A decade ago the idea that digital would replace film was still pretty unthinkable. But today it is not only inevitable but the end of film is upon us. Film camera manufacturers have stopped producing and developing new cameras and Kodak recently filed for bankruptcy. Shooting on film will probably not even be an option for filmmakers in the very near future. So, how did this happen? And should we mourn the (impending) death of film when digital has so many practical advantages? The terrific new documentary “Side By Side” explores the subject in depth by explaining the history of film and charting the rise of digital through extensive interviews with filmmakers, cinematographers and craftspeople. Moderated (for some reason) by Keanu Reeves, the doc features interviews with directors Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, The Wachowski Bros, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and Lars Von Trier and cinematographers including Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”), Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), Wally Pfister (“Inception”), Michael Ballhaus (“Goodfellas”), Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”).
The film tracks the digital revolution which started with the Dogme ‘95 movement in the late 90’s. During this time a group of Danish filmmakers started using consumer grade video cameras to make their films using a strict set of guidelines which stated (among other rules) that filming would be done on location, with handheld cameras and natural lighting. Indie filmmakers across the world started experimenting with the format and soon Sundance and beyond was opened up to a new generation of voices who may have never had access to proper film cameras. Early films to be shot digitally used the grainy low-quality aesthetic to their advantage, creating a handheld immediacy you couldn’t get with heavy film equipment. Some of the first major digital efforts to infiltrate the mainstream included Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and Michael Mann’s “Collateral,” but it was George Lucas who worked with the manufacturer to build a higher resolution digital camera for “Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones” that ushered it into commonplace for effects heavy films. Instead of transferring the film into the computer to add digital effects and then transferring it back to film - losing slight quality each time - the process is now entirely digital so there is no loss of resolution.
Since that breakthrough cameras have only gotten better and better so that today’s digital films are almost indistinguishable. Most moviegoers would never know the difference or think twice about whether the film had been shot digitally or not. The doc does a great job of breaking it down into layman’s terms, using infographics to show just how great each jump in technology affects picture resolution. The doc stays impartial, arguing for both film preservation and greater measures to ensure digital will be preserved (currently the most fail safe method is to transfer it to film because the hard drives will crash if you don’t turn them on regularly). But the interviews are what makes this a true treat for cinephiles as some of the world’s most renowned directors come down on both sides of the debate. Some (like Scorsese and Nolan) are staunch advocates for film, indicating that digital still has a long way to go to match the picture quality while others (Fincher, Soderbergh, et al.) have jumped ship indicating that digital offers them a freedom they never had with film and the quality will only continue to get better. A highly educational and entertaining doc, “Side By Side” should be a must-see for film lovers that should help continue the debate.