Doing an impressive job of tracing the evolution of filmmaking technology (not just the cameras but the editing, post-production, distribution, exhibition, even the archiving aspects of it) from 1895 to the present day, “Side by Side” is an old school talking-head documentary on the subject of digital filmmaking vs. photochemical filmmaking. It sounds pretty dull as a logline, but stacked with gossipy, informal anecdotes and opinions from many of the most respected directors, cinematographers, editors, execs, VFX artists and digital wizards in the industry, it proves instead to be highly entertaining and informative, and by its close has presented a thoroughly diverting overview of the debate. Then again, we are massive geeks about this sort of thing.
The film opens with a montage of clips of iconic films from the past century of cinema, with such beautiful, evocative imagery that if not by the “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” moment, then certainly by the time Mookie looks over his shoulder in close-up, you may find yourself resolving to settle firmly on the side of celluloid and Not Be Moved. But then the prologue proper kicks off, with a zippily edited sequence of the people we’ll return to in greater depth later basically giving their topline feelings on the subject. What results is a fantastic bird’s eye view of a wide range of opinions, and because at this stage the people aren’t captioned, quite some nerdy pleasure is to be gained from spotting who you recognize (Ooh Soderbergh! Christopher Nolan! Is that Lana Wachowski?) and trying to instantaneously file them into pro- or anti-digital camps.
The momentum thus established, the film launches into the fray properly, not afraid to roll up its sleeves and do the dirty work of explaining neatly what could be jargon-heavy and boring to a non-industry audience. There’s even a “here comes the science” bit, which condenses the photo-chemical process of traditional film into a short graphic sequence. But what we’re really here for is the people, and the filmmakers’ access is impressive, doubtless a factor of having Keanu Reeves as your producer and on-camera interviewer. Of the various directors, people like Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, George Lucas, Joel Schumacher, Lena Dunham, Robert Rodriguez, Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Richard Linklater and Danny Boyle, it really feels like only polar-opposite ‘Batman’ helmers Nolan and Schumacher are holdouts against the digital tide, with Schumacher amusingly saying he dislikes having immediate playback monitors on set because the actors obsess and “everybody is looking at their hair.”
But a little further down the filmmaking food chain (and this film is nothing if not balanced in its respect for both the famous, name-above-the-title directors, and the not-so-famous craftspeople who participate), the picture is more varied; not all cinematographers are as embracing of the new technology, seeing it in some cases as an erosion of their importance to the process, while some editors bemoan the lack of discipline that push-button editing can engender. However the general trend still looks toward a digital future, where editors no longer bleed onto the celluloid; where actors no longer need to break character every few minutes while a reel is changed (this can also be a bad thing, as Reeves, in a rare instance of inserting himself into the story, notes about filming digitally with Linklater – “I was like, please can we stop?”); where theaters no longer invest projectionists with auteurist powers, as Scorsese impishly suggests traditional film projection may do.
Reeves can sound a little weak and stilted in voiceover, but we soon forgive him for it as his genuine interest in the subject reveals itself, as does his sensitivity as an interviewer, neither overly deferential nor overly chummy (even when David Lynch seems to enjoying playing with his name like it’s a toy, peppering his comments with “well you see, Keanu…” and “Keanu, the thing is…”). He asks the right questions and director Chris Keneally does an excellent job of arranging the segments thematically, and roughly chronologically to the process of making a film: from camera to processing to editing to post to delivery to exhibition to storage, the documentary makes a convincing case that the digital revolution has permeated every aspect of the filmmaking business, and where it has not yet trumped film, it soon will. A lot of this is told through the films that mark the stages on the journey, from “Chuck and Buck” to “Festen” to “Attack of the Clones” to “Collateral” to “Avatar” (3D too, gets a brief but informative Cameron-heavy look-in).
Really, the point may be somewhat moot. Regular Nolan DP Wally Pfister maintains that while he and Nolan will be the last guys shooting on film, in a few years time they’ll be shooting digitally too, implying that a few years’ life is really all that film has left to it. Perhaps, then it is best to take the tack of the digital camera pioneer who states that his intention is to get digital to a stage where film can “retire and be happy about what came after it.” George Lucas agrees with him, but honestly we’re so bloody sick of Lucas that we kind of want to oppose him out of contrariness.
The gloomiest factoid the film brings to light for celluloid purists is simply this: all the major manufacturers have ceased production and development of traditional feature film cameras. The existing ones will still be usable for maybe a decade, but with no new ones being made, that really does seem to be the final word. And yet the movie itself is anything but pessimistic, leaving us with plenty of hope for a future where the motion picture will continue to evolve as a storytelling vehicle, and if we have to wade through more crap to get to the gems, the gems will still be there for the finding. For the film-literate, film-passionate viewer, “Side by Side” is simply a delightful experience, because to hear people we admire talk knowledgeably about the medium we care about has the effect of putting us back in touch with our own passion for it, whatever the format. [A-]