Articles and essays with portentous titles such as The Death of Cinema have been popping up for more than a year now, implying that the medium is on the verge of extinction. That’s hardly the case, though. Thanks to astounding leaps in technology over the last five years, movies as we’ve always known them — heavy spools of film run through a flickering projector — are changing, but they are certainly not dying.
According to many of the famous directors and cinematographers Keanu Reeves interviews in Side by Side, the art of filmmaking is being reinvented by the impact of digital cameras. Many of them say the change is an improvement. Digital cameras are lighter and more efficient than their 35mm counterparts. They’re cheaper and within reach to non-professionals aspiring to make a film, and they produce an image that is indistinguishable from — and sometimes even better than — old-fashioned film.
The debate, which is heated, is whether movies lose something when shot and projected digitally. The texture and grain structure inherent in film is lost with digital (it can be added artificially, but the result is not the same). The job of the cinematographer, who was often the only one on the set who knew how the image would ultimately look, has changed, now that directors can see exactly how their finished film will look on the set via monitors. David Lynch vows never to shoot on film again (his last film, Inland Empire, was shot on video). Martin Scorsese calls digital an “exciting reinvention of a new medium,” which is a bit ironic, considering his previous film Hugo was about the birth of cinema.
George Lucas, of course, argues that celluloid film was a 19th-century invention, and that to ignore such momentous advances is foolish and self-destructive (his movie Attack of the Clones was the first to be shot entirely with high-definition digital cameras). Do-it-yourself filmmaker Robert Rodriguez says he would have never been able to make Sin City without digital cameras; Steven Soderbergh claims he can barely stand to watch regular film now, because all he can see is the grain.
There are, of course, dissenters. Christopher Nolan says that every time he makes a movie, he’s forced to justify why he insists to shoot on film (he says you need dailies to know what the finished movie will look like because digital monitors can’t be trusted). Actors such as Robert Downey Jr. complain that because digital cameras can be reloaded in a matter of seconds, there is no time for performers to hang out in their trailers between takes (in protest, he urinated in jars, which he hid all over the sets of David Fincher’s Zodiac). Watching such revered artists argue about the technical aspects of their craft is fascinating (Reeves is a gentle interviewer, and the directors are obviously comfortable being honest with him) and the film will be like catnip to fans of contemporary Hollywood. There are noticeable omissions whose input would have been invaluable: Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg, who have sworn never to go digital; Paul Thomas Anderson, who shot more than half of The Master in 65mm; or Francis Ford Coppola, who started experimenting with the medium back in the 1980s.
Side by Side ultimately doesn’t champion one medium over another. The movie simply states that the digital tide cannot be turned back, and that by 2015, there will be more than 150,000 digital movie screens in America. To the casual moviegoer, that will mean nothing — the average person can’t tell the difference between digital and 35mm — but to the people who make movies, the future has arrived, like it or not.
With: Keanu Reeves, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, Lena Dunham, Lana Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, Lars von Trier.
Writer-director: Christopher Kenneally.
Producers: Keanu Reeves, Justin Szlasa.
A Tribeca Films release. Running time: 99 minutes. No offensive material. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.