Tie Goes to the Computer: ‘Side By Side’

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.

RATING 5 / 10