The revolution will not be televised, it will be projected. That’s the message of Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side By Side, which shows in great detail the effect digital filmmaking has had on the industry, beginning life as a budget-friendly side-show, before becoming the medium of choice for almost all the big players in the film business.
Briefly sketching the early history of filmmaking, Side By Side goes on to chart the rapid rise of digital cinematography since the release of the first feature-length movies shot on digital in 1997.
Hosted by actor Keanu Reeves, in conversation with a massive who’s who of contemporary filmmakers, Side By Side certainly covers most of the bases, but never quite qualifies its comparisons.
Amongst the interviewees are digital devotees such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Danny Boyle, while new converts include David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, who until only a few short years ago seemed steadfast in his support for traditional film stock. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, both major digital converts (although Spielberg shot 2011’s War Horse on film), are noteworthy in their absence from the doc.
Only Christopher Nolan is steadfastly opposed to shooting on digital, with even his cinematographer Wally Pfister unwilling to rule it out entirely in future. Elsewhere actor John Malkovich praises how digital allows you to continue shooting, and acting, without breaks for changing the magazine every 10 minutes, allowing continuous performance like in theatre. Actress Greta Gerwig counteracts that by saying how exhausting the non-stop-ness of digital filmmaking is, which David Fincher backs up with an unfortunate anecdote about Robert Downey Jr. on the set of Zodiac.
Aside from film directors and actors, a large number of cinematographers are interviewed, including Pfister (The Dark Knight, Inception), Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Anthony Dod Mantle (Festen, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), offering some fascinating insights. Side By Side also investigates the effect of the digital era on other aspects of the production process, from visual effects to editing and colour grading, providing an outlet for some less-sung heroes of the cinema to have their say. Recent developments such as Higher Frame Rate technology, 3D and 4K+ resolution are briefly touched upon.
While the interviews are Anglophone-centric, with only a brief trip to Denmark to interview the Dogme 95 pioneers of digital filmmaking, Kenneally and Reeves have gone out of their way to track down a far more representative selection of female filmmakers (including cinematography Ellen Kuras and director Lena Dunham) than similar documentaries have done in the past. The documentary should be lauded for these efforts.
The use of footage from representative films is mostly exceptional, although there are some poor choices along the way. When Steven Soderbergh mentions the ‘revolution’ in filmmaking, Side By Side shows us a clip from Che, his digitally shot biopic set in revolutionary Latin America. It’s one of the few times this film patronises.
Where Side By Side fails is in giving film a fair hearing, other than defending it with a ‘it worked for 100 years, so why change now?’ No one discusses the crispness of photochemical film imagery with any of the passion of your average muso down the local record shop defending vinyl over CDs. Keanu can’t quite get anyone to explain to him why film would be preferable to HD. When Soderbergh attacks the dirt that appears on traditionally projected film, no defence of it is offered up. Side By Side works brilliantly as a history of the digital revolution, but in terms of laying film and digital side-by-side, it is found wanting in regards the former.
The film leaves no doubt in the end that the death knell has been rung for film, and digital cinema is most definitely ruling the roost now, but does not manage to answer whether or not this is a good thing. To quote Orson Welles: ‘It’s pretty, but is it art?’
Side By Side is released on 15th February 2013