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To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 24 to November 22, 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is not to be missed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, film preservation – the active conservation of our shared cinematic heritage – is one of the prime concerns of this website. The Museum of Modern Art’s latest edition of To Save and Project: the 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is thus absolutely central to film history and criticism; if you can’t see the films, how can you possibly judge them, or appreciate them? It’s somewhat amazing to me that along with films such as Her Sister’s Secret - a title I just blogged on, and a film which clearly begs for preservation due to its Public Domain status – more recent films such as Caravaggio and Excalibur, to name just two possible titles, also need to be carefully preserved for the future. Projected in MoMA’s state of the art auditorium, these films are an indispensable part of of cultural heritage, and need to be as widely seen as possible. Curated by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at MoMA, and adjunct curator Dave Kehr (who used to write an excellent column for the New York Times, now much missed), this is an event of the first rank, and anyone in the New York area should run, not walk, to see this superb series of screenings.

As the notes for the series point out, “each fall, MoMA’s annual festival of newly preserved films, To Save and Project, brings together masterworks and rediscoveries from film archives, studios, and foundations from around the world. Many of the films in the festival will be receiving their first American screening since their original release; others will be shown in meticulously restored editions that more closely approximate the original experience of the film; a few will even be publicly screened for the first time ever in New York—including work by Orson Welles (sequences filmed but never used for the 1938 Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson). Also presented are films by Charles Chaplin, Maya Deren, Allan Dwan, Derek Jarman, Sergio Leone, Kenji Mizoguchi, Raul Ruiz, and Edgar G. Ulmer. Guest presenters include Kathryn Bigelow, John Boorman, George Chakiris, and Ken Jacobs.

The opening-night film is the North American premiere of a new MoMA restoration: Allan Dwan’s 1929 masterpiece The Iron Mask, a rousingly entertaining swashbuckler starring Douglas Fairbanks that is often considered, as Dwan himself called it, ‘the last of the big silents.’ MoMA’s version, however, contains the entire original Vitaphone soundtrack—with music, sound effects, and three spoken sequences—which will be heard here for the first time since the film’s original roadshow presentation. These titles will join dozens of others from archives both public and private to create a four-week overview of the tremendously exciting work that is being done around the world to reclaim endangered films and rediscover forgotten treasures.

The series runs from October 24 to November 22, 2014 – don’t miss it!

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

The British Film Institute has just released Val Guest’s The Day Earth Caught Fire on DVD; click here to see the trailer.

The BFI, which has always been way ahead of American archival efforts, has just announced the release in DVD and Blu-ray format of Val Guest’s classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. This was an “A” level science fiction film, in which atomic testing knocks the earth off its axis, and sends it hurtling towards the sun. The film’s ending is unresolved; while scientists scramble to set off yet another atomic blast to correct the tilt, there’s no assurance that it will succeed. Shot in near documentary style, with real newspaper writers and editors in the cast, including one Fleet Street editor in a major speaking role in the film, the Day The Earth Caught Fire is not only effective filmmaking; it’s also a trenchant commentary on how science can lead us astray when we start things, but can’t really know the what the consequences will be.

I was lucky enough to interview Guest at length in 2003, an interview which is collected in my book Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers UP, 2007), and shortly after our interview, to attend a 35mm CinemaScope screening of the film at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, with Guest in attendance. For that screening, the theater used a print which has been out of circulation since the film’s initial release, with a color opening, and ending, with the rest of the film framed as a flashback. Guest was shocked that the print had been found; in his opening remarks, he lamented the fact that this original version had been his intent all along, but that we were about to see yet another straight black and white print. When the opening section came up in red-hued color, the entire theater could hear Guest’s shout of delight – and I’m sure the BFI version will use this cut of the film.

Here’s a detailed look at the making of this excellent film; the BFI has once again performed a real public service with the release of this film.

History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s clearly polemical book nevertheless raises many serious questions.

