Judge Erich Asperschlager still shoots everything on SLP VHS.
"Can film survive our digital future?"
Film or digital? It's a question most moviegoers aren't as interested in as "3D or 2D?" or "would you like to make that soda a large?" For filmmakers and people who read reviews like this, however, the way movies are made and shown is important—and everyone has a different opinion. Film folks who decry the demise of celluloid do so for many reasons, from the nebulous aesthetic qualities of film grain to concerns about the availability of older movies in a digital age. The digital crowd, meanwhile, praise technology that gives directors greater freedom to shoot whatever, wherever, with lower cost and immediate results. At times, it feels like the question is moot. Theaters continue to abandon 35mm projectors in favor of all-digital setups, and the big camera companies have discontinued production of new film cameras. When the existing film infrastructure falls apart it may well be the end of the medium, whether big-time directors and film critics want it or not.
That doesn't mean the debate is over.
Facts of the Case
The documentary Side by Side, directed by Chris Kenneally, provides a forum for Hollywood's biggest directors, cinematographers, editors, and actors to talk about the way digital filmmaking has changed the industry. Most of the film features Keanu Reeves, who narrates and co-produced the film, talking with movie luminaries like Martin Scorcese, George Lucas, James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, Steven Soderburgh, Lana and Andy Wachowski, Danny Boyle, Wally Pfister, and Walter Murch about their opinions and experience with both media. The interview segments are broken up by movie clips and History Channel-style animated breakdowns of different types of camera technology. The structure is simple, and the presentation is dry, but what Side by Side lacks in flash it makes up for with insanely smart people holding forth on a fascinating topic.
Traditional filmmaking is an involved process. Cartridges containing enough film to shoot for about ten minutes are loaded into cameras, used up, replaced, and sent off for overnight developing. The next morning, the director and his team sit down to watch those "dailies," finally able to watch the fruits of the previous day's labor. It's up to the cinematographer to make sure the exposure and lighting are correct, because there's no way to know for sure until the next day. Shooting on film is slow, it's expensive, and it requires a great deal of faith in the talents of the people involved not to waste everyone's time and money. So why are so many directors up in arms about the end of the film age?
Side by Side gives traditionalists like Chris Nolan and Wally Pfister a chance to defend the medium. Part of their reasoning has to do with the rhythm of shooting on film, the virtue of patience in getting the best final product, and the unique visual quality of film. The most compelling arguments, however, come as warnings against fully embracing digital too quickly. As anyone who owns a box of ZIP disks or has used AOL to connect to a GeoCities website can attest, technology moves quickly. Archiving large amounts of data isn't as simple as putting hard drives in a safe. Drives can become corrupted and the changing landscape of software and file formats means that just because you can access a digital file today doesn't mean you'll be able to do it in twenty years.
Side by Side doesn't quite come down on one side or the other in the debate, although if it there is a theme, it's the inevitable march into the digital age. It makes a lot of sense for young filmmakers to embrace all that cameras like the Canon 5D and Red Epic have to offer. Early digital cameras were the laughingstock of Hollywood. As image quality has improved, from crude home video to rich hi-def, it has become harder for the average moviegoer to tell the difference between film and digital productions.
The general flow of the film seems to fall in line with the prevailing push into digital, but it's not easy to pin down Reeves and Kenneally's personal points of view. Side by Side is a head-spinning documentary, especially if you go in without a clear favorite in the battle between film and digital. Opinions are presented in rapid succession, ping-ponging between entirely opposite points of view. The strength of the film is that it gives industry heavies free reign to speak their piece on the subject. At times, though, that unfocused energy is simply that.
Side by Side arrives on Blu-ray with a hit-or-miss 1.78:1 1080p transfer. The interview footage shot for the documentary all looks crisp and clean. There's not much flair, but as an example of current technology, it's a fine argument in favor of digital. The problem is in the movie footage included to illustrate the film's points. Blu-ray isn't only great for digital transfers. In the right hands, using the right tools, the format can breathe new life into classic movies as well—taking advantage of film stock's high resolution and Blu-ray's ability to replicate grain to bring home the feeling of watching a projected film. I know there are stunning HD transfers for many of the movies that Side by Side samples. Why didn't they use them here? I was hoping that Blu-ray would be the definitive format for this documentary, with the visual quality to compare film and digital in the purest way. That is, unfortunately, not the case. The movie doesn't look bad on Blu-ray, but it should be better. Audio is presented as both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The surround mix opens things up a bit, but it doesn't add much.
Side by Side on Blu-ray comes with two bonus features, adding up to about 17 extra minutes of interviews:
• Deleted scenes (2:36): I'm not sure why this wasn't just folded into the longer collection of bonus interviews—unless it was so it could be branded by Tribeca Film Festival sponsor American Express—but this is where you can hear Robert Rodriguez talk about shooting digital for Grindhouse, and Walter Murch mourning the loss of "darkness" in digital projection.
• Additional interviews (13:57): Rapid-fire tidbits from Scorcese, Soderburgh, the Wachowskis, Lynch, Rodriguez, Fincher, Cameron, Greta Gerwig, Lucas, Lena Dunham, and Von Trier.
Side by Side is fascinating, even if it sometimes feels like a made-for-cable documentary. It goes into great detail about the nuts and bolts of film production, down to the tech specs of certain cameras. Viewers who have only a passing interest in the movie industry might get bored, but I can't imagine anyone who loves film being anything but enthralled. Side by Side more than makes up for the dry stuff with a parade of famous filmmakers who have a lot to say about the transition from film to digital. There are reasonable arguments in favor of both sides. Don't be surprised if you go in thinking one way and leave thinking another, or simply leave confused by the onslaught of opposing viewpoints. Given the way things have changed in favor of digital movie making, it's unclear whether arguing the merits of film is anything but an academic exercise. I hope that's not the case. There is room for both as long as there are artists who have a preference, and are willing to fight for it.
Both sides have a point. Not guilty!
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