Likely to prove utterly irresistible to geeks of all descriptions, but especially fest programmers, upscale broadcasters and anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, “Side by Side” examines the impact of digital technology on film. Asking canny questions oncamera while also acting as one of pic’s producers, Keanu Reeves canvasses opinions from a truly impressive array of talents, including not just helmers like Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, but also some of the industry’s finest lensers and below-the-liners. Ironically, the tech package could look a little classier itself, but with material this intrinsically fascinating, who cares?
Opening montage of talking heads sounding off on the merits of old-fashioned photochemical film versus the newfangled means of production gets things off to a rousing start, with plenty of robust opinions, ranging from Steven Soderbergh rhapsodizing about the liberation of digital to one d.p. lamenting that switching to digital is like trading in oil paints for a box of crayons. A brief history of photochemical filmmaking whizzes by in a flurry of fair-use-sanctioned clips and somewhat primitive but helpfully explanatory animation, as several artists — and not just ones from older generations — exalt the glory of silver halide, grain and fingers sliced on Steenbecks.
Thereafter, writer-helmer Chris Kenneally (who made docu “Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating”) and Reeves methodically work through how digital technologies have been introduced in several fields of endeavor, not just lensing but also editing, color correction, visual effects and projection. Pic even explores the contentious issue of how digital film is to be archived, given the speed with which formats reach obsolescence; Fincher, one of the pic’s most engaging, articulate and foul-mouthed contributors, explains how he has master copies of early films that he can’t even watch anymore because he has nothing to screen them through.
Although laid out with such clarity that any layperson could catch the gist of what’s being discussed, “Side by Side” is not afraid to get nitty-gritty about more technical matters, such as why the invention of Bell Labs’ CCD chip was so game-changing, how stereoscopy works or why a Red camera or a Sony F950 is so much better than a standard-definition rig (answer: It’s all in the pixels). Yet plenty of airtime is also given to those who prefer the aesthetic of photochemical stock, which, as helpful clips illustrate, still has a much wider dynamic range than digital.
For other, less nerdy-minded auds, simply hearing great masters of the craft talk about their work with passion, specificity and acumen will be enough of a treat. Pic generously apportions roughly equal amounts of screen time to big names and lesser-known craftspeople such as ace editor Anne V. Coates, vfx legend Dennis Muren and top colorist Tim Stipan, who speak just as eloquently about the work as their more famous colleagues. Nevertheless, Joel Schumacher delivers possibly the pic’s funniest line when he sighs that the problem with instant playback via digital is that actors get obsessed not with their performances but with what their hair looks like.
Ultimately, the docu doesn’t argue that one format is necessarily better than the other, but it does make clear that we’re living through a key moment in film history. Interviewees differ in their estimates of how long photochemical filmmaking will last, but nearly everyone agrees the balance of power is shifting ineluctably toward digital, simply because it’s cheaper. Fittingly, venerable lenser Michael Ballhaus (“The Marriage of Maria Braun,” “GoodFellas,”) gets the last word: “If you do something with your heart… it doesn’t matter what you’re using.”