Side By Side, a documentary by Christopher Kenneally that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, examines the battle of film vs. 1’s and 0’s. The film doesn’t feature the stark side-by-side comparison of digital vs. photochemical imagery you probably hoped the title signifies. Boy would it be telling to see what Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) would have looked like digitally. It does however, feature a cheerful -- even giddy -- Keanu Reeves asking the most important directors, cinematographers, and editors of our time about the future of “filmmaking.” The film documents this revolutionary time in motion pictures where the mere origins of digital technology are matching the apex of photochemical capabilities. Side By Side takes us through the basics of both methods, from the inner workings of the cameras to the incorporation of a DI (Digital Intermediate) Colorist, the effects on the crew, and the finished product in comparison to the old days of what-you-film-is-what-you-get.
Most of the filmmakers are split into one camp or the other. Those who think the crystallization of an image recording on a piece of celluloid is an irreplaceable variable in the filmmaking process sit on one side. And those who think it’s ridiculous for storytelling to be confined by the economical and temporal constraints of shooting on film stare with arms crossed sitting on the other side. But this is not a matter of the young replacing the old. Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister passionately hold it down for the everlasting importance of film.
Wally states he will surely one day be working digitally, but will be one of the last still standing when it comes to shooting film. Nolan compares digital photography to the sensory sham that is the soft batch cookie. He points out that when the soft-batch cookie first debuted, people marveled at the ability to buy a package of cookies with the consistency of a batch straight from the oven. But eventually, people come to the realization there were consuming chemicals collectively creating the illusion of a fresh-baked experience.
He and Wally feel they are already enlightened that this method of photography is a counterfeit way of capturing an image and will never compare to the physical moving picture. As does Bradford Young (Pariah (2011)) and Reed Morano, who has shot all of her features on film, including her latest Free Samples (2012), also screening in this year's festival. Greta Gerwig, who might have been expected to thank her lucky stars for the digital revolution the way Lena Dunham does, instead expresses her aversion to the declining use of film and the rise of watching movies on a personal device. Greta, don’t tell me you aren’t also watching Heathers on the toilet.
Though they feel the same fondness for film as Greta, most filmmakers featured like the Wachowskis (YES, they both make an appearance), George Lucas, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, and David Fincher can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t take advantage of technological advancements that not only give them more control as directors but eliminate an entire day’s wait for dailies, allow for takes more than ten minutes long, and are generally cheaper, smaller, and lighter.
Steven Soderberg, who shot The Informant! (2009), The Girlfriend Experiment (2009) and Contagion (2011) on the Red One camera, functions as the voice of reason when he states how he can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t take advantage of a new technology. “I really felt I should call film on the phone and say 'I’ve met someone,'” he laughs. What’s really interesting is the way filmmakers are able to communicate with the minds that create the cameras in a groundbreaking way. Merely two days after requesting they be created, David Fincher was given 4 lb. Red Ones -- 11 lbs. lighter then the standard, made to be affixed to the row boats in The Social Network (2010).
George Lucas considered, there is no better depiction of the journey of digital filmmaking thus far than the career of Anthony Dod Mantle. As a member of Dogme 95, Anthony’s early film The Celebration (1998) features home movie mise en scene captured on a Sony PC-7E. This stylistic choice caused him to be both hailed and criticized by the filmmaking community. Danny Boyle tells Keanu how he reached out to Anthony after seeing The Celebration, eager to collaborate.
Shortly after they came up with 28 Days Later (2002) -- a film they would not have the means to create without the technology to strategically set up cheap, inexpensive cameras throughout the city of London. With multiple cameras, they were able to stop traffic for very small periods of time and film Cillian Murphy wandering the “empty” streets. Six years later, he was able to capture the movement and rapid flow of Slumdog Millionare (2008) on SI-2Ks leading to his Oscar for Best Cinematography -- a feat for both him and digital technology.
The look of the visuals aside, the democratization of anything can only be a good thing. The only speaker featured who seems to be really afraid, not of the technology but that the newfound accessibility to filmmaking will produce more bad than good content, is Lorenzo di Bonaventura. This expression of fear is particularly interesting if you consider he is the producer of films like Transformers (2007), Salt (2010), Man on a Ledge (2011) and the Untitled Transformers Sequel. It is no wonder he’s afraid of a camera in the hands of educated storytellers who wouldn’t otherwise have the means. As David Lynch points out, everyone has always had access to a piece of paper and a pen.
The overlying sentiment about the future of film is best summed up by Joel Schumacher saying, “we’re fucked.” The fairytale ending to the story of film itself is that it will not only remain a valued stylistic choice, but the most reliable way to store and preserve an image for posterity. Instead of relying on drives that could potentially die or become obsolete, the best way to keep a filmic time capsule is on a film print, funny enough. When you take it out years from now, no matter the technology, all you would have to do is “shine a light through it.”