‘Side by Side” is a misleading title for a documentary surveying the pros and cons of digital moviemaking versus film. It led me, at least, to assume there’d be some moment in which one format would be juxtaposed with the other and we, the people in the dark, would be allowed to see the contrast and choose. But “Side by Side” was shot with a digital camera and was shown to me digitally. It’s a little like showing up at a KFC and arguing for the virtues of tofu: Can a vegan resist the fragrance of the Colonel’s Crispy Strips?
So, you feel bad for men like Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan and Nolan’s director of photography, Wally Pfister, in this movie. They’re forceful and philosophical and persuasive about the virtues of making movies with film. But every image presented by this entertaining, enlightening, if overlong discourse marries what they say about such problems as dimensional flatness and a lack of the diffusion of light with no corollary visual. I mean, if you haven’t grasped the differences between film and digital and were hoping to train your eyes to know what’s what, this movie muddles more than it clarifies.
Plus, with all due respect to Scorsese and Nolan, the directors and cinematographers who appear here speaking on behalf of the digital side of that argument — James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Rodriguez, Danny Boyle, Boyle’s current regular director of photography, Anthony Dodd Mantle — do so with gusto and profanity. None of these men argues that film is bad. According to them, it’s just dead. A 35mm film camera is loud. It’s hard to maneuver. You have to wait a whole day for footage to be processed in order to see what you’ve shot. And all that sitting around! And there’s also no discounting the secret affront that film poses to a director’s ego. The cinematographers have a lot of control over the look of a film. It’s quite a hoot to hear a control freak like Fincher complain that the ingenious Darius Khondji created too much unpredictability on the set of “Se7en,” which is a marvel of willful dreariness.
“Side by Side” is a project of Christopher Kenneally, who’s worked, in various technical capacities, on a number of independent features. His access to star directors and expert technicians might have something to do with having the participation of a chicly grungy Keanu Reeves, who serves as his interviewer. Seated across from these filmmakers, some of whom have directed and photographed him, Reeves alternates between moony nostalgia and justifiable skepticism. He asks good follow-up questions, too. But like Scorsese and Nolan, Reeves’s doubts run a distant second to both the movies’ and the majority of featured filmmakers’ enthusiasm for the possibilities of digital technology. The pro-digital camp argues that there are no innovations left for film; meanwhile, the movies are at the dawn of a digital age. That enthusiasm is pretty contagious.
As Kenneally walks us down the different avenues of digital’s upside — from color timing to the navigability and weightlessness of the cameras — you can feel the future, even if some of what you feel is worrying. Other crafts have gone digital — editing, for instance — and the results are mixed (to my eye, the average shots per scene have skyrocketed in the last 15 years). And there appears to be no accounting for the ultimate roadblock to all this progress: the movie theater experience. The film skims this irony — that all this persnicketiness about color correction and lighting and focus (the future) doesn’t matter when so many theaters are stuck in the past. Kenneally provides a robust history of digital moviemaking. But an unhappy fact of public moviegoing is that a lot of us don’t have any idea that what we’re seeing is the pits. Or we just accept it.
Filmmakers have to understand that their gorgeous movies look great in our homes and like mud in the communal dark. We don’t complain because we don’t know how to articulate the problem. We can’t say what we’re not getting nearly enough of: an exhibition apparatus as meticulous as the people who make the movies they exhibit. The directors and distributors can’t rely on us. They should be implored to watch their movies in the same theaters we do. It’s the only way for them to understand that a crime is being committed.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.