Side by Side
Directed by Christopher Kenneally
Written by Christopher Kenneally
James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Keanu Reeves
How long is Side by Side? 99 minutes.
What is Side by Side rated? No MPAA rating.
A brilliantly comprehensive look at the digital divide in cinema.
“Technology pushes the art and art pushes technology.” So sayeth director Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Sin City), one of the indie “mavericks” of the early 90s and an avowed convert to digital filmmaking. Rodriguez’s insight essentially sums up what is at the center of the new documentary Side by Side, directed by Christopher Kenneally and produced/narrated by Keanu Reeves. Through intimate and insightful interviews with directors, cinematographers, editors and producers, the aim of the film is twofold. First, it seeks to act as a barometer to gauge the atmosphere in the filmmaking community in regards to the rapid rise of digital filmmaking. Second, the film serves to document this extraordinary moment in cinema resulting from the almost certain downfall of conventional photochemical (celluloid) cameras.
In an early voiceover, Reeves explains that Side by Side is about “the science, art and impact of digital cinema,” and that perfectly sums up what transpires in this wonderfully enlightening and entertaining film. Taking a historic look at cinema, including its inception in the late 1800s and the myriad advances in technology since that time, the film arrives at the crucial moment in the late 1990s/early 2000s when digital cameras had sufficiently advanced as to be a realistic alternative to shooting with standard 35mm cameras. Arguably, the turning point came in 2001 when George Lucas public announced that he would be filming Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones entirely on digital cameras.
Lucas’ support of digital cameras gave a sense of legitimacy to a style of filmmaking that had previously been seen as only acceptable for low-budget or experimental films. The revolution quickly began to draw in directors like Rodriguez, David Fincher (Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Hugo), David Lynch (Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire), James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer). For these converts, there was a clear delineation between celluloid and digital, the latter offering a clearer image and immediate playback on set as opposed to the standard expectation of waiting 24 hours to watch “dailies.”
One of the most revealing stories told in the film is the relationship that developed between director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. After a disappointing experience filming The Beach in 2000, Boyle was disillusioned with the limitations of 35mm cameras when trying to capture intimate moments on film. After watching the Danish film The Celebration, Boyle contacted Mantle, who had served as director of photography, about collaborating on his next project, a post-apocalyptic zombie movie called 28 Days Later…. In his discussion with Reeves, Boyle explains how elated he was to be able to use consumer quality digital cameras to perfectly capture his film in the style he had imagined in his mind. He points out that 28 Days Later… would never have been possible with celluloid cameras.
On the other side of the debate is Christophe Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight Rises) who is adamantly opposed to digital cinematography. Nolan and Wally Pfister, who has worked as director of photography on each of Nolan’s films since Memento, both argue that digital cameras will never match the purity of celluloid. Nolan, who has pioneered the use of IMAX cinematography in Hollywood films (a renaissance unto itself), is unwavering in his use of photochemical film for as long as he possibly can.
Where Side by Side really shines is in the juxtaposition of filmmakers like Nolan and Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11, Haywire) whose disdain for celluloid is unmistakable (“I hate it,” he says referring to 35mm). Like Rodriguez, Soderbergh was an indie trailblazer with films like sex, lies, and videotape that dismissed many standard cinematic conventions. Typically acting as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh has fully embraced digital cameras as a way to shoot his smaller, more experimental films (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience) as well as his big-budget studio pictures (Contagion, Magic Mike). From his standpoint, Soderbergh believes that the best choice is whichever technology allows him to create on screen the image in his mind.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the documentary is the intelligent conversations between Reeves and the filmmakers he interviews. Reeves is clearly an astute lover of cinema, engaging the directors and cinematographers with various pokes and prods, improvising questions when something stands out to him. One of Reeves’ off-the-cuff comments to Cameron about the perceived reality captured on celluloid versus digital leads Cameron to argue “When was it ever real?” A well-made point to which Reeves (wisely) concedes.
In a supremely satisfying exchange near the end of the film, Reeves discusses access to filmmaking with Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, HBO’s Girls) and how digital has allowed a whole new wave of artists to enter the arena. Dunham explains that without inexpensive digital cameras, she and many other young filmmakers like herself would likely not have gotten the opportunity to make movies. Her point is that film school and appreciation for Jean-Luc Godard is fine, but without the budget to pay for the equipment and crew necessitated by standard celluloid cameras their talent and vision would be lost.
Serving as both a crash course in the history of cinema and a platform for impassioned speeches from some of the most important filmmakers working today, Side by Side is the rare documentary that informs as well as entertains. As writer and director, Kenneally has done his homework and his love of movies comes across through the detailed (but quick) history lessons he imparts to the audience. Side by Side is enjoyable for its revealing look behind the curtain and the many questions it poses about the future of the medium.
Side by Side is currently available through VOD.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”