By: Jon Bowman Published online: Monday, November 12, 2012 Appeared in: Pasateimpo
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Digital processes have
lowered the costs of making movies,
rendering the medium more democratic,
but has that translated into better movies — better
looking or more engaging — reaching the screen?
This question is among those debated by scores of
moviemakers in Side by Side, a timely exploration of an
art form undergoing a sea change on the technological
front. Film buffs and industry insiders will get the
most out of this documentary, but it’s entertaining and
accessible enough to retain a popular appeal, aided by
the affable narrator and interviewer, Keanu Reeves.
Not rated. 99 minutes.
Side by Side, documentary, not rated, The Screen,
The 2012 election is over, but in Hollywood, a fierce
debate rages on. It’s not focused on Clint Eastwood’s
empty chair or Michael Moore’s in-your-face campaign ad, but on an even more polarizing topic that
truly divides movie folks into warring camps. The
battle lines are drawn over a technological revolution
that’s transforming every phase of the industry —
the rising dominance of digital cameras and editing
tools, paired with the simultaneous collapse of the
photochemical regimen that defined filmmaking for
more than a century.
While films shot on celluloid continue to be made,
their days are clearly numbered. Manufacturers have
already stopped making 35 mm film cameras. It’s a
medium operating on fumes and borrowed time,
destined to disappear altogether within the next five
to 10 years, regardless of the howls and complaints of
traditionalists who maintain that celluloid produces
aesthetically superior and longer-lasting imagery
than its digital counterparts.
Christopher Kenneally’s new documentary, Side by
Side, chronicles this sea change, allowing the purists
to vent and wax eloquently about the dying of an
art form, but also giving digital champions a chance
to defend the new technologies and explain why
they offer their own inherent artistic advantages.
Economics have driven this makeover — digital
movies are far less costly to make — but proponents
say that going digital isn’t simply a matter of
kowtowing to the almighty dollar. It has also had
an egalitarian impact and opened doors within the
industry to a younger and more diverse pool of
artists, many of whom never would have caught a
break in the old Hollywood.
Given its subject matter, Side by Side could have
been strictly an insider affair, targeted solely to
moviemakers and die-hard film buffs. But this work
succeeds in busting out of that narrow mold and
attaining a more populist and accessible appeal as a
fascinating time capsule. As such, it couldn’t have
come at a more opportune moment, with movie-
making in a state of flux, undergoing greater upheaval
than any juncture since the advent of sound.
Actor Keanu Reeves, who co-produced the doc,
serves as narrator and interviewer. Those worried
about his Bill and Ted aura can chill out. He’s quite
good at the task, engaging in breezy yet revealing
conversations with scores of directors, cinematographers, editors, actors, and technicians who
outline how their job duties have radically shifted
and how they’ve adjusted as working artists.
Some have openly embraced the change, such as
the visionary George Lucas, who dismisses film as
“a 19th-century invention,” and Robert Rodriguez,
who says his cutting-edge features (including Sin
City) “would not have existed if I shot film.” But on
the flip side, one director of photography vows to
hold out against the rising tides as long as possible,
saying, “I’m not going to trade my oil paints for a
box of crayons.”
Heavyweights aplenty weigh in here — Martin
Scorsese, David Lynch, James Cameron, and David
Fincher, among them — but some of the juiciest
secrets are laid bare by lesser-known talents, discussing how digital has shaken up the old pecking order
on movie sets, blurring time-honored distinctions
and causing infighting over who will control the
Writer-director Joel Schumacher (Batman
Forever) delivers the most humorous line. Now
that everyone can instantly see how a scene looks
instead of waiting a day for the canned rushes, he
says, the actors have become more self-conscious
— some insist on reviewing each and every take.
He jokes: “I’m convinced everyone’s just looking
at their hair.”
Besides the many interviews, Side by Side presents
a rich compendium of clips that capture how the
look of movies keeps evolving. An extended section
delves into the technical nitty-gritty surrounding
different cameras that improved digital quality or
became more compact and streamlined, allowing
filmmakers to go new places, shoot in tighter spaces,
or move about and improvise more freely than before.
Some of this veers toward the geeky, but there’s also a
fun, futuristic dimension to the probing, as we come
to see how breakthroughs with new cameras made
possible a new universe of special effects, coloring
experiments, image alterations, and all manner of
One of the best overviews comes from cameraman
Anthony Dod Mantle, who was in on the ground
floor with digital, having shot The Celebration
for Danish director Thomas Vinterberg in 1998.
Dod Mantle says he was “applauded and almost
executed” at the same time for his unconventional,
hand-held shooting style, and feared he might have
destroyed his career. But 11 years later, as old
prejudices and attitudes against digital relaxed,
Dod Mantle became the first digital-based cinematographer to win an Oscar, for his craftsmanship on
As quickly and dramatically as digital has reshaped
filmmaking, fears linger about where it will lead.
One observer says that over the past decade he has
used 80 different video formats — the earliest and
most primitive ones being totally incompatible
with those now in vogue. This dizzying range of
formats can be a nightmare for archivists. Imagine,
as a writer, if you had penned a modern-day War
and Peace, but only saved it on floppy disks. How
could you go about retrieving your work after floppy
disks had gone the way of dodo birds, and all floppy
readers had become dinosaurs?
Lucas, for one, isn’t worried. Recently hailed by
cultural critic Camille Paglia as the greatest artist of
our time, Lucas is convinced that technology will
triumph, saying that in the end, no matter how much
it changes, novel ways will be found to transfer and
preserve not only his Star Wars films — without
degradation — but also every other meaningful
movie from our era. Let’s hope he’s right.