A serviceable primer on the digital-celluloid divide in commercial cinema, if a bit unwieldy in scope and in danger of being made obsolete by the next version of the RED camera, Side by Side finds professionals with skin in the game expressing nostalgia, passionate advocacy, or defensive irritation on the question of whether photochemical film will or should disappear as a raw material of their trade. Among the three dozen or so directors, cinematographers, editors, producers, and executives interviewed by a gesticulating Keanu Reeves (an amiable host, dropping into wooden monotone only when reading director Chris Kenneally’s narration), the most consistent notes of skepticism on the glories of ones and twos come from Christopher Nolan, who sees little advantage in DV-enabled long takes (actors lose focus after a few minutes) or on-set monitor playback (too small a screen), and his director of photography, Wally Pfister, who flatly declares that 3D “sucks” and, given what he sees as the lack of film’s grit and dynamic range in digital, “I’m not gonna trade my oil paints in for a set of crayons.”
Arrayed against the Batmen and a few less bankable allies is nearly everyone else, from nuanced converts like Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh to the I-told-you-so godfather duo of James Cameron and George Lucas, the latter of whom is still smarting from being “demonized” for his pioneering move to shoot the second Star Wars prequel digitally. (As for Cameron, he bristles when Reeves calls his CGI Avatar jungle “not real”: “You’ve been on a few film sets; what was ever real?”) Aside from these name-brand visionaries and showmen, segments explore whether the digital conversion of editors’ work has made them less contemplative and intuitive, and issues around the evolution of post-production color work from “timing” reels in chemical baths until they were “done” to push-button, nearly omnipotent tweaking (which, D.P. Ellen Kuras suggests, makes her work little more than a rough draft).
As hinted by both the choice of talking heads and the portion of the running time concerned with big-budget effects and other staples of the modern blockbuster (typified by Reeves’s conversation with his Matrix chiefs Andy and Lana Wachowski), Side by Side leaves little room for discussing the digital changeover’s impact on the nascent film artist, who’s represented almost entirely by one NYU grad student shooting her thesis and, almost inevitably, Lena Dunham. As fast-paced and comprehensive as Kenneally’s doc is, it’s largely confined to what Hollywood, and those from the global talent pool who’ve migrated there, think about the past, present, and future of film production, delivery systems, and preservation. While the debate provides some unexpectedly blunt exchanges (“But the image sucked!” Keanu blurts to Robert Rodriguez of one Sony camera model), defenders of the old medium seem to be whistling past the graveyard when they float the idea that film will endure as a viable choice in the bottom-line, lemming-like environs of the global entertainment industry.