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Posts Tagged ‘digital cinema’

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International, on the effects of Netflix on national cinemas.

As I write, in part, “People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed ‘indies’ – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like ‘foreign’ or ‘indie,’ thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon ’suggestion’ feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.

If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?”

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

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

Some Final Thoughts on Reviewing Godzilla (2014)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

This image of the Hollywood sign in collapse seems sadly appropriate for this post.

My review of the new Godzilla film seems to have sparked some real response, and in the comments section, I added these thoughts, which I think should be repeated here. In response to a number of people agreeing with my assessment of the film, and some people disagreeing, I added these final comments on both the film, and on reviewing films that I’m not fond of – something I don’t enjoy doing.

“I took no particular pleasure in doling out a bad review of the film — and I really went in expecting a genuine return to the roots of Godzilla, so to speak. But we have to keep these things in perspective. On one level, the whole thing is ridiculous – I mean, who really cares if a Godzilla reboot works? On the other, the original film was such a serious and potent metaphor for the nuclear decimation of Japan in 1945 that to see the whole concept turn into just another monster movie is a real betrayal of the 1954 original.

Pop thought it may be, the first Gojira had depth, which this film lacks; then again, I wish Edwards would go back to smaller, more thoughtful projects, but now that Hollywood has him in its grasp, there’s little likelihood of that. The 2014 Godzilla reminded me most strongly of Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!; 2009), a short film made by another spfx wizard, Fede Alvarez on a dimestore budget, which also led to another Hollywood deal.

So it’s like this; make one good film with no money, then Hollywood snaps you up, and you make one bad film after another which is totally compromised by studio/exec interference, but they’re still hits because the studios have sunk so much money into them that they can’t afford to let them die, so they promote the hell out of them, and thus they become ’successes,’ and so you do another.

So I’m waiting for Manoel de Oliveira’s next film, which will have no money, lots of ideas, and will no doubt challenge and engage me more than this — but circling around all of this for me is my conviction that the 1954 Gojira and Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) are roughly approximate in seriousness of intent, and that a stronger case needs to be made for Ishirō Honda in the first film. The genre really doesn’t matter here; it’s seriousness of intent.” As Honda himself famously noted, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy,” and that’s the tragedy of this film, too.

And that’s more than enough on that topic.

The Spartans Meet The Muppets, or 300: Rise of an Empire

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I have a review essay out today on the new film 300: Rise of An Empire in Film International.

As I write, “It would be a mistake to dismiss director Noam Murro’s sword and sandal “historical” pageant 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) entirely, if only because mainstream pop culture films can often tell us more about the times we live in than so-called ‘quality’ films, since they pander so shamelessly to their audiences. So it is with 300: ROAE, but let me hasten to add that most of what it has to tell us is unintentional freight. The makers of this film – the producers, screenwriters and the director – wanted a serviceable follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2007 original, to create what could be a profitable franchise, if properly handled – and Murro delivered it. It’s a maelstrom of unending cruelty, barbarism, and conflict.

You want endless, mindless, slow motion violence, delivered with a minimum of dialogue or motivation (other than the standard ‘I want revenge’ card)? You got it. Battlefields littered with corpses? Check. Huge, panoramic vistas that trail off into infinity, as the protagonists strike heroic poses in the twilight? Coming up! Spectacular battles on sea and land? Gotcha! Sex scenes with a dollop of violence? Of course! It’s all here, trotted out to meet audience demand, something Murro is no stranger to. Murro has directed numerous high-end commercials and videos, and one feature, Smart People (2008), starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s even worked with The Muppets! Now, if only he could learn to direct people.

That’s probably good training for this film, because most of the cast walks through their paces like so many automatons; what really saves the film as a visual construct is Murro’s sense of non-stop kineticism, which is easily the equal of some of the best action directors in motion picture history. Mind you, I’m talking sheer technique here, not resonance; the film is as empty as it is dazzling, but nevertheless, some main points come to mind. Watching the film, I kept thinking of what a first rate talent like Sam Peckinpah might have done with similar material in his prime; ‘Bloody Sam’ would have been right at home here, provided he was willing to bring the film in on time and under budget.”

