Side by Side | On Demand
Chris Kenneally’s new documentary looks at the key technological shift in modern moviemaking.
According to a new documentary, you can now place film directors in two camps.
On one side, you have auteurs who have embraced digital filmmaking to some degree. A wide spectrum exists within that group. There’s the insufferably smug, ever-autocratic George Lucas, who argues there’s nothing left to explore with traditional photochemical processes. If you shoot on film, you’re a dinosaur. Steven Soderbergh makes a more reasonable advocate; he likes the sharpness and the “snap” of digital video, and has no nostalgia for scratched prints or the difficulties of filming for 35mm. Martin Scorsese seems more resigned to digital cameras than enthusiastic about them. He expresses cautious optimism about new creative avenues. “I think celluloid is still going to be a choice,” he hazards wistfully toward the end.
On the other side, taking up the case of beleaguered 35mm, you have…Christopher Nolan.
He’s not quite alone. There are cinematographers, editors and perhaps a few less tenacious directors willing to back up his position, but that’s the depressing state of affairs revealed in Chris Kenneally’s Side by Side, which comes to VOD Wednesday 22. The talking-heads presentation is pretty standard; surely there are livelier emcees than producer Keanu Reeves, who hosts and shit-grins through every interview, possibly sporting a different hairstyle for each one. But the film is an entertaining and informative primer on the key technological shift in modern movies, analogous—to extend one interviewee’s metaphor—to watercolors supplanting oil paint.
Always accessible, the doc lays out pros and cons of each medium. Danny Boyle’s dissection of a deserted-London sequence from 28 Days Later—which had to be filmed quickly because traffic was affected—is particularly instructive in showing that advantages of digital go beyond pure aesthetics. If, like me, you thought Collateral was a key turning point in demonstrating that video could achieve film-like levels of quality, you’ll learn exactly what that movie’s Thomson Viper camera did that antecedents could not.
Then again, you may never look at the work of regular Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins the same way, after watching him collaborate with a digital colorist to achieve a perfect balance of sky and ground. Isn’t that cheating? The ease of shooting afforded by digital is a double-edged sword: David Fincher remembers Robert Downey Jr., frustrated with the grueling pace of Zodiac’s shoot, leaving mason jars filled with urine on the set in protest. Veteran editor Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia) talks about the discipline that’s been lost with computer editing; when every splice counted, it taught you the importance of taking a breath before making your choice.
Thankfully, the movie also gets to the issue of preservation, one area in which traditional celluloid decisively vanquishes digital. Like your computer, digital formats go obsolete within a few years. Film prints may degrade, but with proper storage they last much longer. Lana Wachowski suggests we’ll eventually find a more stable method of digital preservation. But with digital filmmaking already becoming the norm, it’s a little late for such wishful thinking.
To keep things streamlined, Side by Side mostly limits its focus to film production, shortchanging attendant issues of exhibition. It’s an ironic choice. Think you’re ambivalent about digital killing 35mm? Just wait until VOD kills movie theaters.
Side by Side will be available on VOD Wednesday 22. See tribecafilm.com for details.