First published by The British Film Institute in 2001, when the digital revolution was just beginning, with a preface by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently republished in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, Usai’s text asks a number of deeply important questions about the headlong rush to digital, for as he writes, “it is estimated that about one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999, twice as many as a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, one hundred billion hours of moving images will be made in the year 2025. In 1895 there was just above forty minutes of moving images to be seen, and most of them are now preserved.

Today, for every film made, thousands of them disappear forever without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, public and private institutions are struggling to save the film heritage with largely insufficient resources and ever increasing pressures from the commercial world. Are they wasting their time? Is the much feared and much touted “Death of Cinema” already occurring before our eyes? Is digital technology the solution to the problem, or just another illusion promoted by the industry?” – this, of course, is the crux of the problem.

In my recent article on the increasing global reach of Netflix, “Netflix and National Cinemas,” published in Film International, I noted that “under the headline ‘Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,’ Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that: ‘Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in.

This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release. This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed.  Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through ‘pre-sales’ on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.

The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors.  Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix.  Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line.  Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.’

The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces. This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that.

What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else. He embraces the Hollywood model of filmmaking – ruled entirely by commerce, and nothing else – and that’s that. It’s probably true, as Moore says, that ‘worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors’ but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.”

And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue, “Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.

Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.”

It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis. 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.

But beyond this, the problem, as many have noted, is that while Netflix pushes into streaming only territory, literally hundreds of thousands of films on a worldwide basis are simply not being distributed at all. The dream of having acesss to everything in the digital era is being steadily undermined by a bottom-line mentality that focuses on profits and nothing else.

This is the “blockbuster only” model of filmmaking, which has effectively defined the marketplace for the future – indies shifted off to the side on VOD, and for the mainstream, mass merchandising, saturation booking, and literally endless franchising. And for the classics – maybe Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – mainstream Hollywood films all – but for Antonioni, Fellini, Ozu, Dreyer, Godard, Lupino, Arzner, Blaché, Akerman, and too many others – it’s marginal distribution, or none at all.

As John Talbird, a former student of mine who now teaches in New York, wrote me in response to my article, “at first, I liked Netflix, but now I’m beginning to realize it’s just another evil empire. Who cared about the demise of Blockbuster? But all three of the quirky independent video stores in my neighborhood have shut down in the ten years I’ve lived in Brooklyn. And Netflix isn’t even as good as it used to be. A lot of the Criterion titles which used to be available for streaming are no longer available. Also, their DVD titles aren’t as extensive as they at first appear. I’ve got six titles in my cue with ‘Very Long Wait’ next to them. More and more, the only alternative to Netflix is the public library or buying the DVD.”

To which I responded, “but the kicker is that soon DVDs and BluRays will be obsolete, as everything goes streaming. Netflix and the rest of the conglomerates don’t want you to own anything; they just want you to rent from them, eternally. And the visual quality is much, much poorer. My students are running into this problem too. Netflix doesn’t even have Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game – [universally acknowledged as one of the indisputable classics of the cinema] on streaming.”

So the issue here has multiple dimensions. As I discussed at length in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the very idea that there is such a thing as digital archiving is a myth. Nothing could be more unstable, or more uncertain. The major studios routinely make 35mm fine grain negatives as backups for all their productions, and store them in their film vaults, because they know – as I document in the book – that digital archiving simply isn’t reliable – there are too may ways that files can become corrupt. As Michael Cieply wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be. The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2014, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin? And what about the relentless mercantilism and Hollywoodization of filmic culture?

What do we do when physical materials disappear, and independent visions with them, to be replaced by a wilderness of solely commercial content? Wikipedia defines the term “Digital Dark Age” as “a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format.”

But I would argue that this is only a very, very small part of the problem. A more pressing concern, it would seem to me, for books, films and music, is that the works of the past created in analog fashion won’t survive in the future because they’re not deemed to be commercial enough. If there’s only a niche market, then why bother? The digital databases of the past can be retrieved, but what happens when a nitrate negative decomposes – as 50% of all films before 1950 already have. That’s 50% – a shocking number.

