Print vs. pixel: 'Side by Side' surveys moviemakers on the pros and cons of film and digital
When cinematographers exchange film reels for flash drives, and their images instantly pop up on computer screens to be critiqued on-set, and are sent electronically to the film editor for assembly or to a producer who screens it on an iPad, is the art of moviemaking compromised or changed? Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan think some artistic integrity is lost, but David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh scoff at that notion. In Chris Kenneally’s Side by Side, directors, cinematographers, special-effects designers and post-production professionals speak with Keanu Reeves about digital moviemaking, and the longstanding but evanescent routines of shooting on 35mm.
Reeves, best-known for his leading role in The Matrix (1999), demonstrates a passion for the subject, which he first discovered on Malcolm Venville’s Henry’s Crime (2010), shot on 35mm. The actor starred in that film and served as an uncredited producer. Chris Kenneally (Crazy Legs Conti, 2004) was the post-production supervisor. The two men became friends when they discovered their common interest in the technological divide.
At one point during post-production on Henry’s Crime, Reeves and director of photography Paul Cameron were discussing digital cameras. “He showed me some images from a commercial he had shot on his 5D,” the actor explains in a telephone interview from China. The 5D is a Canon DSLR, a digital single-lens reflex camera. “Behind me was this colorist and a timer working on the 35mm print, and I was looking at these images side-by-side, and I thought: Oh, film is going to die. That’s how Side by Side began.”
Kenneally recalls Reeves’ daily presence during color correction and mixing. “He kept asking me these technical questions about the workflow, which was great,” Kenneally says over breakfast at a Brooklyn, New York diner. “I have worked with a lot of producers who, once it comes to post, they say: ‘Call me when there is something to look at.’”
Side by Side was shot on a Panasonic HPX 170 digital camera, with a four or five-man crew that included Kenneally, Reeves and DP Chris Cassidy. The filmmakers’ first stop was Camerimage, a cinematography festival in Poland. “We were five hours outside Warsaw in a blizzard,” Kenneally remembers, “but we got 40 interviews with top cinematographers in one weekend.” Overall, the team shot 140 interviews for the Tribeca Film release, using only the camera’s shotgun microphone and Lavaliers for sound capture. “We got lucky,” the writer-director says. “One hundred and thirty-nine of them were perfect, including one with Vittorio Storaro, all with that fly-on-the-wall feel we wanted.” The 71-year-old Italian cinematographer (Apocalypse Now), interviewed along with far younger DPs such as Reed Morano (Frozen River) and Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight), actually embraces digital capture.
Reeves and Kenneally strove for objectivity in Side by Side, but the writer-director admits that the possibilities for democratization of the medium tip the balance toward digital. “That did not mean I wanted my point of view to come through,” Kenneally says. “I have seen so many documentaries lately where the filmmaker puts himself into the movie. Maybe they’re a brand or something, but this documentary did not call for that.” Reeves seems to waver in Side by Side, at times enthusiastic about digital capture, for instance, in his conversation with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, yet is nostalgic when interviewing others who point to the superior image quality of film.
Reeves, who is directing and acting in Man of Tai Chi (working title), now in production in Beijing, admits he is glad to have worked on 35mm as an actor. “But I am in the experience, at the moment, of shooting on digital, with an ARRI Alexa Studio camera,” he says, “and the facility and speed of digital capture is appealing.” Asked if there is anything he misses about film, he replies: “Philosophically, there is something grounding about this thing that you can just shine a light through and see through the emulsion to the image. With a digital camera, it’s in a black box and it has to be reinterpreted and reassembled.”
Because digital capture affects every phase of moviemaking, limiting the scope of Side by Side was an issue from the start. While the digitization of sound, and of 35mm film for editing purposes, is not new—film editors have been on the Avid since the early 1990s—Hollywood did not wholeheartedly adopt digital production. As the documentary demonstrates, through interviews with director Danny Boyle, that changed when Mantle was awarded the Oscar for Best Cinematography on Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. It was shot almost entirely with digital cameras.
“Digital filmmaking doesn’t stop with the cinematographer,” Kenneally observes. “When you start talking about why the camera changed, then you have to talk about how visual effects went from film to digital. Editing is affected, too, and the entire workflow has changed. Post and production are melding into one. My idea was to shape the film by the chain of image creation.”
Kenneally and Reeves set out to make a documentary for general audiences. “When I watch those scenes from Collateral  and I hear the colorist talk about it, I have more of an appreciation for the movie,” Kenneally says. “I am hoping that the short takes we show of movies in this documentary will entertain you and then spark your curiosity.” Even sophisticated audiences will be surprised by the relatively new tools in post-production—and by changes in terminology. For instance, Side by Side explains that “color timing” and “answer prints” are things of the past; color correction on 35mm is now accomplished digitally on the “DI” or “digital intermediate,” a high-resolution scan of the movie. Reeves interviews DI colorists who illustrate how elements within a shot are isolated for color grading, and film editors who explain how the range of a shot can also be altered in post.
Side by Side overturns a few myths about the digital divide in moviemaking. First, it is not generational and, second, the debate over artistic integrity unfolds among aesthetes as well as film professionals who have long relied on technology. Sixty-eight-year-old Walter Murch (The Conversation), who appears in the documentary, won Oscars for film and sound editing on The English Patient (1996), the first film cut on an Avid to win Best Picture. He calls editors “sculptors of image and sound,” and equates pre-digital editing tools to a mallet and chisel. Forty-one-year-old director Christopher Nolan (Inception), on the other hand, compares digital moviemaking to the first commercially produced soft cookie—the novelty made it appealing but later, he says, one realized it was just “horrible chemical crap.” Ironically, a producer on Transformers (2007), which relies heavily on visual effects, worries that digital will diminish the art form. “Who will be the tastemakers?” Lorenzo di Bonaventura asks Reeves, who balks at the remark.
Kenneally admits that he likes the “warmth” and “grit” of 35 mm, but what he finds just as exciting is the fact that anybody with a cell-phone can make a film. “Sure, there will be more junk,” he says, “but before digital, I remember seeing a lot of bad movies, too.”
Reeves points to the fact that digital capture reduces filmmaking costs; he adds that digital projectors will ultimately be less expensive as well, allowing movies to be shown almost anywhere. That last sentiment, likely to strike fear in the hearts of theatre owners, yet holds great appeal for distributors, illustrates the shifting tides shaping the digital landscape. In the end, 81-year-old cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond makes the best argument for preserving film “side by side” with digital capture. “We have basically one hundred years of experience shooting on film,” he says, and then adds, rather mournfully, “Film has an incredibly beautiful look.”