Side by Side
Directed by: Christopher Kenneally.
Written by: Christopher Kenneally.
Featuring: Michael Ballhaus, Dion Beebe, Danny Boyle, James Cameron, Michael Chapman, Anthony Dod Mantle, Lena Dunham, David Fincher, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Kuras, Richard Linklater, George Lucas, David Lynch, Walter Murch, Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister, Dick Pope, Keanu Reeves, Robert Rodriguez, Tom Rothman, Joel Schumacher, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Vittorio Storaro, Lars von Trier, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Vilmos Zsigmond.
The war between film and digital is pretty much over – with digital trouncing film. What seemed unthinkable just 10 years ago has become commonplace today. Almost every movie we see is shot digitally and projected digitally, and no one really notices the difference. It wasn’t always this way. Back in the late 1990s, when the Dogma 95 filmmakers started using digital technology to make their films, anyone could notice they didn’t look like “Hollywood” films, or really any films at all. And then American indie filmmakers noticed they could make their movies for far less money, if they didn’t mind them looking like home movies – and many didn’t. Then George Lucas got involved and everything changed. A filmmaker would probably never dream of using the digital cameras he used to make Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones today – because the technology has advanced so much since then. No, you can pretty much do anything digitally – you can do what David Fincher has done, and made digital films that look like they were shot on film, or you can do what James Cameron did with Avatar, and essentially computer generate an entire “live action” movie, and everything in between. There are still a few hold outs of course – Christopher Nolan still insists on using film because he and his cinematographer Wally Pfister prefer the way it looks, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming film The Master was not only shot on film, but on 70MM, which no one has done in years. But even Nolan admits that sometime in the next 10 years, even he will have to shoot his movies digitally.
Craig Kenneally’s excellent new documentary Side by Side explores the history of digital moviemaking, and features interviews with many leading filmmakers, cinematographers, editors, actors and others. These interviews, conducted by a Keanu Reeves (for reasons I am not sure of, but it hardly matters, because Reeves proves himself to be an excellent interviewer), show how profoundly digital cinema has changed the way movies are made – and how they are seen. The movie doesn’t really offer an opinion on whether or not it’s a good or bad thing that digital has taken over, but allows people on both sides an opportunity to get their say in. Some, like Lucas or Robert Rodriguez or Steven Soderbergh are adamant that digital is the only way to go, and is vastly superior to film. Others are not convinced. When one interview subject mentions the biggest remaining problem with digital – that so far, no one has come up with an adequate way to store the films for years on end, he offers a much more pessimistic view of digital – simply saying “We’re fucked”.
If you’re a film buff, than Side by Side is a must see – certainly one of the best docs of the year so far. I’m sure to people who work in the film industry in some capacity know just how completely things have changed in the past 10 years, but if you don’t know, than Side by Side offers a nice primer – how the technology evolved from one camera to another, how editing, special effects and color timing have changed, and everything in between – and it is all laid out in a simple to follow manner. This is interesting.
What is more interesting is hearing the filmmakers themselves talk about digital cinema, why they love it, or why they hate it. It’s clear that many have fully embraced digital and what they can do with it – Robert Rodriguez talking about how Sin City would never be possible on film, James Cameron admitting as much on Avatar. But the movie also does raise the questions that many doubters out there have – has it gone too far? Is everything we are seeing just completely, utterly fake? Will the “democratization” of production, made possible by cheap cameras and cheap editing programs, ultimately be a boom for the film industry or the death of it?
My opinion on these questions, and I stress it is only my opinion, is simple. That all the new tools at the disposal of filmmakers are just that – tools. They allow a filmmaker like David Fincher to digitally age Brad Pitt seamlessly and brilliantly in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the same thing allowed Andy & Lana Wachowski to make candy colored crap like Speed Racer. It is not the technologies fault, but that of the filmmakers using it. And as for the democratization of moviemaking, it is true, that more people can make movies now than ever before. But just because you have access to the same cameras that Steven Soderbergh does, does not mean you can make the films that Steven Soderbergh does. As David Lynch points out – “Everyone has access to pen and paper – how many use it to create a great story?”.
But one thing is for sure – digital has changed the movies forever, and we are far too early on in its development to tell if ultimately it will be a good thing, or a bad thing. Only time will tell.