PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Tie Goes to the Computer: 'Side By Side'

Christopher Kenneally's documentary does its best to level the playing field between celluloid and digital cinema, but here even fairness can be a losing battle.

Side By Side

Director: Christopher Kenneally
Cast: James Cameron, David Fincher, George Lucas, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Keanu Reeves
Distributor: New Video
Studio: Company Films
Release date: 2013-02-05

Say you had to pick teams. First team is going to represent digital cinema, second team is going to represent celluloid filmmaking. They'll square off against each other in a 90-minute documentary, which will do its best to level the playing field, but ultimately whoever talks the best game is going to win the big prize: the audience. You can choose from a superstar lineup of household-name directors, some of the world's most-respected cinematographers, technicians and innovators on the forefront of the new digital cameras as well as digital coloring and editing technologies, plus Lena Dunham. Whom do you choose?

To be fair, not every subject of Christopher Kenneally's documentary so firmly occupies one of the two camps. Actress and rising director Greta Gerwig seems conflicted, as does David Lynch, who provides one of the movie's true geek pleasures: Narrator and host Keanu Reeves puts him on the spot during their interview in a red-cushioned screening room, asking "Are you done with film?" "Don't hold me to it, Keanu," comes the hesitant reply, "but I think I am."

The documentary consists of more than just sit-down chats with Reeves, of course, though he's an engaging presence who comes across much better sitting across from interviewees, referring to his sheafs of notes and often practically jumping out of his chair as he phrases each question, than he does narrating some of the drier bits, like an animated breakdown of how exactly celluloid photography works. In addition, Kenneally treats the audience to brief histories of how digital innovations have changed coloring, editing, visual effects, and the construction of new movie cameras. Editors and post-production technicians get their fair share of screentime in these scenes, and it's here that Side By Side is at its most informative and least bombastic; there's little sense that these crew members are trying to sway the audience toward one side of the debate or the other.

As enjoyable as it can be to hear quotable soundbites from highly respected figures within the industry, after a certain point it becomes difficult to know how seriously one should take the documentary. George Lucas, for example, may not have been the best choice to narrate a segment about how Lucasfilm and The Phantom Menace really made it possible for digital cinema to enter theaters all over America; in this way the approach which Side By Side takes is rather introductory.

On the other hand, hearing from so many of these filmmakers in their own words allows the viewer to form their own opinions about them, if one is willing to listen carefully. Celebrated auteurs like Martin Scorsese come off as high-minded idealists, whose talk of painting and classical music seems to belong in a different documentary. Among the better advocates for film include director Christopher Nolan and his regular collaborator Wally Pfister, who won an Oscar for his work as Director of Photography on Inception. Pfister and Nolan have a solid, respected track record as collaborators and sound critiques of digital cinema that include the cinematographer’s concerns about digital’s capacity to capture a range of blacks and the director’s points about the eventual obsolescence of all digital storage technologies. Intelligent as they are, however, neither man expresses a refusal to work with the new cameras; Pfister only intends to be “one of the last guys working on film”.

The best man in digital’s corner, somewhat predictably, is Steven Soderbergh, whose versatility across styles and genres of filmmaking helped him to legitimize digital cinema by shooting his magnum opus Che on the Red One. Soderbergh’s impatience with the limitations of film cameras, whose bulk would have hindered his location shooting on the four-hour biopic, is a quality he shares with David Fincher. Fincher sneers at the developers of early Red cameras for pandering to film users by modeling their initial prototype after a 35mm camera, accepting only of tireless innovation. A crucial perspective missing from this conversation is Michael Mann, whose Collateral took advantage of digital video’s particular strengths to shoot a nocturnal cityscape that looked unlike anything before it; several clips are shown even in Mann’s absence.

Kenneally’s focus on the American film industry can’t help but handicap the debate somewhat, as the trump card in digital’s deck might actually be Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film; a political statement that would have been impossible without the innovations of digital video. Instead, the most interesting facet of Side By Side’s industrial, rather than aesthetic, approach to the debate surfaces in the conversations with cinematographers and technicians who express concern with the managerial changes threatened by digital filmmaking. Specifically, the director of photography loses a great deal of on-set authority -- mocked by some as a egotistic mysticism in the documentary -- with the innovation of instant playback. Soderbergh, who hates viewing dailies well after shooting has completed, views playback as a good thing.

By speaking to so many recognizable directing personalities, though, Side By Side only hints at what cinema stands to lose by unilaterally adopting digital. If, as Scorsese suggests, celluloid will remain a “choice” for some time, the choice will likely be limited to those filmmakers with the celebrity and authority within the industry to merit an appearance in documentaries like this one. Most young people now entering the game may never get the chance to handle a 35mm camera. There may, furthermore, come a time when Renaissance men like Soderbergh and Nolan are replaced by a generation of filmmakers skilled at adapting to change, but less well-versed in the nuances of the technologies they use. The presence of the egocentric Robert Rodriguez is hardly encouraging: interviewed in his studio in a cowboy hat, framed against walls lined with posters of his films, he proudly claims he instantly knew digital cinema was “the future” after seeing a test... and ran home to begin adapting Sin City.

Even worse, the evenhanded, pros-and-cons tone of this documentary can be highly deceptive. Talking heads go back and forth, rebutting each other’s points about the benefits and drawbacks of shooting on either medium, resulting in a bit of a shrug: whatever works for you. All else equal, though, the studios will choose digital every time. It’s cheaper, it gives the producer more power over the cinematographer, and you can jack the prices up for 3-D screenings. As admirable as Kenneally’s commitment to fairness might be with different subject matter, this is one debate where a draw still results in both a winner and a loser.

Extras are lacking, with only about 15 minutes of additional snippets from interviews with directors, including an admittedly hilarious anecdote from Rodriguez about Tarantino's failure to manually achieve the same "beat-up" look on the Death Proof print that Planet Terror arrived at through computerized manipulation.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.