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

Martin Scorsese’s Open Letter to His Daughter On The Future of Cinema

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

As Paul Shirey reports on the website JoBlo, “director Martin Scorsese has already created a legacy of films that will long be remembered, revered, studied, and admired for a long time [ . . .] With the ever-changing landscape of film seemingly at a crossroads of change, particularly in the mass affordability and availability of filmmaking tools, the world of cinema is entering a revolutionary period, which Scorsese has taken heed of. As such, the director has penned an open letter to his youngest daughter, Francesca, about his optimism for the art of film, but with the caveat of remembering what’s most important in applying the craft. It’s an inspiring and thoughtful piece, especially for budding filmmakers.

Dearest Francesca,

I’m writing this letter to you about the future. I’m looking at it through the lens of my world. Through the lens of cinema, which has been at the center of that world.

For the last few years, I’ve realized that the idea of cinema that I grew up with, that’s there in the movies I’ve been showing you since you were a child, and that was thriving when I started making pictures, is coming to a close. I’m not referring to the films that have already been made. I’m referring to the ones that are to come.

I don’t mean to be despairing. I’m not writing these words in a spirit of defeat. On the contrary, I think the future is bright.

We always knew that the movies were a business, and that the art of cinema was made possible because it aligned with business conditions. None of us who started in the 60s and 70s had any illusions on that front. We knew that we would have to work hard to protect what we loved. We also knew that we might have to go through some rough periods. And I suppose we realized, on some level, that we might face a time when every inconvenient or unpredictable element in the moviemaking process would be minimized, maybe even eliminated. The most unpredictable element of all? Cinema. And the people who make it.

I don’t want to repeat what has been said and written by so many others before me, about all the changes in the business, and I’m heartened by the exceptions to the overall trend in moviemaking – Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Alexander Payne, the Coen Brothers, James Gray and Paul Thomas Anderson are all managing to get pictures made, and Paul not only got The Master made in 70mm, he even got it shown that way in a few cities. Anyone who cares about cinema should be thankful.

And I’m also moved by the artists who are continuing to get their pictures made all over the world, in France, in South Korea, in England, in Japan, in Africa. It’s getting harder all the time, but they’re getting the films done. But I don’t think I’m being pessimistic when I say that the art of cinema and the movie business are now at a crossroads.

Audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema – moving pictures conceived by individuals – appear to be headed in different directions. In the future, you’ll probably see less and less of what we recognize as cinema on multiplex screens and more and more of it in smaller theaters, online, and, I suppose, in spaces and circumstances that I can’t predict.

So why is the future so bright? Because for the very first time in the history of the art form, movies really can be made for very little money [emphasis added]. This was unheard of when I was growing up, and extremely low budget movies have always been the exception rather than the rule. Now, it’s the reverse. You can get beautiful images with affordable cameras. You can record sound. You can edit and mix and color-correct at home. This has all come to pass.

But with all the attention paid to the machinery of making movies and to the advances in technology that have led to this revolution in moviemaking, there is one important thing to remember: the tools don’t make the movie, you make the movie. It’s freeing to pick up a camera and start shooting and then put it together with Final Cut Pro. Making a movie – the one you need to make – is something else. There are no shortcuts.

If John Cassavetes, my friend and mentor, were alive today, he would certainly be using all the equipment that’s available. But he would be saying the same things he always said – you have to be absolutely dedicated to the work, you have to give everything of yourself, and you have to protect the spark of connection that drove you to make the picture in the first place.

You have to protect it with your life. In the past, because making movies was so expensive, we had to protect against exhaustion and compromise. In the future, you’ll have to steel yourself against something else: the temptation to go with the flow, and allow the movie to drift and float away.

This isn’t just a matter of cinema. There are no shortcuts to anything. I’m not saying that everything has to be difficult. I’m saying that the voice that sparks you is your voice – that’s the inner light, as the Quakers put it.

That’s you. That’s the truth.

All my love, Dad”

Some words to take to heart; no matter the technology, content, and passion, are the keys to the future of cinema.

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

New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access on “Inquiry” with Mark Lynch

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

I just did an interview with host Mark Lynch on the radio program Inquiry, from NPR affiliate WICN in Worcester, MA, on my new book, Streaming.

As it says on the website for the podcast of the show, “Tonight on Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon. He is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His new book is Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access. Professor Dixon declares that we are now in the “postfilmic era”, a time when movie film will no longer exist and all movies will be shot digitally. DVDs will also cease to exist as all films will be “streamed” and movie houses, those that are still extant, will only show digital copies of movies. But what are the implications of all of this for the art of film, the preservation of old films and how we watch movies? The answers are disheartening and  a little bit frightening. Tune in and find out why.”

