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by Peter Knegt
February 16, 2012 1:32 PM
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Our Interview with Keanu Reeves, the No-Kidding Digital Cinema Historian and Filmmaker

Keanu Reeves in "Side By Side"

Keanu Reeves: Digital cinema expert? Keanu Reeves, digital cinema historian?

Strange but true: That's the impression, among critics as well as audiences, after the premiere of "Side By Side," a new documentary that premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Along with director Chris Kenneally, Reeves interviews dozens and dozens of folks from the film industry -- from Lars von Trier and David Fincher to David Lynch and George Lucas -- asking about both the science behind the development of digital cinema technology as well as its effects. Thorough, accessible and entertaining (in large part thanks to Reeves' surprisingly effective interviewing skills), the film is a history lesson into a very new film history.

Indiewire sat down with both Reeves and Kenneally to discuss the film, which was recently picked up for US release via Tribeca Film.

So how exactly did this project come about?

Chris Kenneally: Keanu and I were having discussions between each other and with other people we were working with and really felt that we're at this tipping point where digital is really challenging film and film is starting to go away. Digital has really achieved a certain image quality for capture. There's also the way we view and exhibit films. It really touches all aspects of cinema. In general, we just had a lot of questions about it. So Keanu said, 'Hey, we should make a documentary about this.' And we decided to set forth and ask these questions that we had and talk to the people we respected and wanted to hear from.

Keanu Reeves: People who are involved.

CK: Yeah.

KR: One interview would lead us to another interview, which led us to another interview. We had the questions and the idea of chonicling this moment in time. But we didn't have a movie, per se. As we started interviewing people, it started to kind of define itself. I think Chris really realized through the editing and through the perspectives that we got to hear where to take the film in this very unbiased way.

How did you guys meet and how did that conversation even start?

KR: We were working on a film together called "Henry's Crime." Chris was working on the post-supervising of it. Basically, it was when they were doing the DI. They were matching the photochemical image and the digital image. We were at Technicolor New York and we had a colorist there and we were just talking about film. And I just said, 'I think this is gonna end film. What is going on here?' And Chris had a lot of experience with that question -- and interest as well.

CK: We were approaching the end of something and in the midst of the beginning of something else. There's definitely a moment of change. And as you can tell when you watch the movie, there's a lot of different opinions about that. We started with an outline of some ideas we thought would be interesting to cover and we allowed ourselves the freedom to let the story develop as we got more and more material.

KR: It started with the camera. You know, the digital camera. But then it started to turn into the digital audience. It turned into questions like 'how are we looking at images' and 'how are we looking at stories.' How are they being distributed? How are we watching them?

CK: We realized the image isn't just created with the camera. That's just part one. The editor gets an imprint. The colorist does something to it. Visual effects does something to it. It's not just what you capture that people are going to see. The image gets made in many ways. In production and then in post.

This documentary started with the camera. You know, the digital camera. But then it started to turn into the digital audience. - Keanu Reeves
The film really captures that, in large part thanks to such an impressive array of voices you speak with.  I mean, you got amazing people to participate in this -- Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, George Lucas, James Cameron, David Fincher, among others. How did you go about getting them all involved?

KR: We'd been doing it for about a year and a half. I think the first threshold or moment of that was when we went to Camera Image, a festival in Poland. Which is really cinematography oriented. So we went there and just started interviewing people.

CK: We had the opportunity to interview cinematographers who shot films from the 1950s up to someone who's shooting film today for the first time. Getting all those interviews in the can gave us a bunch of things to think about and a lot of material. I think it was a great start.

What was a specific interview that really surprised either of you and really brought you somewhere unexpected?

KR: Gosh, we had so many moments like that. Lana Wachowski talking about archival. Martin Scorsese talking about his belief that young people don't believe in the image anymore and tying that into CGI and the archival aspect of where are we going to go back to. The idea of the storyteller communicating in new ways and having that shift. Archivally, will it survive? And then also dealing with the DLSR and the way that people can just go make films.

That was one side of it, and then the other side of it was people like George Lucas. He is so the pioneer.

CK: The editing, visual effects, the camera, projection, distribution... All of these areas where he was one of the first guys to bring digital to parts of it. That's kind of what I found was interesting as we were researching the stories. There's the independent aspect of it. The Dogme and the InDigEnt and those types of films that are using consumer cameras.

And then digital also had this evolution that came out of post-production. And George Lucas did it because he wanted to make a big movie with special effects. Sort of the opposite of what you'd think is an indie film. So it's coming from both these angles. Once Lucas develops that camera that's HD instead of just an SD, then that becomes available for people too. And people can choose to use that in different ways. So the technology can help the artist work in a different way and the artist also helps define what the technology should be. They call for the tools that they want to be able to tell their story. I thought that was really exciting and interesting. 

KR: And there's people like Jim Cameron or the Wachowskis who are on the forefront of just creating the virtualness of it. Creating these images. That's the biggest extension, isn't it? That you're actually making images you don't film anymore.

