Documentary: Side by Side

Keanu Reeves interviews an assortment of directors, cinematographers and other industry pros about the evolution of moviemaking from celluloid film to digital. It's the kind of thing they're surely queuing up in Intro to Film classes across the country . . . Unless those schools don't want to give the students the idea they don't actually need film classes . . .

I have a film degree. But my degree was focused on cultural media studies and screenwriting. For a long time after graduating, I wondered whether I should have taken more practicum classes—that is, classes on the hands-on process of filming, directing, editing. But now I realize anything I would have learned then would only be partially useful now as the industry changes. After all, almost no one edits actual celluloid film any more. And I can edit movies on my computer without having to pay fees to a university to learn how.

Side by Side does a really nice job of, well, displaying the arguments for and against digital progression side by side. For every DP who laments the lack of dynamic range in digital cameras, there is another who says he loves the freedom new cameras give him to move around while filming. I would suppose that these preferences are largely very subjective, very personal. It's an art, after all. And all art is subjective. And no two artists love to work in the same medium exactly the same way.

Some of the arguments for continuing to shoot on film include that it is more tangible, textured, just has more emotion to it. Some of the interviewees also argued that film will last longer in the archival process (though that's certainly debatable). Because film is shot in roughly 10-minute rolls, there is a lot of time taken up in filmmaking with loading and reloading the camera. Shooting a movie literally takes longer on film because of this, and the directors get frustrated because they feel like they're having to stop and lose momentum. Meanwhile, actors may or may not love the frequent breaks. (Keanu mentioned he liked getting to go back to his trailer now and then.)

Film is more expensive, too, of course. And the process—one that I remember well while working on sets as a PA—of sending the film out each evening and picking it up next day to view dailies . . . There's something magical about seeing what was filmed the day before, but at the same time the DPs and directors could argue they like that digital shows them immediately what they're getting. And still, at least one director said digital was disruptive because the actors demand to see every take, wanting to make sure they look they way they think they should. (Like my kids who always want to see any iPhone picture I snap of them immediately after I take it.)

One thing I remember from being on a film set was the sound of the camera running and how silent everything became once you heard it. Digital is quieter, faster, cheaper. It's a more malleable medium. If film is hard granite that needs to be chiseled into form, digital is clay. Again, it seems that the artists' preferences would be key to determining which to use. And also the desired result would dictate to some point . . . What do you want the movie to look like, to feel like?

Digital has changed everything. Every aspect of filmmaking, from the way makeup is done (for HD), to editing and color correction, and of course there's the impact on FX. Side by Side does a remarkable job of going through a lot of these and again picking out the arguments for and against the changes. The workflow . . . Is it the DP's job to get the light and color or should s/he leave it to the DI colorist?

And then comes the discussion of how the proliferation of digital cameras has democratized filmmaking. Anyone can make a movie now; they just need a camera and a computer. Is that a good thing? Of course some say yes and some no. It's the same kind of ongoing debate that surrounds self-publishing. Hooray for everyone having a voice, and too bad so many of them are really awful. With so much content out there, does it become harder to find the good stuff? With so many voices shouting, is anyone heard? (Well, I guess studios and big-name directors still manage to struggle through, just like the big authors and publishing houses.) Anyone can make a movie, sure, but getting it seen and heard, getting it into festivals and cinemas, that's the trick. That's where things still get filtered out. But the online presence continues to grow, all those YouTube channels and whatnot. Which proves my point in a way because I can never find what I want on YouTube; instead I get thrown a bunch of suggestions that I don't have any interest in. It is harder to find stuff when there's so much to sift through.

Finally, how people view movies. In the cinema. On IMAX, in 3D. Or at home on the big-screen television, on the computer, on the tiny screens of their phones. The moviegoing experience is changing. The reasons why people go to the movies are changing. You can have a "date night" at home by streaming a Netflix movie. You can avoid the annoying people who sit and talk through the film, or who bring their small child to something that is clearly inappropriate and is way past the kid's bedtime. So what compels people to go out and see a movie at the cinema any more? The public versus private experience—where's the switch for that? What's a "crowd" movie? Certainly, some films lend themselves to spectacle. The big FX movies, the stuff you want to feel immersed in. But as more and more of these blunder at the box office while littler films bring people to the arthouses . . . The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out.

I'm only touching here on some of what Side by Side discusses. The documentary goes through some of the digital cameras, the evolution of how digital was once the cheap, grainy stepchild of "serious" film. But now cameras like the ARRI Alexa are making even old-school DPs say, "Well . . . maybe . . ." Side by Side also does a nice job of illustrating the different technical processes involved in film versus digital, which is why I said it's film school fodder for intro students. But it's also just a very interesting open debate of film and digital and the direction of the industry in general. A worthwhile watch for anyone interested in making movies.

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