Side by Side

Side by Side is a documentary by Chris Kenneally which looks at the development of digital filmmaking and the future of celluloid.

“It is only recently that a new technology has emerged that is challenging film’s place as the gold standard for quality and work flow. Digital technology is evolving to a point that may very well replace film as the primary means of creating and sharing motion pictures,” says Keanu Reeves at the beginning of the documentary.

Some directors like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and David Fincher are excited about the potential of digital filmmaking. Others, like director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister, are more cautious. Nolan, who directed The Dark Knight, is constantly asked to justify why he continues using film. “I’m not gonna trade my oil paints for a set of crayons,” quips cinematographer Wally Pfister.

Director Robert Rodriguez, who made Sin City and Planet Terror, argues that the quality of digital technology will only increase and that filmmakers need to guide the direction of this new technology.

According to the documentary, the development of digital filmmaking tools has changed the was we make films. The role of cinematographers has been profoundly influenced by this new technology. “Today in this era, you also have to be a bit of a technician and you have to know the equipment. And it’s really important for DPs to understand the entire link of the image chain from acquisition to exhibition,” says David Stump, VFX Director of Photography on films like X-Men and X2. Although there are some cinematographers who recognise the possibility of digital technology, there are still many who don’t believe it rivals the quality of film. “There is something about the texture and the grain structure of film that I’ve… personally I hold onto and it’s like a comforting thing to me. And it feels more tangible,” says cinematographer Reed Morano.

Digital technology is also changing the way films are shot. Traditionally, filmmakers would only be able to view dailies after it had been developed. Both David Fincher and Robert Rodriguez enjoy the immediacy of digital footage. “I don’t like the betrayal of dailies,” says Fincher. “I don’t like going in and seeing and getting, you know, swept up with a performance and then seeing it go out of focus on a 25-foot screen and knowing that there’s no way to retrieve that.”

Although there are some who argue that it’s beneficial being able to view footage immediately, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t agree.

“If you’re watching a monitor on set and you feel that you’re really seeing what you’ve got, I think you’re fooling yourself,” he says. “The audience is gonna watch that film on a screen that is, you know, a thousand times bigger than that.” Martin Scorsese agrees that watching the footage on set is no substitute for dailies. Filmmakers need to set aside time to carefully consider every shot.

“Now with digital cameras, everyone could see exactly what things were going to look like,” says cinematographer Geoff Boyle. “That changes the way you light it. It may even change your performance because it creates a different feeling in the whole thing. It gives us more scope to be creative. That’s what’s exciting. That’s, to me, was what the digital revolution in cameras is all about.”

The development of smaller digital cameras gives filmmakers greater freedom and flexibility because they aren’t limited by the size of the camera or changing film reels. This allows directors to go for longer periods without stopping. On the set of Zodiac, actor Robert Downey Jr complained to David Fincher that he couldn’t stand the long takes made possible by the digital cameras. He left mason jars of urine around the set in protest.

The rise of digital filmmaking has also changed the way films are edited. Although digital editing is now an industry standard, there are still those who think it has affected the way that editors think about their work. “Has editing gotten better because there’s infinite choice?” asks producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. “I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of movies that have gotten worse because you manipulate it to death. We may have lost something.”

When George Lucas made the Star Wars prequels, he wanted to save money by making the entire process digital. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was shot entirely on an experimental, high definition digital camera. During this period there were many filmmakers and cinematographers who were critical of the resolution and quality of digital film. Robert Rodriguez was another early adopter who saw the benefit of shooting digitally, deciding to shoot Once Upon a Time in Mexico using a digital camera. Recognising the advantages of the digital format also meant that he was able to create an authentic, big screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book Sin City. “Sin City would not exist if I had shot that on film,” he says. “I couldn’t have…I wouldn’t have even thought to do it. I was able to do things that pushed the art form.”

The move to digital has created a certain tension between cinematographers and digital colourists over who is responsible for creating the image. “I think it could take power away from the DP, but I think it’s your job as a cinematographer to try your best to see it through to the end,” says Reed Morano.

Side by Side also looks at the introduction of digital cinemas, which mean the audience gets to see a more accurate version of the film.

The increasing quality of digital has also led to a rise in the production of 3D films. “I hate 3-d,” says cinematographer Wally Pfister, who is notable for his work on Inception and The Dark Knight. “I put on those glasses, I get sick to my stomach. It’s dark looking through them. The whole 3-d phenomenon, it’s a marketing fucking scheme, isn’t it?”

Unfortunately, advances in digital technology means that audiences are becoming more and more demanding. “We’ve had to try to outpace the audience’s imagination, do something they haven’t seen before, and every year, it has to be even more and more real,” says one of the visual effects artists interviewed in the documentary. “The artists and the filmmakers are constantly trying to up the amount of spectacle and realism, and so that really puts us in the position of, like never before, really having to wed technology and art.”

Side by Side ultimately reaches the conclusion that although film isn’t dead, it’s certainly on the way out. “I think in five years, film will be the exception,” says Tom Rothman.

Watching Side by Side

As you’re watching the documentary, divide your notes page into half. Put the title ‘Film’ on one side and the title ‘Digital’ on the other. As you’re watching, write down the advantages and disadvantages of each form of technology.

Responding to Side by Side

After watching Side by Side, answer the following questions:

  1. Briefly describe how images are captured on film and on digital cameras.
  2. What are the advantages of capturing images on film?
  3. What are the advantages of capturing images digitally?
  4. How is new technology changing the way that we watch films? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
  5. What is the future of film and cinema?