CK: Making it in post rather than capturing an image in a real, live situation.

For you, Keanu, you're very much assuming the role of the journalist in this film. And you're really good. It seemed like you made the interviewees quite

We even got some laughs. I don't know if people would expect to go to a movie about digital cinema and laugh four or five times. -- Chris Kenneally
calm and got a lot out of them as a result. How did you go about that process? Had you done anything like this before?

KR: It was new. You know what, I'd done an interview show when I was like 16 or 17. One of my first jobs. I did interviews for this television show in Toronto. So I called back on that experience and what it was. What carried over was an interest and an enthusiasm for what people had to say. And for the subject.

CK: I think they felt your passion and curiosity. And you set up an environment where people were relaxed and gave their honest opinions. To me, I think it really works for the viewer. You get to be relaxed, too. It doesn't feel like homework. It's just Keanu and James Cameron having a conversation and you get to sit in on it.

To be honest, it was much more entertaining that I expected it to be very much for that reason. I went into thinking it might be -- with all due respect -- a bit more dry.

CK: Well, good. We wanted it to be entertaining. We even got some laughs in the screening. I don't know if people would expect to go to a movie about digital cinema and laugh four or five times.

What are your hopes for the film and what do you hope people get from it?

KR: We'd like to make the material we've collected available to people as a kind of record of a technology moment. The transition and all of the implications of that. I think we're in a really special situation of being in it when it was happening and recording it.

CK: For the film, we want as many people to see it and enjoy it and hopefully walk away from it being thoughtful and having learned something about how the process works and getting to see behind the curtain. I also think it's the type of movie that makes you want to go out and see more movies and appreciate them maybe in a different way.

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10 Comments

  • Roberto | February 18, 2012 7:47 PMReply

    A historical footnote:
    The first all-digital production of a live-action film was a short called Mail Bonding way back in 1995. See the article about it in American Cinematographer, April 1995, which first put the words "Digital Filmmaking" together.

    I look forward to seeing "Side by Side" and appreciate the filmmakers' chronicling this broad movement.

  • Paul Wagner | February 20, 2012 7:36 AM

    Another footnote....not positive, but I believe our Windhorse was the first all-digital live-action theatrical feature, filmed in fall of 1996. It was shot with a Sony 1000 and early version of the digi-beta, posted with the late, great Fritz Roland of Roland House in Washington and released by Shadow Distribution.

  • Ron Merk | February 17, 2012 1:35 PMReply

    One of the aspects of "digital vs. film" that few people talk about is that one should not preclude the other. Let me explain. The most serious problem with digitally-created movies and other projects is the ability to archive them for the future. Digital media, which until now relies on disc storage or hard drive storage of some kind, is not an archival medium. There's a great study done by the Science and Technology Council of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which details the high costs and problems of long-term storage of digital material. The simply solution is to archive the final cut of one's digital project on film. I've been working with a lab in Copenhagen, and they offer direct-to-print or negative at a reasonable cost. When you consider how much time and money goes into a digitally-created project (especially for independents who spend years and all the money they can beg, borrow or steal to get the films made) it makes sense to spend $10,000 or so to "save" the project for the future. We know that film is an archival medium (because of its history) and the internationally-accepted definition of archival is that the material must be accessible and have the possibility of reproducing the images in more of less the same form as when they were made, for 100 years. So far, no digital medium can boast that it will be around for 100 years, simply because digital does not have a long history of existence. And while digital images can be beautiful, they are not the same as images captured on film. Not better or worse, but like the difference between painting with oil or acrylics. Similar, but not the same. Both digital and film have their place in the world of filmmaking, and we should keep this in mind. Funny, we still call them "films" even when making something on a digital medium. The rumors of film's demise are simply that, rumors. We will have film for a long time. Film is history, and by that I don't mean, gone with the wind. I mean, film equals history. The real question is: Do we want to lose our history. This is not a battle between two kinds of media, it's simply a question of how they can co-exist and help each other.

  • ewr | February 17, 2012 8:32 AMReply

    i love him.
    not the pretend him the real man.

  • J Davis | February 16, 2012 8:25 PMReply

    Fantastic interview. I'm really excited about this film!

  • Gull I. Bill | February 16, 2012 5:31 PMReply

    Hold on, I thought Keanu died in a climbing accident

  • robert | February 16, 2012 5:18 PMReply

    how does a person get to see this. I am not involved in film making but am interested in all aspects of the work.

  • <3love | February 16, 2012 5:05 PMReply

    <3love

  • Laurie | February 16, 2012 4:35 PMReply

    So interested to read about this. I am organizing a panel at the IFFS conference about the influence of the digital conversion on the festival experience and this dovetails brilliantly with that discussion.

  • Zakizamani | February 16, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    Please let me know where I can get this film or how I can get it released here in Malaysia.