Side by Side: New Documentary Examines Cinema’s Digital Revolution

C+ Documentary

  • Written and Directed by Christopher Kenneally

How do today’s leading filmmakers feel about the seemingly inevitable transition from a photochemical, film-based cinema to a digital one?

Short answer: Many have enthusiastically embraced digital cinema, and the rest accept that physical film’s days are numbered. But film still has some clear advantages.

For most of this documentary’s runtime, narrator/producer Keanu Reeves interviews high-profile directors and cinematographers, along with a few editors, timers, and technicians, as they discuss the current revolution. The film gives room to people on both sides of controversy (in other words, George Lucas and Christopher Nolan), but the picture seems weighted in favor of going digital. I don’t know if this reflects industry feelings or Kenneally’s and Reeves’ own biases.

Others among the interviewees are Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, Richard Linklater, and Anne V. Coates, who has been editing films since 1952.

This picture is overwhelmingly about acquisition–what technology one should use toside-by-side-image shoot a motion picture. It’s at its best when it covers the history of digital cameras. Pretty much everyone interviewed agreed that Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, the first big movie shot digitally, looked horrible. Later cameras were better, but they still had problems, mostly with dynamic range (how well a frame can contain both very bright and very dark objects). The latest cameras appear very close to film quality.

On the other hand, digital has significant advantages. The cameras are much smaller and lighter. You can watch the results immediately. Leaving the camera running doesn’t cost a thing, so you don’t have to cut between takes.

The film covers other aspects of the digital transition only in passing. You get a few minutes about editing and a few more about special effects–two areas where digital won long ago. (Coates blames today’s over-frenetic editing on digital technology. I always thought it came from producers scared of boring ADD-afflicted audiences.) It says almost nothing about the most controversial part of the transition–the switch in theaters. Everything the film says about digital projection is positive–a reasonable response from filmmakers wanting their creations accurately displayed to the public. But this ignores the vast expense that theaters must make to go digital, and how this may put many independent movie houses out of business.

Side by Side isn’t scheduled for a regular Bay Area release. However, it will be shown at the Palo Alto Int’l Film Fest on September 29, and will start a three-day run at the Yerba Buena Arts Center on October 18. However, it’s available on a pay-per-view basis from iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (which is how I saw it).

Note: I altered this post soon after it went live. Brian Darr informed me of the Palo Alto screening.

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