Keanu Reeves, having had enough of sitting on park benches, has turned his attentions to the film vs. digital debate, and he is much better in this role than he has been in any acting one in a long time. A few years ago, Side by Side would have been a very relevant and perhaps important project, but seeing as its 2012 and digital is here, and very much here to stay, it is not as much an entry to a hot debate, but a footnote to one that has long been over. Nevertheless, it is still a very interesting and well-made documentary that charts the rise of digital film production, and the issues and problems people have with its rise to prominence. Side by Side, presenting itself as a fairly idiotproof guide to the topic, will likely be very, very good for those who are mostly ignorant of these issues, but perhaps not hugely illuminating for those who already followed the industry side of film.
Keanu, as face and voice of the doc, talks to a multitude of big and small name figures in the film industry, from directors to cinematographers to colourists, and asks them to explain what digital means to the industry, what its strengths and weaknesses are in comparison to 35mm, and how it has risen to the level of prominence that it has. Keanu has the right mix of knowledge and curiosity in his approach, coming off as someone who is generally interested in and affected by the issues at hand, and this is important for the appeal of the documentary. He makes what could have been a dry, technical look into very specific issues a genuinely engaging and entertaining piece.
There is good content here, with lots of people with sometimes vested interests and sometimes genuine passion, talking for or against digital filmmaking. Past the obvious points of contention, the documentary raises a lot of interesting thinking points, and reveals issues that wouldn’t necessarily come to mind when thinking about digital’s pitfalls. Its subjects talk about things like the increasing consciousness on the part of actors produced by the immediacy of digital recording; of the importance of the removal of the ritual of ‘producing the dailies overnight’ (developing the film for assessment after shooting;) as well as the increasing level of teamwork involved in the visual side of cinema and the downgrading of the role of the cinematographer, and also the archival problems of digital. These are all fascinating points that might go unconsidered, and compliment the more obvious issues presented well. The film also does a great job of charting the history of the thing, of the move to computerised editing from the manual cut and slice method, the rise of CGI, and the progression of digital video cameras from George Lukas’ initial, unsuccessful commitment to the use of the ill-fated PanavisionHDW-F900 in Attack of the Clones in 2002 to the more widespread acceptance of the 4k RED One camera in 2006, as well as the coming of Avatar and 3D. These parts, whilst perhaps less interesting that the less narrative-led, more opinion-based offerings from industry figures, are well handled and informative.
The film does a good job of getting across the less formal and more emotional level of the commitment many have to 35mm. With cinematographers like Vittorio Storaro or Wally Pfister talking of the importance of grit and grain and texture, and how artificially recreating these things is not a definite solution in any way, a genuine sense of lament for a dying art is conveyed. People still strive for that film look, yet reproduce it through post production, which will, some in this documentary stress, never be the same. There is a degree of nostalgia, of comfort, and of the romantic side of it all in these people’s love for film, but there is also genuine concern over the decline of a certifiable craft, and the film gets this point across.
Its mostly objective, although at points its clear that Keanu is pushing the pro-film agenda somewhat in his questioning, most amusingly in his exasperation at Larry/Lana Wachowski’s horrifying suggestion that we’ll soon be watching films together in Second Life rather than the theatres. “How do the pheromones get exchanged virtually, the blood and the sweat. How do we laugh and cry together?” Keanu cries. “Someone who is twenty years old doesn’t care about the loss of cinema as a communal space” weighs in Danny Boyle. Some do. Then Lars von Trier goes on a rant about fucking off film school and doing it for ourselves, naturally. Coherence isn’t this film’s strength, the quality and diversity of its contributions is.
Side by Side is a fascinating documentary about an issue that despite having got a lot fo news coverage recently, may not be known to some. There could have been more about DSLR filmmaking, more about digital archiving and distribution, both of which are touched upon, but considering the scale of the issue, it condenses it all commendably.