This is an issue that will continue to expand in the years to come, and something to seriously think about.

Treasure Trove of Silent American Movies Found in Amsterdam

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

A group of extremely rare American silent films has been found at the EYE Museum in Amsterdam.

As Susan King reports in The Los Angeles Times, “Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s Mickey’s Circus, featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917’s Neptune’s Naughty Daughter; 1925’s Fifty Million Years Ago, an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, The Last Word in Chickens, are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam. EYE and the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation have partnered to repatriate and preserve these films — the majority either don’t exist in the U.S. or only in inferior prints.

The announcement was to be made Sunday in Amsterdam at EYE Museum with a public screening of the first film saved from the project Koko’s Queen [see image above], a 1926  Out of the Inkwell cartoon, which had been available in the U.S. only in substandard video copies. Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, said EYE came to them after learning of NFPF’s partnership four years ago with the New Zealand Film Archive, which repatriated nitrate prints of nearly 200 silent U.S. films, including a missing 1927 John Ford comedy, Upstream. The following year, the NFPF and the New Zealand archive also identified the 30-minute portion of the 1923 British film The White Shadow, which is considered to be the earliest feature film in which Alfred Hitchcock had a credit.

‘We had so much on our plate,’ said Melville. ‘We took responsibility for funding the preservation of a good number of the 176 films. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. There are a lot of resources involved in bringing the films back and preserving them. Most of this work is funded through grants.’ With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NFPF last year sent researcher Leslie Lewis to Amsterdam, where she spent two months examining more than 200,000 feet of highly combustible 35mm nitrate film. A veritable Sherlock Holmes of celluloid, Lewis also was one of two nitrate experts dispatched to identify the films in the New Zealand Archive.”

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

“Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema”

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Martin Scorsese recently delivered the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities entitled “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema” at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

As reported in Dawn.com, Scorsese urged his listeners to preserve our shared cinematic heritage before it disappears, a sentiment which I am in absolute agreement with. As Scorsese noted, “I believe we need to stress visual literacy in schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”

As Dawn.com’s anonymous correspondent added, “to fully comprehend the language of moving images, it is essential to ‘preserve everything’ from blockbusters to home movies by way of films that may not look like works of art on first showing, [Scorsese] said. To prove his point, Scorsese screened a clip from Vertigo – hailed today as a work of genius, but at the time of its release in 1958 regarded as just another in a string of crowd-pleasing Alfred Hitchcock psycho thrillers.

‘[Vertigo] came very very close to being lost to us,’ he said, adding that over time, viewers can identify and appreciate elements in a film that might not be evident upon its initial release. ‘Just as we learned to take pride in our poets and writers, and in jazz and blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, a great American art form. It’s a big responsibility, and we need to say to ourselves that the time has come to look beyond weekend box office numbers and start caring for films as if they were the oldest book in the Library of Congress,’ [Scorsese] said.”

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

To Save and Project: The 10th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

Monday, October 8th, 2012

To Save and Project is a celebration of preserved masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema.

The Museum of Modern Art’s 10th annual series of To Save and Project, under the direction of Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, continues to amaze and delight with some 75 films rescued from imminent destruction, projected for the most part in their original film format, as opposed to digital versions.

As Dave Kehr notes in The New York Times, the the 10th incarnation of To Save and Project comprises “about 75 films from 15 countries, a vast assortment of work in practically every conceivable format, from Hollywood features to home movies. And yet, as hefty as the program may be, it represents a small fraction of the films rescued each year from physical deterioration or commercial neglect by the world’s archives, museums and those studios enlightened enough to take responsibility for, and pride in, the films on which their business was built.

Paradoxically, even as preservation work proliferates, opportunities to see the films in question continue to dwindle, as studios cut back on their ‘deep library’ releases to home video, black-and-white movies vanish from television, and even museums and revival houses turn more and more to the digital presentation of films through hard-drive digital cinema packages (or D.C.P.’s, to use the industry acronym), which are rapidly replacing celluloid film prints.

