Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in “Side By Side”
From swirling photo chemical film grain to the “ones and zeros” of the digital age, “Side By Side,” the new documentary by filmmaker Chris Kenneally, is a fascinating and important new work. The subject is the transition from movies being shot, edited and exhibited on film, to being shot edited and exhibited digitally.
Normally I use the term “film” to refer to any movie about which I am writing. I do this knowing full well that many of these “films” have been shot digitally (meaning in a high definition video format) and have not used the photochemical process of film at all. I use the term “film” as a convenient way to refer to these projects (the present one included) although, as any viewer of “Side by Side” will learn, “film” is a term that, more and more, is becoming less and less accurate.
My definition of a good documentary is one that can take a subject that does not have a particular allure for me and make it interesting. Since I worked for many years in the film industry, as a post production supervisor, “Side By Side” was of immediate interest. However, for the viewer who is not particularly taken with the technical aspects of filmmaking, “Side By Side” will still prove a fascinating experience. What Kenneally has done so nicely here is to take very technical subject matter and present it in a manner that is accessible and engrossing. Kenneally achieves this through the use of animation, film clips, archival footage and a list of interviewees that includes a “who’s who” of the film industry: James Cameron, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, David Lynch, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Robert Rodgriguez, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Lars von Trier and many others. In addition, “Side By Side” has been edited in a very lively and skillful manner by Malcolm Hearn and Mike Long.
The center of “Side By Side,” the person who conducts the interviews, is actor Keanu Reeves. I will admit, when I think of interviewers for documentaries, Reeves is not exactly someone who comes to mind. How wrong I am. Reeves is a personable, humorous and erudite interviewer. He displays a wonderful ability to put subjects at ease and, as a result, elicits comments that are frank and candid.
What could have been a series of talking heads becomes a fast paced, highly informative and visually interesting discussion and debate which includes the technical, as well as emotional, issues involved in film versus digital. The point is made that since shooting digitally has democratized filmmaking (anyone can pick up and use a video camera) more movies will be made. Former Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore talks about, in the past, having received 225 festival submissions, a number which ballooned to 10 times that amount, due to digital production. Does this mean more movies are made that are good? Director of Photography Michael Chapman explains that while everybody thinks they can write and direct, up until recently these same people stayed out of the domain of the cinematograher. Now, with the accessibility of digital photography and the presence of monitors on movie sets, Chapman observes that everyone thinks they can also shoot. The point is made that, in the digital world, the alchemy of the cinematographer being the only one on the set who knows the final look of the film is no more.
While film still has strong proponents, such as director Nolan, director Soderbergh jokes that using the digital Red camera made him want to call up film and say he has met someone. Lucas offers the opinion that we have taken film, a 100-year-old technology, as far as we can and that it is now time to jump onto digital and work our way up. On the other hand the point is made that digital technology lacks stability and changes so rapidly that in the future there may not be machinery to play formats now in use, whereas with film all one has to do is shine a light through it. The points made for both sides are compelling and thought provoking.
“Side By Side” is vital for anyone who cares about the present, and particularly the future, of motion pictures. The interviews, visuals, editing and general energy of the film present subject matter that is thought provoking and engaging. “Side By Side” is playing at the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, and Film society of Lincoln Center – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street. It is also available on iTunes, Amazon.com and On Demand.
“Side By Side,” director Chris Kenneally, 2012,
Tribeca Film, 99 minutes