Title: Side by Side
Director: Chris Kenneally
Featuring: Keanu Reeves, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Anne Coates, Danny Boyle, Lars Von Trier, Walter Murch, John Malkovich, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig
Cinema has always been marked by the push and pull between art, commerce and technology, but perhaps never more so than with the advent of digital filmmaking, which stands poised to sweep aside more than a century of celluloid technique and history. Directed by Chris Kenneally and anchored by interviewer-producer Keanu Reeves, the superlative new documentary “Side by Side” seeks to explore this revolution through the eyes of some of Hollywood’s biggest and most respected filmmakers. A wide-ranging and thoroughly engaging treatise that benefits from a broad spectrum of interviewees and perspectives, this is “inside-the-Beltway” cinema, yes, but it’s also a film about film that matters — one that ably sums up an art form, where we’ve been and where we’re going.
At this moment in time, digital filmmaking and the world of photochemical 35mm exist in tandem, with master cinematographers and directors having a choice between mediums and sometimes switching back and forth between the pair. But the switch-over to much more inexpensive digital filmmaking technology and the subsequent quiet revolution in digital projection — there were only four digital theaters in 1999, for the premiere of “The Phantom Menace,” 150 three years later, and we’re now hovering around 50 percent nationally — means that 35mm is on its way to becoming a cinematic programming curio.
There are a couple fantastic anecdotes scattered throughout (David Fincher recalls Robert Downey, Jr. leaving mason jars of urine scattered around the set of “Zodiac” as form of protest over the continuous shooting and lack of mentally refreshing downtime), but “Side by Side” is mostly a history of digital filmmaking’s transition from black sheep stepchild to mainstream industry embrace. Using the work and opinions of the artists listed above, along with many more, Kenneally’s movie details films of various groundbreaking types, like Dogma 95 movement debut “The Celebration,” “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” (shot on a Sony F900, non-commercial digital camera), “Sin City” and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” the latter of which was the first film shot almost entirely on digital to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Several directors, meanwhile, posit that celluloid instills a certain level of focus and respect for the filmmaking process, “because you hear money whirring through camera,” as one puts it.
Kenneally (“Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating”) has superb instincts about where and how to indulge sidebar historical lessons, but he also goes to significant lengths to chat with many cinematographers and let them voice opinion on how digital filmmaking is impacting the work, relationships and influence. For some, it seems to have eroded their power, since the work of directors of photography can be evaluated more immediately, instead of waiting on dailies. Digital intermediate colorists also have an increased sway over the final look of a movie.
“Transformers” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, of all people, bemoans the digital revolution and the fact that it opens up new frontiers for would-be storytellers as signifying the loss of a tastemaker, and gatekeeper. Still, with all major manufacturers having stopped developing new photochemical film cameras, the future of cinema over the next generation-plus seems clear. “Side by Side” provides an amazing snapshot of this transition, at around the halfway point.
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements, “Side by Side” is also available on VOD. For more information on the film, visit www.SideBySideTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon