For almost one hundred years there was only one way to make a movie — with film. Movies were shot, edited and projected using photochemical film. But over the last two decades a digital process has emerged to challenge photochemical filmmaking. SIDE BY SIDE, a new documentary produced by Keanu Reeves, takes an in-depth look at this revolution. Through interviews with directors, cinematographers, film students, producers, technologists, editors, and exhibitors, SIDE BY SIDE examines all aspects of filmmaking — from capture to edit, visual effects to color correction, distribution to archive. At this moment when digital and photochemical filmmaking coexist, SIDE BY SIDE explores what has been gained, what is lost, and what the future might bring.
Although the film screened last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, you can still listen to the full discussion with director Chris Kenneally for free on iTunes HERE!
What I learned:
- Digital filmmaking equals higher post-production costs, which means the overall aesthetic that once belonged to the cinematographer now rests heavily on the shoulders of the editor.
- The common argument from DP’s about digital production sets is that it leads to less disciplined crews with carefree attitudes because they can shoot as much as they want. On the other hand, you can feel the money running through the camera when shooting with film, which forces you to focus and shoot more economically. DP’s are also nervous because traditionally you don’t see what you’ve shot on film until after it’s been processed. With digital, everyone and their more can judge the dailies. Some argue this takes some power away from the cinematographer to craft worthy images.
- The film industry (studio and independent) are at a tipping point in the digital revolution. The film’s director, Chris Kenneally stated simply that today’s digital technology is “almost side by side with film in image quality.” What was once an argument for using one method of filmmaking over the other is now more of an opinion than fact. In reality, the actual disagreement was never that digital wasn’t easier, cheaper or readily available. It has always been about the image.
- Can digital ever truly look like film? Team film says “no” because film has qualities that can better capture images. As the podcast moderator said confidently, “Grain can’t be replicated digitally because grain is random.” Even the filters and manipulation that allow digital to come THIS close to looking like film are still missing that last ounce of celluloid imperfection.
- The final chapter of SIDE BY SIDE is dedicated to archival techniques. The fact is that our technology is changing at such a rapid pace that our methods for preserving them are less and less reliable. Yes, VHS died years ago, DVDs get scratched and film prints are vulnerable to mold, but we shouldn’t be so quick to put all of our eggs in the digital basket. Did you know that hard drives decay? I didn’t. Digital files can also be deleted in a second (remember THE AVENGERS press screening mishap or that time TOY STORY 2 almost didn’t happen). In the documentary, the great Martin Scorsese refutes that the only way to preserve film (especially the timeless classic of yesterday) is on film. Period.
- The origins of the digital revolution began with the independent filmmaker. It was initially adopted as an inexpensive resource. They weren’t ever really trying to make video look like film. Instead it was more of “artistic desperation” as film was costing more and weighty equipment confined crews. Indies were just using the latest technology to tell the stories they wanted with budgets they could afford. Sound familiar? Video allowed multiple takes, intimate shooting style and shorter production times. Isn’t that basic definition of what we know as independent film, even today? It wasn’t until later down the line, when George Lucas and James Cameron begin branching out to further develop special effects techniques for their blockbuster studio pictures that film started to lose its edge.
- At the end of the day, all parties can agree that digital technology has opened filmmaking to a global audience. If you have a story, passion and the ever-more affordable tools, you too can be a visual storyteller. So yes, we’ve lost some of the romantic notions that 35mm offers, but think of how many new visionaries we’ve gained? Artists are now able to choose how their visions are seen in a multitude of mediums; film school or self-taught; low-budget or no-budget. I believe that will be the guiding thread for filmmaking long after this digital revolution.