lobbying, all the major studios agreed in February to buy contractually specified quantities of film stock from Kodak over the next several years.

The Kodak deal assures the continued production of movies using film on the scale of such upcoming shot-on-film releases like J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Directors Guild supported the agreement. ‘While most appreciate the opportunities that digital provides, directors and fans alike share a love for the beauty and history of film,’ DGA President Paris Barclay said at the time. ‘We’re incredibly pleased that film will remain a viable option for filmmakers for the foreseeable future.'”

I’d like to repeat one sentence above, in boldface: “the Kodak deal assures the continued production of movies using film on the scale of such upcoming shot-on-film releases like J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

With such major productions – like them or not – being shot on film, this isn’t ending anytime soon.

Cinematography Roundtable – The Hollywood Reporter

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Cinematography Roundtable is an invaluable video seminar.

As Gregg Kilday and Carolyn Giardina note in the text that accompanies this revealing half-hour discussion, “The visionaries behind some of the year’s most visually striking movies — Unbroken, Into the Woods, Gone Girl, The Theory of Everything, Noah and Mr. Turner — open up about everything from how to develop a relationship with a director to high-dynamic-range technologies

They’re sad that instead of projecting movies on film, theaters have turned to digital projection — even if it means they no longer have to worry about scratched or fraying prints. They’re resigned to the fact that reviewers never quite know what to make of their work. And especially when filming outdoors, they always keep one eye on the weather — in fact, veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, 65, confessed he has four weather apps on his phone to make sure he remains prepared.

Fortunately the sun was shining when Deakins, who recently finished shooting Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, got together at THR‘s invitation with five fellow directors of photography: Into the Woods’ Dion Beebe, 46; Gone Girl‘s Jeff Cronenweth, 52; The Theory of Everything‘s Benoit Delhomme, 53; Noah‘s Matthew Libatique, 46; and Mr. Turner‘s Dick Pope, 67. They happily compared notes on their recent movies, which took them from the biblical realm of Noah to the 19th century British salons of Mr. Turner to the contemporary crime scenes of Gone Girl.

[But their work goes largely unappreciated by most observers. As Benoit Delhomme noted] ‘for me, it’s incredible to realize that what you can expect as a DP is to get one line at the end of the review saying just two words about your work.’ [Added Deakins,] ‘People confuse pretty with good cinematography. [The late cinematographer] Freddie Francis said there is good cinematography and bad cinematography, and then there’s the cinematography that’s right for the movie. I often feel that if reviewers don’t mention your work, it’s probably better than if they do.'”

Having just finished a book on the history of black and white cinematography on a worldwide basis, Black & White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, which will be published by Rutgers University Press in late 2015, I can attest that this is absolutely true. As fate or luck would have it, I knew Freddie Francis very well from 1984 up until his death, and watched him at work on the sets of several films he either directed or photographed, and it’s absolutely true that most reviewers and critics have absolutely no idea of what the DP does on a film, or the degree of input they have on the final project.

Most often, from the beginning of cinema up to the present day, directors are more than content to take all the credit for the visual design of a film, when in fact the choice of a DP on any given film tells you much about how the finished project will look. I often think about the bold black and white work of DP John L. Russell on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award – but lost out to Freddie Francis for Sons and Lovers – and while Hitchcock was certainly an assured and accomplished visual stylist, it’s clear to me that Russell’s work on the film was a major factor in the overall impact of the film.

But as with the DPs discussing their work here, credit often is not readily forthcoming, and so this discussion is an invaluable look behind the scenes for those who stick to a strictly “auteurist” view of the cinema – without the DP, you wouldn’t have any images on the screen at all.

The best DPs in cinema history, such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, Stanley Cortez, Nicholas Musuraca, Robert Krasker, John Alton, Boris Kaufman, Gunnar Fischer, Sven Nykvist, Karl Freund, Fritz Arno Wagner, John Seitz, Robert Burks and many others created an alluring and phantasmal world out of nothing more than light and shadow, transforming the real world into a cinematic trompe-l’œil which was so seductive and all – encompassing that it became an entirely new universe. It’s only right that we acknowledge and celebrate their contribution to cinema history.

You can see the entire video by clicking here, or on the image above.

DP Jeff Cronenweth on Film vs. Digital

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

DP Jeff Cronenweth has these thoughts on working with film vs. digital cinematography.

As he told Paula Bernstein during an interview in Indiewire, “there is still something inherently magical about shooting on film, and to some degree, it’s mysterious and you get to be the wizard behind the curtain that makes everything happen, which I kind of love. But also, with digital photography, you’ve eliminated some of the things that could become problematic, both photochemically and technically in labs with scratches and all kinds of mysterious things that can arise. There’s not many surprises with digital, but there’s more risks you can take. You certainly sleep better at night because you don’t have to wake up at 4 am and call the lab to see if there’s still a job for you to do that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less work, you still have to put the lights in the right places and you still have to make good choices and fight continuity along scenes.

You have to be a smart filmmaker either way. It’s opened the door a lot in that it allows directors to work longer with the performance, you can get actors into a routine and force things out of them in a way. You watch David and after four takes in a row it sort of breaks the mold and you get something new out of what might otherwise be a safe performance. That’s really magical. I like the fact that you ultimately have more control. Back in the day you spent so much time, down to the tenth of the stock, in order to expose something, and there were all the lenses coming with it, be it Panavision or Arriflex. You’d go to the lab and they would try and get as close as they can, but then you’d walk into one theater and it’d be green, and then in another theater it’d look blue, so all of that work seemed to disappear when you finally got to the presentation.

Now, everywhere you go with digital, it all looks the same, which is somewhat comforting. You’ve given up a little magic, and you’ve given up a little texture, but you can work on that. There’s ways of making a lot of that come back if you have enough time. And there’s still piracy and environmental concerns, given the prints and chemicals, but that’s just the evolution of cinema. There’s still a lot to be discovered and it’s still super open, which is kind of what the industry has always done.”

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

The Price of Digital Projection

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

My friend Michael Downey just returned from Belfast, Maine, where he visited the Colonial Theater, and photographed, as he aptly put it, this “sign of the times.”

This really says it all; here’s a theater that’s been running films for a century, but since movies are no longer shot on film, they have to make the digital switch or die. They probably could have moved faster on it, and taken part in the studios’ program to help theaters convert — but I bet that they just loved the look of film over digital projection, and never imagined the day would come when they simply couldn’t get 35mm prints anymore. The studios are actually destroying the 35mm prints of their older films; they don’t want them around as an option, even for archivists or collectors. It’s a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) world, and that’s all there is to it. There simply isn’t an option for 35mm projection anymore. Outside of a few museums and revival houses, and some university facilities, 35mm is gone, gone, gone.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

About the Author

Headshot of 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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