Thursday, 5 June 2014

Review: Side by Side

Photochemical filmmaking vs. digital filmmaking sounded like a cut-and-dried contest to me. Just shoot a sequence in both, project the two next to each other and decide which one looks better, right?

Wrong. As I've learned in the diplomatically-titled documentary Side by Side (2012, trailer), the film vs. digital debate is massively multifarious.

'The documentary we're doing is called Side by Side', says our host Keanu Reeves. 'It's a documentary about the science, art and impact of digital cinema. A hundred years of photochemical filmmaking right now has reached a threshold tipping-point...This intersection of time is historic. Is it the end of film? Where are we today?'

In Side by Side, Reeves and director Christopher Kenneally collect the opinions of a mighty roster that includes filmmaking veterans Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, David Lynch and George Lucas, as well as up-and-comers such as Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig.

My Take

Whenever I see interviews with and hear DVD commentaries from filmmakers, the filmmakers almost invariably project coolly rational personas. One of the satisfactions I got from Side by Side was seeing stoic filmmakers such as Soderbergh and Lucas become passionately animated about their arguments. If their press interviews about their individual films sound like reminiscences of harmless flings, then their rants here about their shooting formats sound like bitter recollections of protracted, tempestuous marriages.

When Reeves asks the extravagantly coiffed David Lynch 'Are you done with film?' Lynch responds: 'Don't hold me to it, Keanu...but I think I am.' Then Lynch's face slowly assumes an expression of unfathomable melancholy.

The thousand-yard stare of a man in pain.

Steven Soderbergh even uses a similar rocky-marriage analogy to mine: 'When I saw the RED [digital camera], I really felt I should call film on the phone and say 'I've met someone.'

On the one end of the argument are ardent celluloid acolytes such as Christopher Nolan and his longtime DP (director of photography) Wally Pfister, who believe that film is the gold standard and that digital is but a pale, dumbed-down imitation: 'It's really sad right now to see cameras recording imagery in an inferior way starting to take over film. I'm not gonna trade my oil paints for a set of crayons.' (Pfister)

On the other end of the argument are dogged digital disciples like Soderbergh and Danny Boyle, who believe that film is an elderly and unyielding crone of a format; and that digital is a youthful, liberating alternative.

Boyle says: 'You could shoot illegally, and surreptitiously, without people knowing, you could do unconventional things...' Boyle's longtime DP Anthony Dod Mantle adds: 'I got this weird moment of immediacy, of lightness and immediacy...I suddenly saw these moves, these possible movements that I didn't know in my cinema.' 

There are also oddball opinions from people like Martin Scorsese, who at one point views the whole 'which looks better?' argument as moot because 'The real auteur, ultimately, of a picture, is the projectionist. Sound can be loud or low, you could see the head of the actor, or not, 'cause he can frame you out, 'cause he's busy.'

The film/digital battle affects just about every job in the industry and every step of the filmmaking process. For instance, a production that shoots on photochemical film must send their day's reels to a laboratory to get processed and developed. The production will receive their footage from the lab the next day, when the filmmakers will screen these 'dailies'.

On a digital production, the shots can be played back instantly on a monitor right there on the set. As Reeves describes in his narration: 'They are no longer dailies; they are 'immediate-lies'.

Cinematographer Sandi Sissel (Mr. & Mrs. SmithMaster and Commander) laments that 'There was a joy, for many many years, for us to be the genies on set. That's why we love dailies. We all go, we'd act, we'd light...and the next morning we'd come back from the lab and we went 'Wow, look what we got!' It was magic.'

'The director of photography was a magician.' DP Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!, The (2005) Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) follows. 'He was the only one who actually knew what was going to be on the screen next day, and this gave you a lot of authority and power.'

However, digital apologist David Fincher counters: 'I don't like the betrayal of dailies...[cinematographers] love the voodoo of it. They love when the director says to them 'Down that corner, are we gonna be able to see that, or is that gonna melt away?' and they get to go 'just wait 'til tomorrow, it's gonna be amazing.' And I've had those experiences, I've sat in dailies and I've gone 'Wow'. But there was an equal amount of times that you'd look at it and say 'What the fuck?'