And you can tune in by clicking here, or on the image above.

Film Convert – People Still Want The Film “Look”

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Despite the “breakneck shift” to digital cinema, it seems people still want the film “look.”

So here’s a fascinating video tutorial — which loads immediately when you click the image above — on some new software that takes the rather hard looking digital images put out by conventional HD cameras and softens then up into something approximating what film looks like, with artificial grain, color balance, and other artifacts of the filmic image. It’s all an illusion, of course; this is still HD. But it’s interesting to me that the more people use digital, the more they seem to long for the “look” of film, and the warmth, depth, and tactile feel that film brings to the image being captured.

As tech writer Joe Marine notes on the No Film School website, “we’ve said a lot about the digital versus film debate, and a lot of people have a lot of different opinions. Film still had a technological advantage over digital until really the last few years or so, and now we have digital sensors which can match or exceed film stocks with dynamic range. Either way, with digital sensors being ‘too clean’ for some people who have loved the look of film, there is a program called FilmConvert that takes the color information of specific cameras and actually uses that to determine how a specific film stock could best be represented using that sensor.”

So, click here, or the image above, and see for yourself how it works.

“Writing on Water”: Digital Cinema Packages, Key Delivery Messages, and the Ephemerality of Digital Cinema

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Click here to view a video on projecting DCPs using KDMs; not so easy, is it?

Val Lewton, the 1940s film producer, once observed that making films was “like writing on water,” since the film medium was so inherently fragile. But that’s nothing compared to the new regime of Digital Cinema Packages.

The latest evidence of this comes from the New York Film Festival, where on September 28, 2012, Brian de Palma was scheduled to present his new film, Passion, to a sold out audience. But there was just one problem; since the movie came as a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package, and not an actual film print, when it came time to screen Passion, no one could unlock the files.

Result: no screening.

As Bob Cashill reported in the web journal Pop Dose, “In what was for me an unprecedented event in my decades of festival going, the screening was cancelled. Why?

Three words: Digital Cinema Package, or DCP.

What is DCP? It’s heralded as the future of cinema projection, but really it’s the present; chances are your local multiplex has gone DCP, as your local independently owned theater or repertory house struggles to find a way to pay for it as celluloid goes up in smoke. The brave new world of digital projection comes with pitfalls, however. Like, if the system malfunctions, and no one can get a grip on what went wrong, you’re [out of luck], as the Film Society of Lincoln Center learned the hard way last night.

If you follow the festival at all you’ve been reading a lot about how Richard Peña, its programming director, is bowing out after 25 years of distinguished service. ‘I bet he wishes he retired last year,’ grumbled a fellow patron as we all exited Alice Tully Hall after more than an hour of waiting.

Peña, who had to keep coming onstage to deliver the worsening news, said that the DCP has been tested without incident minutes before showtime, but minus a code [the KDM, or Key Delivery Message, that] had somehow locked down. Minus someone who could fix the code . . . [and] that was it for the evening.

After a half hour or so of waiting Peña announced that audience members who couldn’t stay could get refunds at the boxoffice. Only 10-15% seemed to. Which was touching; we wanted to see the movie and were willing to put up with the inconvenience . . . But it was out of Peña’s hands, or De Palma’s hands, or any human hands. It was a glitch in the machine, a hiccup in the software. And with that the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival was tainted.”

Here’s what happened.

Once upon a time, when you screened a film at a theater, you took the 35mm print out of the shipping case, threaded it up, checked the aspect ratio, focus, and sound level, and ran the film. If you wanted to do an additional screening for a critic, or add an extra show, you could. If you wanted to switch the movie from one screen to another in your theater, you could. If short, you had the time, and the freedom, to have some measure of control over the projection of the films you screened.

Not anymore.

With digital projection comes a series of encryption codes, called KDMs, which must be used to “unlock” the digital files for projection, often within windows as short as four hours. Switching screens or adding additional shows now has to be cleared with the distributor every time, usually by e-mail. You can’t just pull the film and run it anymore. It has to be approved, and unlocked with a KDM, on a case-by-case basis.

