Written by: Anne Chickering
When I rolled up to the Laemmle 7 in North Hollywood last weekend, I had no idea what movie I was seeing. I hopped onto the freeway at the last second, scooped up my friend off the side of the road, while in the same action, spotting Keanu Reeves being escorted into a large, black SUV. Little did I know that I was actually seeing the fascinating new documentary produced by Reeves about the digital video revolution taking place in the film world as we speak.
Side by Side is a hard-hitting crash course that describes the film vs. digital dilemma that’s been the subject of fierce debate by directors, DPs and editors in Hollywood for nearly the last ten years. Written and directed by Chris Kenneally and featuring such A-list directors as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, James Cameron and more, the film delves into the technical and aesthetic advantages and disadvantages of shooting on film and video.
As a recent film school grad, I was exposed to this debate fairly early on in my career, but for the general masses—it’s an issue that goes largely unnoticed, thanks to extraordinary advances in the technology of cameras and video chips. The film even shows clips from movies released this year to compare how close digital video looks to regular 35mm, and the difference is unnoticeable. Therefore, the decision whether to shoot on film or video comes down to two things: budget, and the artistic choice of the director. Budgetwise, 35mm is extremely expensive to shoot on, and a crew can only shoot about 10 minutes of footage per reel (although it whips actors into shape as soon as they hear money running through the camera). However, some directors like Christopher Nolan and his DP Wally Pfister, are incredibly loyal to film because they claim that shooting on 35 gives the director and the cinematographer more creative freedom with the mise-en-scène as far as lighting choices and color palette. I certainly understand wanting the “look” of film, but changing the mag every 10 minutes is expensive and a waste of valuable time on set, not to mention the cost of duplicating 35mm prints to send to every theatre in America.
As presented in the film, shooting on digital video is certainly the way of the future for the film industry today. Numerous directors including David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and even Scorsese have declared themselves advocates of shooting video. Some directors like James Cameron have even gone so far as to declare themselves “3D only”—but unfortunately for me, those futuristic vision goggles never fit over my glasses. Because of the way technology has advanced through cameras and editing equipment, video has become the far more cost effective way to shoot, while still offering PLENTY of creative freedom for directors, DPs and editors. It’s even paved the way for relatively new technology like DI coloring, which is the new school version of color timing. If necessary, the DI colorist can select a tiny portion of the frame, and change the color of a single leaf without messing with the entire color palette of the film—an incredible use of modern technology and a wicked awesome job if you ask me (seriously, if anyone knows a DI colorist, I live in LA).
Through Keanu Reeves’ surprising use of emotion, the film dives headfirst into the debate that’s still one of the most contested issues in Hollywood right now. There have already been many books published on this, but my two cents seem to agree with the majority of directors working today—that shooting video offers so many more choices and accessibility to the filmmaker than 35 ever did in the first hundred years of film. I spent 4 years in film school appreciating all that celluloid did for the art form, but the minute I put my hands on a camera, I knew what my choice was going to be.
Side by Side is a thoughtfully made yet still unbiased look at a real issue that’s going on in the film world, that most people don’t even know exists. I absolutely recommend watching if you get the chance, if you’re lucky enough to have it released in your city. As summed up by Scorsese—video is something different, but the challenge is how you use it to tell a story.