Film Review: Side by Side

Must-see documentary teeming with commentary largely from digital-savvy top industry players follows theatrical film’s journey from celluloid origins to late 20th-century digital innovations through to the triumphant digital changeover in progres

As informative as it is entertaining, Side by Side (which refers to this current thin sliver of time as both photochemical and digital formats co-exist) is a trove of information about how celluloid film, after its century-long run, is giving way to digital and how throughout recent years digital has advanced along the chain from acquisition to exhibition and to what looms as total conquest of the theatrical industry.

Comprising many important talking heads who work every inch of the chain and organized more or less according to film’s key technical disciplines (shooting, editing, special effects, color correction, projection), Side by Side emerges as an information-rich survey of where the industry is today.

Points of view on this celluloid-vs.-digital transition are largely on the side of digital, but actor Keanu Reeves, who wears a producer’s hat here and serves as interviewer, keeps the discussions balanced and always provocative, as he can also occasionally but convincingly put on the devil’s-advocate hat on behalf of expiring celluloid. What he projects here, and this is important, is his genuine curiosity and enthusiasm for this fascinating topic.

And the informed, mostly well-known talking heads (well over 50) also help keep things lively with their provocative, often witty insights into this revolution. Participants include filmmaking giants who are digital cheerleaders like James Cameron, George Lucas, David Fincher, digital diehard Steven Soderbergh, a quirky David Lynch and an effusive Danny Boyle. Among the few fence-sitters are Christopher Nolan. Actors like John Malkovich and Robert Downey, Jr. weigh in with gripes about how digital filming can go on endlessly, without allowing the rests that short rolls of celluloid bestowed. Fincher shares an anecdote about Downey storing his urine in a jar to protest these inconsiderate digital camera demands that ignore nature’s calls.

Another digital disser is Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, who also has brutal words for 3D. Even Martin Scorsese, who recently took a giant step into digital with Hugo, emerges as somewhat of a sentimental sap for celluloid.

Near-heroes here are veteran editors steeped in celluloid like Walter Murch and Anne V. Coates, who gracefully moved to the digital realm. Reeves speaks with other directors, editors and DPs, and colorists, lab people and special-effects wizards also weigh in.

Also delivering plenty of clips from features and allowing peeks over the shoulders of VFX people and colorists, Side by Side provides a look back at some of the milestones of this digital revolution, among them Bell Labs’ CCD chip breakthrough that paved the way for digital cameras; the embrace of digital filmmaking by the revolutionary Dogme movement and indie companies like InDiGent; the birth of the AVID; Lucas’ Phantom Menace, which marked the first all-digital showing in theatres; Lucas’ Attack of the Clones, the first big feature shot entirely in HD; and the recent cinematography Oscar win for Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the first such award for a digitally shot feature. Even digital cameras like the Red and the Arri Alexa get their close-ups here.

Less an obit than compassionate last rites for photochemical film, Side by Side will offer little comfort to celluloid “purists” and champions. The unexpressed subtext is that, only a few years from now, all theatres will be fully converted to digital (a true “reel change”).
This pile-up of opinions and information about the ascension of digital never bores or confuses. Instead, Side by Side is an irresistible document of a monumental film-industry transition that professionals and film-loving civilians will devour. And want to see again and again. Talk about an all-star cast and compelling, down-to-the-wire drama!