The one-yard stare of a man unimpressed.

Like any good debate, Side by Side has no 'winner', only a huge spectrum of differing opinions.

On the subject of filming, film-cameras shoot in increments due to the ten-minute duration of each 'magazine' of film. A production shooting on film has a lot of down-time between shots because the (expensive) magazines must be changed so frequently.

Digital cameras, on the other hand, record onto a hard drive which can hold over 40 minutes of footage. This allows less time wasted for magazine-changes, and more time for longer shots and improvisation.

Christopher Nolan appreciates the down-time of film: 'It's very tough for me to say that I need to be able to shoot a 45-minute take and not reload the cameras, because the truth is, the crew [and] the actors can only concentrate for so long, and then you need a three-minute break, during which time you reload.'

DP Reed Morano (Kill Your Darlings) is more nervous about film shoots: 'When you're running a film camera on set, everyone seems to take things a little more seriously, when they hear the film running, when they hear the money running through the camera.'

John Malkovich, who comes from the long-enduring institution of theater, unexpectedly prefers the newfangled digital technology: 'As fast as you can get back to your position, you can go again..I just always felt there was way too much waiting. Because movies, for me, there's always a momentum problem. I grew up in the theater, and that's how I was trained, and a lot of the time in movies I feel like, 'Can we go?''

There's also the issue of storage, which is a disadvantageous side-effect of digital's constantly-upgrading nature. 'I have archival tape formats for music videos and commercials that I did in the 1980s, and there's no machines that can play them.' Fincher concedes. 'When you box those up to be stored, you have to put a reader in with the thing.'

Even if software obsolescence isn't an issue, digital still isn't great for storage, as DP Geoff Boyle (Mutant Chronicles, Dark Country) elucidates: 'Nobody takes archiving seriously. They go 'Oh, I'll save it on hard drive.' And they'll put the hard drive on the shelf, and a year later you'll load it and it goes tk-tk-tk, because they stick. If you don't fire them up all the time, they stick. If you do fire them up all the time, they wear out and go tk-tk-tk.'

Film, on the other hand, 'is unique, because film is a capture medium and a storage medium. So if you really want to go back, and if you've stored them under the right conditions, a hundred years later, all you have to do is shine a light through it and you'll be able to see it. It will never be format-obsolete.' (Kodak Chief Technology Officer Gary Einhaus)

However, digital development pioneer George Lucas rebuts that 'All of everything in the whole world is stored digitally. So, yeah, there's problems with it. But they're going to solve those problems. I'll guarantee that. There's too much digital information out there not to figure out a foolproof way to store it forever.'

It's nice to hear about George Lucas's efforts in helping to create good films in recent years.

Personally, I find the arguments in favor of digital to be more compelling. It just seems much more versatile, cost-effective and inclusive. In fact, the argument to me seems to boil down to inclusive vs. exclusive - digital is friendlier but perhaps lazier, and film is snootier but maybe more venerable. 

My inclination towards digital probably isn't helped by the fact that Christopher Nolan - Side by Side's greatest film advocate - has the stoic English brogue, slicked-back hair and cold eyes of a classic villain.

No, Mr. Reeves, I expect you to die.

If I was a filmmaker, I imagine I'd definitely use digital...and yet, I recently went to a screening of Pulp Fiction and was impressed by the texture, warmth and feel of the film print.

But if you were to ask Steven Soderbergh, he'd say 'It's depressing. It's not sharp, it doesn't have any snap, it's shaking, it's dirty, I hate it.'

And on and on the debate goes.


Further Reading

For more documentaries, you can see my post about Marwencol.

For more documentaries about filmmaking, see my post about Corman's World.

Screengrabs: Side by Side was produced by Company Films. The UK DVD was distributed by Axiom Films.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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