‘Side by Side’: The future of film

August 30, 2012

“Side by Side” should be required viewing in any film school worth its salt and, undoubtedly, will be.

But as up-to-the-minute as it is, by next year, it undoubtedly will be dated. And, before long, it will be a curiosity.

Why? Because director Christopher Kenneally goes directly at the question of whether emulsion film – the standard for the first 100 years of motion-picture making – is about to be replaced by digital technology.

In other words: Is film dead? Is it about to become obsolete?

“Side by Side” is a fascinating examination of that question and much more. Using Keanu Reeves (one of the film’s producers) as the interviewer (which, no doubt, got access to people who otherwise might not have participated in this documentary), Kenneally offers up a brief, easily comprehensible history and overview of how film works, the development of digital imaging and arguments for both sides of the equation.

After a recent screening, a friend noted that the film would probably only interest film-school students and film geeks in general. But I have to demur: Anyone who is interested in the creative process, anyone who has even a passing interest in movies and their history – and their future – and anyone with even a modicum of curiosity about the way movies are made – which would seem to be a lot of people – can’t help but get sucked in by this intriguing behind-the-scenes look.

Kenneally talks to a wide variety of people – directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, actors – who have worked in both formats (or who have resisted the transition to digital). The list ranges from such venerable cinematographers as Vilmos Szigmond, Vittorio Storaro and Donald McAlpine to directors like George Lucas, James Cameron, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle.

He gets a blow-by-blow from Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” (the first Dogma digital film) – who discovered a whole new visual language in the process. Mantle goes on to talk about applying that knowledge to even newer technology when he won an Oscar for shooting “Slumdog Millionaire,” something that seemed improbable in the days when digital was considered inferior, barely a step removed from home video.

Soderbergh talks about shooting the latest high-definition digital for the first time: “I felt like I needed to call up film and say, ‘I’ve met someone else’,” he says. Fincher and others talk about the way digital has taken the guesswork out of filmmaking and removed the element of sickening suspense that came with the long overnight wait to see dailies on film, not knowing whether they’d actually gotten anything in the previous day’s shoot.

By contrast, Christopher Nolan and a handful of cinematographers such as Wally Pfister vow to stick with film for as long as possible, claiming they’ll cling to the classic approach until they’re the last ones using it.

The history and explanations of the mechanics of both film and digital imaging are as intriguing as the debate. I’m not saying I can explain how a pixel works, but I feel as though I have a better idea now than I did before.

“Side by Side” is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand where filmmaking has come from and where it’s going. With dozens of clips and interviews, it manages to be informative, entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.

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