I never expected Keanu Reeves to be my guide to the history of digital filmmaking, but that’s the role he plays as producer and host of the vital documentary Side by Side, written and directed by Chris Kenneally. It opens theatrically today in Los Angeles, with New York and other cities to follow. It will also be available On Demand next week.
Reeves shares the screen with such formidable filmmakers as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Danny Boyle, to name just a few marquee names, along with product developers and executives, film archivists, and many of the world’s leading cinematographers.
I anticipated a heated debate about the merits of 35mm vs. digital capture and projection, and that’s certainly one component of the film (with Christopher Nolan and his d.p. Wally Pfister as 35mm purists), but Side by Side has more lasting importance as a document of recent history in the movie industry. It chronicles the first attempts to create high-performance video and then each stage on the road to developing digital cameras that leading filmmakers would embrace.
Side by Side is not a dry polemic, nor is it an advocacy statement; that’s what I admire most about it. Kenneally and Reeves allow creative people and techies to make their points in an even-handed way, and even present archivists like Ed Stratman of the George Eastman House, who discusses the challenges and dangers of archival storage as opposed to saving 35mm prints and negatives.
If you’ve followed this topic, from near or far, I don’t think you’ll come away with any revelations, but you will have surveyed the recent and current filmmaking landscape in a clear-eyed manner, and that’s the best springboard for further debate and discussion. Side by Side is a significant piece of work; I suspect its historical value, as a snapshot of our time, will increase with each passing year.