As this excerpt from “Digital Cinema Technology: Frequently Asked Questions” notes, “KDM is the acronym for Key Delivery Message. The security key for each movie is delivered in a unique KDM, one KDM per per digital cinema server. The security key is encrypted within the KDM, which means that the delivery of a KDM to the wrong server or wrong location will not work, and thus such errors cannot compromise the security of the movie.

The KDM is a small file, and is typically emailed to the exhibitor. To create the correct KDM, however, requires knowledge of the digital certificate in the projection system’s media block.

KDMs have only a few [emphasis added] conditions associated with their use:

A KDM will only work for one movie title on one server.

A KDM will only work within the prescribed engagement time period.

To play a movie on two servers requires two KDMs for the movie. This means that to move a movie to a 2nd server requires a 2nd KDM. The engagement time window of the KDM is set per the business requirements of the studio distributing the movie. If your KDM expires and you don’t have a new KDM to continue on the engagement, then you cannot play the movie.”

This is about hegemonic studio control; nothing more, or what theorist Tim Wu refers to as the desire to control “The Master Switch.”

DCPs and KDMs take real authority away from the exhibitor; it’s a hypersurveillance system that comes from the top down, and limits what theater owners can do. Digital projection may have many significant attributes — superior picture and sound, no scratches, clean, crisp images — but now movies don’t really exist unless they’re unlocked by the KDM, and have no portability. This is what the studios want. But I’m not sure it’s good for the public, or critics, or exhibitors — a real measure of discretionary freedom has been lost.

Click here, or on the image at the top of this page, to view a demo video on how the process works.

This is an Orwellian future, nothing less.

1,000 Small Theaters Can’t Convert to Digital

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Everyone seems to be talking about this piece in Indiewire today, and with good reason.

It’s written by Michael Hurley, who owns the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Maine as well as the Temple Theatre in Houlton, Maine, and knows precisely whereof he speaks. As he notes, “‘Convert or die.’ This is how John Fithian, CEO and president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, has repeatedly set the terms. It’s crude, but at least we knew where we stood. The conversion stampede was on.

Many theaters that never thought they’d go digital are now adopting at a fast pace. One of my theaters, The Colonial Theatre, will be 100 years old in April. We’re in the midst of conversion; I accept and embrace that day. Every time I see platter scratches, or receive a scratched and dirty print, or deal with a particularly odd projectionist, I look forward to it more and more.

But it hasn’t happened fast enough. At the end of 2011, Fox announced they’d no longer release product in 35mm “sometime in the next year or two.” Also ending soon: The VPF, or virtual print fee. Since 2009, film distributors have paid VPFs to exhibitors. Based on the difference between the cost of a celluloid print and digital delivery, it’s designed to help theater owners offset the cost of a digital cinema retrofit, which costs about $65,000 at the low end. (A new projector, by comparison, was about $20,000 — but that was before you’d pay people to take them away.)

The VPF has helped some, but not all. As a result, NATO recently estimated that up to 20% of theaters in North America, representing up to 10,000 screens, would not convert and would probably close. ‘Convert or die,’ indeed. And that’s from someone representing theater owners.”

But there really is no choice. 35mm prints, as Hurley notes, are simply going to cease to exist. 35mm raw film stock is also increasingly hard to come by; nearly everything today is shot in digital format. Theaters that don’t convert will simply have no product to run, except for older, archival films, which would be great, but most people simply stream these classic titles, or buy or rent the DVD.

I’ve seen this coming for more than a decade, and I predicted in a lecture in Stockholm, Sweden in 2000 or so that this would happen within ten years, and also in an NPR interview in the late 1990s. In Stockholm, one of the members of the audience, a young woman, looked at me with great concern, and said “what you’re talking about is happening only in one small theater in New York, while there are literally millions of 35mm prints of films in existence, and tens of thousands of theaters all over the world equipped for 35mm projection. The technology has been with us for nearly a century. It can’t possibly go away.”

“Well,” I responded, “The Jazz Singer originally opened in just one theater in New York . . .” — and now the same thing is happening with digital cinema. There simply will be no 35mm prints, outside of museums and archives, to project. More than that, parts and supplies for 35mm projection equipment are already becoming difficult to get, as well as service for the machines. 35mm is done; digital is the new standard. As brutal as John Fithian’s statement is, it’s just the simple truth. There is no 35mm anymore. It’s digital, all the way.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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