For the moment, at least, MoMA is holding the line: all but a handful of the screenings in Save and Project are being presented the old-fashioned way: on film. ‘I’m not entirely convinced that digital technology is sophisticated enough to compare with the quality of celluloid on a big screen,’ said Joshua Siegel, an associate curator in the museum’s department of film and the organizer of this year’s festival. ‘There will be a time when we won’t be able to discern a difference, but for the time being I believe in showing these films in the original.’

Mr. Siegel’s purist approach is best represented by the two racy Hollywood features, made before the industry’s self-censorship regulations began to be strictly enforced, that open the festival on Thursday: John Francis Dillon’s 1932 Call Her Savage, with Clara Bow, and Raoul Walsh’s 1932 Wild Girl, a western romance with Joan Bennett. Both are new 35-millimeter prints struck from original nitrate materials donated to MoMA decades ago by 20th Century Fox.”

This is an incredibly rare opportunity to see some remarkable films in the original format; I remember running a 16mm print of Call Her Savage in my film history class years ago, and being really impressed by it. The chance to see these films in the full splendor of 35mm shouldn’t be passed up, so if you live in the New York City area, and have even the slightest interest in cinema, this series should go to the very top of your “must see” list — it’s a once in a lifetime chance to see these films.

The series runs from October 11–November 12, 2012 — don’t miss it.

Moving Image Archive News

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Jan-Christopher Horak at the UCLA Archives.

Arguably, the most important task facing film historians today is the preservation of the images themselves. At the Moving Image Archive News website, there are a group of interviews with some of the country’s foremost archivists on the challenges they face on a daily basis.

As their website notes, they recently conducted these interviews with some of the top professionals on “moving image archiving, preservation, and restoration about what they do in their jobs, how they got involved in the field, and the like. Over the next few weeks, you can see what they said, here on the site.If you know anyone who might be interested in working in the field, these clips should be informative and hopefully inspiring. Or, perhaps you already work in the field and are interested in finding out about other people in your line of work. So, here goes. Today, to get things rolling, here are three people with varied roles in the moving image world.”

Click here to go this essential website, right now.

Digital Storage vs. Film Storage – Which is Cheaper? Which is More Stable?

Friday, January 27th, 2012

You can read Michael Cieply’s thought provoking article by clicking here.

As reported by Michael Cieply in The New York Times a while back, films that are “born digitally” — that are digitally produced, edited, distributed and projected — are never really fixed in any solid state medium. They’re just pixels and electrons that have to be moved from one platform to the next.

As Cieply wrote in 2007, “Time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania.

It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be.

The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2012, just five years later, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin?

The most practical solution might well be to simply make a fine grain photographic negative of all the film’s original materials and bury in it in vaults — cheap, easy, and reliable. Some preservationists suggest that film buried deep in cold storage vaults can last for hundreds of years without a problem.

Can you say the same for a digital production?

Top 75 Lost British Films

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

From the lost film Sleep is Lovely, 1968

While film may seem eternal, in fact it’s highly ephemeral, as this list of 75 lost British films compiled by the British Film Institute clearly indicates. Some of the films on the BFI list are from the 1970s, and one would think that films of such relatively recent vintage would be readily available, but no — they’re lost, negatives and all prints. In most cases, only stills and press materials survive. They may eventually turn up in a vault somewhere, or in someone’s attic or bedroom closet, but for the moment, these films are only memories — moving images that once had life, but now exist no more.

This list, in itself, is one of the best arguments one can make for the essential nature of film preservation. Without proper archival care, all films will cease to exist eventually. Our job is to keep them with us, as part of our shared cultural heritage. The films on this list are all British productions, but such a list could easily be expanded to include films around the world — films that are now just memories. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever, and you can’t bring them back — so we must act now.

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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