REVIEW: Side by Side

ABC may be getting a little glossy these days, but they’re are also programming some seriously cool, unexpected stuff. I’m often pleased and sometimes even shocked by what I stumble upon on iView. For instance, I discovered that Side by Side aired last week in the ‘Sunday Arts Up Late’ slot. This documentary was only playing American film festivals last year, and it’s already on ABC. Great effort, guys.

Side by Side is a documentary about the transition from celluloid to digital in filmmaking, and the debate that divides the professional community about whether we are ultimately gaining or losing by the advent of digital production. I had assumed the film would focus solely on the shooting with film versus digital cameras, but it actually covers every aspect of filmmaking that can or has been digitised, including visual effects, editing, colour timing, and archiving. Writer/director Chris Kenneally has gathered together the disparate issues that film fans have been reading about in all corners of the media for the last decade or two and made a definitive summary and analysis of the implications of digital, while never coming down firmly on either side.

The unexpected star power behind the film is Keanu Reeves, who co-produced, narrates, and conducted the interviews. Undoubtedly due to his connections, the production interviewed a murderer’s row of Hollywood directors, including James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, and the Wachowskis. But a whole host of cinematographers, editors, producers, executives, and other digital professionals are also interviewed: Walter Murch, Wally Pfister, Vilmos Zsigmond, Vittorio Storaro, Tom Rothman, Dennis Muren, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, and more.

A documentary about filming technologies might arguably only appeal to ardent film buffs, and many may feel the film is not for them. But Kenneally turns this into an absorbing tale of a seismic shift in entertainment that is affecting how we make cinema and who can do so. It also addresses how our viewing habits are being transformed by the digital revolution, and makes the good point that young people today didn’t grow up with the cinema being the sole, sacrosanct space for spectacle and wonder. For them, the cinema has always just been one option, and an increasingly expensive one, and that shift in perception may bleed into the art that they go on to generate.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is seeing Reeves engage and banter with movie professionals. As an insider himself, he elicits some wonderful candour from his subjects, but it’s always well-reasoned. Well, it sounds that way. One of the key questions about the film/digital debate is just how much celluloid loyalists are entrenched in tradition and whether they are too preoccupied with digital’s relative shortcomings to appreciate its strengths. Given the many advantages that we are told digital offers, such as watching footage immediately on set rather than the next day and having greater physical freedom than ever before, the argument that film merely looks better certainly seems reactionary. But many of the comparative benefits of each format are likely highly technical and not appropriate for a documentary like this, so what in the story are we missing? Why exactly does celluloid look a certain way, and are there intricate features of both its look and means of production that digital cannot yet emulate?

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Side by Side doesn’t come down firmly on digital’s side, because for most viewers it’s an armchair conclusion made without genuine expertise. It’s tempting to say that digital is now superior thanks to the features we as viewers and consumers can understand, but what about those features we can’t? A documentary like this can contextualise these technologies and explain to us why they matter, but it inevitably can’t enable us to fully grasp the implications that film professionals are grappling with in their day-to-day work.

That proviso aside, Side by Side still teaches us a great deal and sweeps us up in the excitement and vague terror of this revolution thanks to reports from the frontlines from director heavyweights down to effects technicians and colour timers. Whenever I next read about digital production, I’m going to be more informed and engaged, which is most welcome since this is an essential debate that every film buff needs to follow.

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