A film review by Craig J. Koban February 26, 2013


2012, no MPAA rating, 98 mins.

A documentary written and directed by Christopher Kenneally

Narrated by and featuring Keanu Reeves

Most lay filmgoers that enter cinemas on a regular basis as of late have probably not noticed much of a difference at all in their viewing environment.  Yet, there is a definitive revolution that is occurring right before their eyes that, at the very least, serious cinemaphiles and people working intimately in the film industry have been hotly debating for well over a decade.  This is precisely where the Keanu Reeves produced and the Christopher Kenneally directed documentary SIDE BY SIDE comes in; it’s an surprisingly democratic, well sustained, and thoroughly involving expose on the nature of celluloid shot films versus digital ones, and an increasing number of the latter as of late.

What’s so compelling about the doc is that is never takes a more easily established and pedestrian position of siding with one side or the other; rather, it investigates – via interviews with an astonishing number iconic Hollywood directors  – the pros and cons of both photochemical and digital filmmaking.  SIDE BY SIDE shows that there is most certainly no easy agreements or even middle ground for those that despise movies fleeing away from using age-old film stock against those that embrace new technology.  What’s perhaps most revealing about the film is how many directors – some that have been around for decades and some just trying to break through – embrace one format over the other because it affords them the opportunities to have their individual needs met. 

When SIDE BY SIDE is not giving us swiftly explained vignettes describing the history and advancements in both celluloid and digital production and where they stand now, Kenneally allows the rather disarming Reeves himself to partake in a vast number of interviews with a remarkable number of moviemakers.  Reeves has always had a reputation for being a rather wooden on-screen performer, but here he seems to be a refreshingly spirited, informed, articulate, and unbiased reporter, freely asking tough questions of both camps.  Even better, Reeves does not end his enlightening conversations with directors themselves; he goes further to talk to people that we may or may not think are directly affected by a move from film to digital, like cinematographers, editors, color timers, and, yes, even actors.  All of these industry participants, it seems, sees value – or a lack their of – in the respective clash of digital versus celluloid. 



On the pro side of digital filmmaking there’s some that we expect and many that are surprises.  Eager and willing converts are auteurs like Steven Soderbergh (“I hate it” he vehemently says regarding film at one point), David Fincher and David Lynch.  More reluctantly, but nevertheless showing acceptance, is Martin Scorsese, who has adopted digital (and 3D technology) to make his last film, HUGO (he's a bit more melancholic about abandoning film, but he nonetheless stands firm on the side of digital).  The standard rationales for their acceptance of it seems both logical, if not a bit unexpected as well: Digital allows for long takes without having to replace film reels (which most impatient and in-the-moment method actors seem to love); you don’t have to wait for film to be developed to view in dailies-form the next day; visual effects have become much more easy to incorporate into the action; editing has become more fluid, precise, and simplified; color timing a film to give it just the right look is far more effortless to accomplish; and modern 35mm chipsets – which far exceed early prototype digital cameras – makes digital movies look almost imperceptible from celluloid shot ones.  

Then there are the cons of digital, most explicitly relayed in interviews with Christopher Nolan (who seems fearlessly resolute in never wanting to shoot anything that’s not on film).  His – and others’ – defense of still using photochemical processes are many: 35mm film still has a better resolution, more texture and nuance, and looks more cinematic than digital, the latter which occupies a place in the mind where people psychologically begin to perceive silver screen movies as nothing more than large screen HDTVs; you can see more information on gig screen dailies than you can via small on-set TV screens that relay digitally shot footage; and then there is the longstanding legacy of the art form of celluloid-shot entertainments, which goes back over a 100 years (film projection, after all, is 100 per cent backwards and forward compatible).  One fascinating explanation of the value of the film camera comes, oddly enough, in the very sound it makes: When actors, directors, and crew hear the whir of the camera and know that the reel will only last a specific amount of time, everyone seems to want to bring their A-game right away.  With digital’s endlessly long takes, some actors can take an eternity to find themselves in their characters or factiously mull over inconsequential aspects of their job.  

Clearly, there are many on both sides that seem resilient to succumb to the power and allure of the other.  Iconic directors like James Cameron and George Lucas – who both pioneered landmark achievements in visual effects technology – bemoan how film is old, archaic, and dead technology that should have been avoided decades ago because of how it restricted them.  Lucas himself seems the most ruthlessly committed to digital, which seems both frustrating and justifiable at the same time.  Ten-plus years ago when he made ATTACK OF THE CLONES – the first ever digitally shot film – his colleagues and critics slammed him for wanting to change an industry that many didn’t think needed fixing.  Yet, the types of stories he wanted to tell were impossible using outmoded methods.  That, and he accurately foresaw a future in a technology that no one else did…or wanted to.  There were only a scant number of digital projectors in 2002; now, they are in a majority of cinemas across North America.  “Art pushes technology,” he explains at one point, which seems rational enough.

SIDE BY SIDE asks –without directly answering – one big question: What makes a film…a film?  Is it the technology itself or the men and woman behind it?  Director Robert Rodriguez – a staunch pro-digital man – rightfully decrees that movies – regardless of method used – is the art of manipulating images to tell a story, something that even old pros like Scorsese seem to echo in the doc.  Yet, SIDE BY SIDE misses one controversy altogether: At this stage in the game, many filmmakers of the future are not going to have an option of how to shoot their films, especially with the alarming proliferation of digital cameras and theater projectors.  Many prominent manufacturers are halting production on 35mm cameras, which proves to be another nail in the coffin for celluloid-shot films.  That's sad.  Yet, on a positive, the push to digital - and far better access to digital cameras - makes it easier for aspiring directors to make a name for themselves. That's good.

Here’s my two cents: I’ve viewed countless digital prints in Saskatoon over the years, seeing as just about every cinema here has made the jump to digital.  I continued to be impressed with the sharpness and clarity of the image, even though it does not have the ethereal beauty and texture of film.  Am I saddened by the apparent death sentence of celluloid in modern cinemas?  Certainly.  But the future of film nonetheless seems to be digital.  SIDE BY SIDE is perceptive and fully aware, though, as an educational doc to identify with those that still hang on to the past while others are trying to embrace what is occurring and what’s to come.  THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy cinematographer Wally Pfister, a long-time anti-digital advocate, at least acknowledges that even he will have to move to digital at some point.  Ultimately, he will utilize what will be available to him currently and in the future to make the kind of movies he wants to.  In the end, all that really matters is how good or bad a film is, regardless of how it was shot.

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