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SIDE BY SIDE.A documentary about the science, art and impact of digital cinema
by Chris Kenneally
Company Films LLC
| USA | 98’ - 56’ | 2012
For almost one hundred years there was only one way to make a movie — with film. But over the last two decades a digital process has emerged to challenge photochemical filmmaking.
Keanu Reeves interviews directors, cinematographers, film students, producers, technologies, editors, and exhibitors, as Side by Side examines all aspects of filmmaking.
At this moment when digital and photochemical filmmaking coexist, Side by Side explores what has been gained, what is lost, and what the future might bring.
CAST: Keanu Reeves, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Geoffrey Gilmore, Lars von Trier, George Lucas, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and many more.
Thereafter, writer-helmer Chris Kenneally (who made docu "Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating") and Reeves methodically work through how digital technologies have been introduced in several fields of endeavor, not just lensing but also editing, color correction, visual effects and projection. Pic even explores the contentious issue of how digital film is to be archived, given the speed with which formats reach obsolescence; Fincher, one of the pic's most engaging, articulate and foul-mouthed contributors, explains how he has master copies of early films that he can't even watch anymore because he has nothing to screen them through.
Although laid out with such clarity that any layperson could catch the gist of what's being discussed, "Side by Side" is not afraid to get nitty-gritty about more technical matters, such as why the invention of Bell Labs' CCD chip was so game-changing, how stereoscopy works or why a Red camera or a Sony F950 is so much better than a standard-definition rig (answer: It's all in the pixels). Yet plenty of airtime is also given to those who prefer the aesthetic of photochemical stock, which, as helpful clips illustrate, still has a much wider dynamic range than digital.
For other, less nerdy-minded auds, simply hearing great masters of the craft talk about their work with passion, specificity and acumen will be enough of a treat. Pic generously apportions roughly equal amounts of screen time to big names and lesser-known craftspeople such as ace editor Anne V. Coates, vfx legend Dennis Muren and top colorist Tim Stipan, who speak just as eloquently about the work as their more famous colleagues. Nevertheless, Joel Schumacher delivers possibly the pic's funniest line when he sighs that the problem with instant playback via digital is that actors get obsessed not with their performances but with what their hair looks like.
Ultimately, the docu doesn't argue that one format is necessarily better than the other, but it does make clear that we're living through a key moment in film history. Interviewees differ in their estimates of how long photochemical filmmaking will last, but nearly everyone agrees the balance of power is shifting ineluctably toward digital, simply because it's cheaper. Fittingly, venerable lenser Michael Ballhaus ("The Marriage of Maria Braun," "GoodFellas,") gets the last word: "If you do something with your heart… it doesn't matter what you're using."
Because movies are a business as much as they are an art form, technological advances that allow filmmakers to make movies more easily and, most important, more cheaply, have as much of a role to play in the final product as the script, direction and acting. But rarely do audience-friendly documentaries focus on the nuts and bolts — or nowadays, the chips and pixels — of the filmmaking process, which is why Kenneally’s intensive study feels both necessary and long overdue.
After all, and as Side by Side methodically explains, the revolution has been happening for more than four decades, but it’s only over the past 10 years that most viewers have become so conditioned to (some would say bombarded by) the powers of digital imagery. Chronicling the medium’s development — from the original CCDs invented by Bell Labs through Sony’s first Standard Definition digital camera to the most recent HD models by Red and Arriflex and finally to the postproduction evolutions of CGI, the Avid, the Digital Intermediate and DCP projection — no stone is left unturned by Kenneally, whose army of above- and below-the-line interviewees debate the merits of digital filmmaking and its effects on longstanding cinematic traditions.
Among the Hollywood heavyweights questioned by Reeves (often sporting long hair and a beard, presumably for the shoot of the upcoming CGI blockbuster 47 Ronin), the most fervent supporters of the new process are clearly George Lucas and James Cameron (“What was ever real?” the latter snaps when Reeves complains about green screens), while holdouts like Christopher Nolan insist they’ll continue shooting on film for as long as they can. Somewhere in between are directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, both of whom see the advantages of digital but also the uniqueness of celluloid (“That was precious stuff rolling through there,” remarks Lynch, though he also is referring to the price of film stock).
Beyond the talks with directors, it’s the conversations with a host of top-notch cinematographers — among them Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman and Anthony Dod Mantle — that make Side by Side a particularly engaging exercise. Learning about digital imagery from the horse’s mouth is essential, and nobody is as affected by the changes as the DPs who battle with new shooting formats on a daily basis. What one pulls from such discussions is that the cinematographer’s power on set used to be almost magical (“They loved the voodoo of it,” claims an especially insightful David Fincher), but once the photochemical process was replaced by on-set monitors and the DI, anyone could come in and tell them exactly how things should look.
The cameramen are joined by editors, special effects supervisors and color correctors, who explain in laymen’s terms how digital has changed the way movies are finalized. While their remarks reveal to what extent the workflow has shifted in favor of postproduction, certain transformations, such as the rise of Fusion 3D, don’t seem to garner much favor with the majority of interviewees (“It’s a motherf—ing marketing scheme, isn’t it?” wonders Nolan DP Wally Pfister). Such candor is a welcome antidote to the usual industry backslapping, and Reeves manages to charm his subjects into speaking truths seldom heard by the general public. If any complaint can be lodged against Side by Side, it’s that there’s perhaps too much material on hand for only 99 minutes, and things sometimes fly by before there’s enough time to let them register. Still, anyone who needs to give the movie a second look can eventually catch it on a range of digital formats, though, according to the documentary’s final segment, the most foolproof archiving system is still good ol’ fashioned 35mm stock. In that respect, the future of film is film.
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