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Entries in Side By Side [2012] (1)

Monday
Sep102012

Side By Side (2012)

The Revolution Will Not Be Projected

It's like we both are falling in love again. It'll be just like starting over.

--John Lennon

I don't know anything about filmmaking. Of the many lessons I learned while watching Christopher Kenneally's wonderful documentary Side By Side, this is the hardest to admit--to myself and to you. Ostensibly a movie about the future of moviemaking, host and narrator Keanu Reeves interviews legendary directors, cinematographers, editors, and stuido heads to get their take on how digital technology is either ruining or advancing the way we consume entertainment. But it's also an exciting crash course in the art of capturing and displaying fantasies--a real eye-opener for people (like me) who mistakenly think the juciest part of a movie happens on-screen.

For some, the words "documentary", "technology", and "Keanu Reeves" will instantly relegate Side By Side to their mental "Skip" bin. The idea of Neo talking to James Cameron about whether the new RED digital camera is superior to Arri's ALEXA model could be hilarious or dry beyond belief. Kenneally seems to know this and, following an opening thesis montage, brings the discussion all the way back to how traditional film and film cameras work. There's just the right amount of hand-holding, I think, to bring newcomers into the discussion, while not making experts wait too long for the scrappy "Digital vs. Film" debates.

Maybe I should rewind, too. If you've frequented the multiplex in the last thirteen years, you may have noticed the rise of digitally projected movies. It used to be that movie theatres received large reels of film in cannisters that would be mounted onto a projector and beamed into the auditorium--with several changes throughout the runtime that were (hopefully) invisible to the audience. After the rousing success of George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which was filmed and projected digitally in a whopping two US theatres, there was a great push to upgrade cineplexes nationwide with this new technology. Instead of cumbersome, expensive-to-ship reels that needed constant babysitting, digital movies came in compact, set-and-forget computer drives.

Side By Side asserts that this aspect of the digital revolution is actually one of the last steps in a process that began decades ago. Consumer-model cameras and feature-film cameras underwent similar evolutions, as making the devices lighter and more versatile became a necessity. Traditional film cameras are bulky and require new film magazines to be inserted roughly every ten minutes. Digital cameras can shoot for hours without a break.

Some directors and actors argue that using film gives a production frequent, necessary pauses to consider how a scene is working or not working. Cinematographers are also fond of this method because it gives them a modicum of control over the director: after a day's shooting, the film is rushed to an overnight lab for development, and the footage isn't viewable until the next day. If a director is unsure of him/herself, a confident cinematographer has the leverage to say, "Trust me, this is how it should work."

On digital-movie sets, the entire crew can gather around a large monitor just off to the side and watch what they captured minutes earlier. This allows directors and even actors greater control over a performance, and can lessen the DP's influence.

Digital cameras are also constantly undergoing innovation from highly competitive companies. The driving force (besides increased image quality, of course) is portability. Anthony Dod Mantle, the director of photography on Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, won an Oscar for the groundbreaking techniques he used in getting up-close and personal with his actors and action. A film camera would never have been able to record children stampeding through the slums of India with the same intimacy as his versatile, digital camera.

One of Side By Side's most interesting debates involves the democratization of moviemaking. With digital technology becoming more affordable to the average consumer, thousands of independent films pop up every year. Few of them have the financial backing or distribution of Hollywood Studios, but the delivery systems and deteriorating mainstream standards of what a "film" should look like* change almost as rapidly as the medium itself. When anyone with a camera, an idea, and a group of bored friends can put together something with beginning and end titles in a weekend, does that cheapen the once-mythical achievements of a Martin Scorsese or a Walter Murch?

Kenneally's film doesn't make a case for the preservation of film so much as the qualities that traditional filmmaking requires: education, discipline, patience, and craft. Even directors like Robert Rodriquez, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh--all of whom, disappointingly, come off as elitist snobs in this doc--got their start cutting together strips of film with razor blades and taking tedious mag-reload breaks. Which begs the question: if they hadn't gone through those experiences, if they weren't forced to innovate or struggle through limitations inherent in their chosen medium, would they have been the caliber of director whose last name is a short-hand for quality?

Until scientists perfect the Parallel Universe Viewing Booth, we'll never know the answer. This technology, like all others before it, will likely undergo a long period of mediocrity before the next generation of revolutionary artistes shows everyone how it's done. It's possible that someday Side By Side will look as quaint as a documentary on how the Sony Walkman was poised to destroy the music industry as the 1980s knew it.

For now, though, it's an essential look at how technology, culture, art, and commerce are shaping this moment in history. There are far more questions than answers here,** and I am both humbled and in love with the fact that Chris Kenneally has taken me back to square one as a film critic. For sheer educational and entertainment value, Side By Side is one of the best films I've seen this year.

Note: Perhaps the greatest evidence of how digital technology has rocked the Hollywood landscape is the way in which I saw Side By Side. Instead of waiting for a limited engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I watched the movie from my couch, thanks to Amazon, a credit card, and a tiny box that connects my television to the Internet. And it cost less than downtown-Chicago parking.

*Thanks, YouTube!

**For instance, I would have loved a "side-by-side" comparison/discussion of the difference between a film image versus a digital image. For all the talk of 4k and 5k resolution, there's zero discussion of what average viewers get out of the new viewing experience, compared to the old one.