Polarizing, Captivating; A Reminder Of Why We Love Movies
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
Unlike 2011, a year in which many documentaries failed to make nearly every critic's top ten list, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the documentary. This theory of mine is illustrated beautifully in the new film Side By Side (directed by Christopher Kenneally), a documentary investigating the increasing popularity of digital filmmaking and its impact on film itself. The interviewees include directors, cinematographers, editors and a variety of other post-production talents, each with their own opinion of why shooting on film or digital is a better method for making movies.
The man interviewing these legends of cinema is the last person I would expect in a film like this, Keanu Reeves. While this is a documentary, I have to say that this film is Reeves' best work. He displays a wealth of knowledge on filmmaking processes and is terrific as an interviewer. He doesn't just ask question after question, but instead has a conversation with these people, allowing them to talk and challenging them, when necessary, to provide examples proving their argument.
On the pro-film side of moviemaking is Christopher Nolan, the titan of brilliantly staged and choreographed action all within the camera, and the perfect person to make the case for shooting with film as opposed to digital. He argues that digital filmmaking is not true filmmaking, and uses the example of the chewy cookie - made to look, feel and taste like it was fresh out of the oven - being a fake, and lesser version of the original. In other words, the use of digital photography is hindering directors and cinematographers from knowing their craft, limiting their understanding of how movies are actually made.
On the other side of the argument are David Fincher and James Cameron, two men who, for very separate and equally valid reasons, believe digital photography is the only way to make movies. Fincher is a man known for shooting close to 100 takes for a given scene to ensure a perfect mise-en-scène, and as a result, enjoys the ability to immediately view scenes that were just shot to do so. With film, he points out, directors have to wait until the following day for it to be developed and then watch the dailies. He considers this method a backward way of filmmaking, as a director cannot see if mistakes were made until the scene or sequence has already wrapped. Conversely, James Cameron states that film died for him years ago because could not shoot in 3D and that digital effects were and still are the future of modern filmmaking. Examples from the technology he used in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are shown to illustrate how shooting in digital has made Mr. Cameron's dream of creating his own worlds come to life.
Every time someone talks about being in favor of film, several disadvantages to it are mentioned. Similarly, the disadvantages to digital are brought up when someone shows their preference for it. One could argue that Side By Side seems to argue in favor of digital but I found it to be unbiased one way or the other. It's made clear that each method has its benefits and its problems, but it also makes a clear case that at this time, one cannot seem to exist without the other. Even if a movie is shot digitally, film preservation (as opposed to hard drives) is still the preferred and more reliable method for storing movies. What is made abundantly clear is that film has reached the best of its potential and that digital is in its beginning, pointing to the necessity for filmmakers like Mr. Nolan to embrace the new and remember the old fondly.
I have to admit that prior to seeing Side By Side, I was pro-film entirely. While directors like Mr. Fincher continue to impress me with digital cinematography, I still found something nostalgic and original in using film. Now, however, it's become clear that there's not necessarily one method that should be used in all movies, but instead, depending on the film and what a particular director is going for, one method may work better to tell that story than the other.
This is a debate that proves to be equally (if not more) polarizing than which political party one identifies with. Side By Side isn't out to tell us that we have to believe in one method or the other, it simply shows us both arguments (as the title implies) and allows us to choose for ourselves. It is an important film for cinephiles like myself, as well as anyone in the arts who wants to learn more about the craft of composing images. As The New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott said in his review, "It is worth a year of film school and at least 1,000 hours of DVD bonus commentary."
Side By Side is very personal for me. I grew up watching movies that my parents gave me, learning what I liked and what I didn't. I went to college to study film and to learn the skill with which all of my favorite movies were made. Hearing how these directors and cinematographers - many of whom have worked on movies that I love - talk about their craft so passionately reminds me why I love going to the movies in the first place. It emphasizes the importance of movies as cultural artifacts, and proves that no matter how many movies someone has seen or made, there's always something new to learn.