Imagine the arguments that raged in Hollywood when the first 3-strip Technicolor process was approved. Perhaps almost as heated as that among critics and cineastes. And let's not even mention when sound was first introduced in the movies. The century plus history of celluloid in all its dirty, scratchy, rapidly degrading glory has been dynamic in some ways, while strangely static in others. When a potentially revolutionary shift looms every few decades or so, those who fell in love with cinema will hold fast to the specific medium with which they became familiar. If a black and white film changed your life at an impressionable age (and continued to define itself as cinema), color must've seemed like a cheap, vulgar intrusion. If your appreciation of comedy was indoctrinated by the likes of Buster Keaton, you may well cover your ears.
The new documentary SIDE BY SIDE follows the sometimes heated debate among filmmakers over photochemical film vs. digital, a battle that ignited further when George Lucas filmed ATTACK OF THE CLONES 100% digitally around 10 years ago. He announced he would never use film again. James Cameron said the same thing after completing AVATAR. I joined some buddies for a road trip to a theater in Orlando showing CLONES, which boasted digital projection, one of maybe a 100 in the U.S. The host excitedly told us we would "experience colors we've never seen before." I remember being mildly impressed, but hardly feeling like a witness to something historic.
Besides the unapologetic Lucas, who states that "we are at the top of our game with film, so we should jump over to the bottom of digital and work our way up", SIDE BY SIDE features many directors who likewise sing the praises: Steven Soderbergh ("I felt like calling film and saying, 'Sorry, I met someone.'"), David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez, Lars von Trier, Danny Boyle. They cite the advantages of being able to watch dailies or rushes (an assembledge of what was shot that day) in real time, rather than waiting a full 24 hours for the lab to develop the film. Also, being able to talk to and guide the actor in real time. The far less clunky and time consuming methods for editing. They also like the convenience of not having to reload magazines of film, which contain a maximum of around 10 minutes. This means fewer on set "cuts".
Keanu Reeves, who also co-produced, narrates director Christopher Kenneally's SIDE BY SIDE with some fairly detailed technical information and interviews the aforementioned and several other directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, special effects artists, and actors who have strong opinions on the matter.
Reeves himself amusingly mentions how, when Richard Linklater (also interviewed) directed him in A SCANNER DARKLY, he grew tired as there weren't as many breaks as there would be during a film shoot (none of that pesky magazine roll-out). "Can we stop now?!" Reeves recalls begging the director. The actor also interviews his MATRIX mavens, The Wachowski Brothers, er, brother/sister.
Christopher Nolan, staunchly opposed to digital, cites that when actors get those breaks, they take the process more seriously. "They're more on their 'A game,'", states another. Are ready to work. Nolan's frequent Director of Photography, Wally Pfister is outspoken and crankily lights up in his disdain for digital (and even moreso for 3-D, unlike Cameron): "I use oil paint, why would I want to use crayons?"
It surprised me that the men behind THE DARK KNIGHT films felt this way. But even more surprising was how two maestros of cinema, sound editor Walter Murch and director Martin Scorsese have embraced the new method. David Lynch (who pronounces Keanu's name in a very Lynchian manner) also loves digital, certainly evidenced by the many short subjects he's created in recent years. Like Lynch, Fincher explains that many of the shots in his films would not have been possible with the "old, big cameras." Witness some of the fluid work in his PANIC ROOM and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Soderbergh agrees, an early adopter of the RED MX digital camera, which utilizes ambient light and has incredible 4K resolution. I recently watched his CONTAGION, shot with the RED, and there is no denying that it looks crisp and even stunning.
Most of the discussion in SIDE BY SIDE is technical (including a tutorial on color timing), but the less tangible, more artistic attributes of the texture of film are likewise addressed, curiously more by the up-and-coming, lesser known filmmakers. I agree with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Pfister and others who wonder how digital will affect the very essence of cinema, what makes a film different from a perfectly clean TV show. CONTAGION worked for me because it is shot like a docudrama, but what about something broader in scope? Michael Mann (not featured in this doc) and Fincher have stifled my objections with their beautiful pallattes, but more often, I'm agreeing with the skeptics like Barry Levinson, who laments that he may not know how to make films anymore, or Joel Schumacher, who just looks tired.
SIDE BY SIDE very even handedly presents the pros and cons, never espousing partisanship, though it is quite telling that late in the film, an analysis of the unreliability of the storage of digital material is compared to well preserved celluloid cannisters in the salt mines. Either way, someone argues, it will all disappear in a few hundred years, be it from photochemical breakdown or a computer virus, causing that dreaded "click click" when your drive just bit the big one.