With Chicago audiences still basking in the afterglow of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” in all its 70mm splendor, it’s a fortuitous time to release a documentary about the ongoing battle in the movie industry between film and digital.
Anderson isn’t interviewed in the movie — “Side By Side” by director Chris Kenneally and producer/star Keanu Reeves — but just about every other director you’d want to hear from on the subject is, including James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, The Wachowskis, Lars von Trier and many more, along with a fleet of cinematographers, colorists, editors, and designers of digital cameras. The only guys I hoped to see and didn’t: Steven Spielberg, a longtime film purist who recently experimented with digital in “The Adventures of Tintin” and Peter Jackson, whose upcoming adaptation of “The Hobbit” will be the first movie shot at 48 frames per second, twice the speed that has served as the industry standard for almost a century.
Casual moviegoers won’t care about any of this stuff — as one of the many talking heads in the film notes, audiences don’t particularly care how their stories are delivered so long as they’re good — but hardcore cinephiles who want to educate themselves on the finer points of the seemingly endless film versus digital debate will find “Side By Side” just about indispensable. It explains the differences in the mediums simply enough for a layman (or an idiot like me) to understand, but it also gets into more complicated issues like archival preservation and dynamic range. Its approach is thorough, rational, and even-handed, all traits that are hard to come by in a conversation typically dominated by powerful business interests and decades of ingrained passion.
While Reeves’ presence might spark some chuckles — “‘Ted’ Theodore Logan made a sober investigation into the viability of various cinematic formats? And he’s the guy doing the interviews?!?” — he’s a surprisingly effective host. He’s kind of playing the same role he played in “The Matrix”: the man caught between the analog and digital worlds, asking lots of questions about this war that is enormously important and mighty confusing. In every conversation, he does a nice job playing devil’s advocate, too (yep, I went there). With a digital acolyte like Danny Boyle, he’ll talk about the ways film gives actors the opportunity to refocus whenever the camera’s magazine empties after ten minutes of exposure. With an old school film purist like Nolan, he champions digital’s flexibility and ease of use.
What “Side By Side” ultimately impressed upon me was the idea that film and digital are both tools, and surprisingly malleable ones. Because there’s only so much you can do to trick a film camera, and because today’s digital artists can basically alter their images in post-production in limitless ways, I tend to believe that film’s better at capturing reality while digital’s better at capturing imagination. But as “Side By Side” reminded me, the opposite can be equally true. The Dogma 95 movement and the American independents of the early 2000s that followed in its wake used cheap digital technology as a shorthand for immediacy and honesty. Meanwhile the strange vagaries of film’s photochemical process open all sorts of opportunities for transporting the viewer into lands of vibrant colors or inky blacks.
If for no other reasons than practical ones, we are rapidly approaching the end of film on film: digital projection is easier, cheaper, and, with the latest advances in technology, more reliable than light through celluloid. When you factor in how much of post-production is done digitally, shipping, assembling, projecting, and handling film doesn’t seem to make much business sense. But “Side By Side” also stresses that there is more to cinema than practicality. We go to the movies for romance, and there’s something very romantic about film: its mystery, its tactility, its history, not to mention its stability. I can’t play several of the student films I shot in college because they’re housed on antiquated video formats; if I’d shot them on film, I could play them on any projector anywhere in the world. The future may be digital, but the past will always belong to film.
“Side By Side” is now playing in Los Angeles; it premieres on VOD on August 22nd. For a full list of playdates, go to TribecaFilm.com.