A common hysteria surrounds the inevitable switch from analog to digital, regardless of the industry: In journalism, it’s the evolution from print to online; in photography and cinema, it’s the switch from film to digital. In new documentary Side By Side, the filmmakers turn the lens on their own form, interviewing the world’s most respected directors, cinematographers, editors and other Hollywood professionals to spark a meaningful dialog about the coming of a new era.
Side By Side begins with a simple question: Is this the end of film?
The answer, it seems, isn’t so simple. Writer/director Christopher Kenneally‘s documentary, which made its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, takes us on a journey through the history of photochemical film, moving through time and tech, all while showing how the invention of the CCD chip in 1969 has altered the profession, and the art, of filmmaking.
Everyone has a different opinion, a different reason that they love making movies. George Lucas and James Cameron take the lead on the pro-digital side, while Christopher Nolan — one of digital filmmaking’s more outspoken critics — warns against the immediacy of moving away from film.
“The manipulations that digital media allows you to do are seductive, but ultimately a little bit hollow,” Nolan says in the film, comparing the allure of digital media to soft Chips Ahoy cookies. “Oh this is amazing, this is a soft cookie, but after a few months you realize it’s this horrible chemical making it this way.”
The interviews, conducted by Side By Side co-producer Keanu Reeves, are interspersed with clips from movies everyone knows. But this time we see these classic films differently — we discover what kind of camera they were shot with, how their memorable imagery was captured, and the implications of the filmmakers’ decisions. To see the industry’s technical transformation through the lens of the films we love keeps the average movie-loving audience member invested in the digital-versus-film debate.
The best part of this movie, however, is that everyone interviewed proves equally convincing — not to mention “whip-smart,” as Side By Side co-producer Justin Szlasa told Wired. The apparent wisdom behind the various points of view makes the clash of ideas even more compelling.
“No matter who we interviewed we were convinced,” said Szlasa. “After the Christopher Nolan interview, you step back and say, ‘This is how it has to be done,’ and then somebody else, like Robert Rodriguez or George Lucas who has a completely different take on it, you finish that interview and you are convinced.”
Reeves’ presence on-screen and familiarity with his interview subjects seems to encourage them to let down their guard. It wouldn’t be absurd to be skeptical of the actor’s interviewing skills, but it becomes clear that he is motivated by the same thing as the people he is speaking with: They are passionate about making movies.
Good stories come out of this relaxed setting, like an anecdote from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoodirector David Fincher about Robert Downey Jr. peeing in Mason jars around a movie set to protest the speed and efficiency that shooting in digital allows (and the resulting time actors spend on their feet).
With the way we make and watch movies changing, what’s at stake for you and me? Does it matter if the movies we watch are shot in film or done digitally? Side By Side director Kennealy made the point, as does the movie, that it’s the medium of film that’s at stake, and the question is, what does that mean for visual storytelling?
“The audience want to be entertained and they want good stories to be told to them,” Kennealy told Wired. “Is this going to change that? Are we going to lose something? I don’t care if something changes, but the more important questions are, ‘What’s the downside? What’s the upside?’ And I think that’s still kind of being figured out.”
It’s comforting to know, however, that stories and the way they have been told are constantly in flux, and have been forever. Fincher puts it perfectly in the movie: “I don’t believe for one second that digital imaging or tech will ever take away the humanity of storytelling, because storytelling in itself is a wholly human concern.”
The point is that film, as of today, is not dead. The fear is out there, though, that the option to choose film over digital will soon disappear. Side By Side closes in a more complex fashion than it begins. Instead of giving us answers, it poses more questions.
The documentary is successful, though. It shows us why we should care about movies by taking an in-depth look at how they are made, as told by some of the people who love movies most.
Oh, and Side By Side was shot in digital.