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Side By Side: A History of Digital Moviemaking

MoviesDocumentary (genre)Keanu ReevesChristopher Nolan

Side By Side
Oct.  23, The Bijou Theatre, 275 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 322-3228, thebijoutheatre.com

Does digital technology spell the end of good taste, fine art and high-quality movie-making? Has the old-fashioned process of exposing emulsion-coated film to light met its demise? Is George Lucas -- powerful booster and backer of digital moviemaking -- ushering in the death of a century-old tradition? Or has new digital technology totally democratized the process of making moving pictures? Are we in the middle of a revolution that will just mean more and better visual storytelling in the future? Your answer to these questions might decide your reaction to the documentary Side By Side, which explores the history and evolution of digital moviemaking. (The film is being screened in CT for just two days this week.)

Lucas, along with Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez, David Lynch, and Christopher Nolan -- all of whom, excepting Nolan, have embraced digital -- are featured.  The directors offer insights into the limitations of film and the possibilities of digital, which is generally lighter, cheaper and easier to edit. Others -- cinematographers and directors of photography mainly -- expound on the beautiful texture of film and the appeal of its “grain structure,” mourning the loss of film’s distinctive visual quality.

The main benefit of digital cameras -- or at least the one that’s most likely to directly disrupt the ways in which directors have traditionally worked with actors on set -- is the elimination of the need to have heavy and very expensive magazines of film emptied and replaced every 10 minutes or so while shooting. This means a “take” of a scene can go on for hours. No need for breaks during which actors lose the dramatic spirit and feel of the moment. No intimidating sense of intense pressure over capturing just the right take on costly film. “When that [film in the camera] starts rolling, there’s an underlying feeling that there’s precious stuff rolling through there, and it puts tension on things.”

Digital is cheap. You can shoot for hours if you have the stamina.  Some actors love that, others hate it. John Malkovich, who come from a theater background, says that he “always felt there was just way too much waiting” on movie sets. Digital changes that. But it has its dangers, too. There’s a story of the actor Robert Downey Jr. in leaving jars of urine in the corners of a digital movie set, in protest of the relentless schedule, uninterrupted by breaks.   

The film is co-produced by Keanu Reeves, who also interviews the dozens of cinematographers, producers, directors, actors, editors, effects specialists  and colorists featured in the documentary. It can’t be avoided: Keanu Reeves has a very stiff and awkward -- robotic, monotone and slightly alien -- way of doing the voiceover narration, but his understanding of the movie-making process informs his interviews. And the documentary offers some very informative and technical explanations of digital moviemaking, the mechanics and technological improvements in digital cameras. If you’re in the market for a digital camera, Side By Side spotlights products from companies like Sony, Panavision and relative newcomers like Arri.

In addition to digital cameras and editing and projecting, there’s also the element of immediate playback and monitoring, which many directors say has drastically demystified the rhythm of movie-making. When shooting on film, directors don’t know what they’ve got until they watch the “dailies” or the “rushes” the next day, once the film has been developed over night. If the lighting was off, or if some detail isn’t noticed, it can mean the costly reshooting  of a scene, sometimes requiring returns to location.

With digital monitors on movie sets now, directors -- and actors -- can view their work instantly. They’re seeing what will be shown in the theater.  Some directors find a needed critical distance by having to wait a day to view and evaluate what’s caught on film. Others say digital monitors remove the nagging uncertainty about whether what they’ve filmed is usable. Rodriguez says he always hated that feeling when shooting on film, “midway through the day, [you’d wonder] ‘Did we get anything?’”  At the same time, some suggest that the ability for actors to view their scenes fosters more self-conscious performances.

“I am convinced that everyone is just looking at their hair,” jokes Joel Schumacher.

These may seem like esoteric points,  but advances in digital technology are changing the ways that we think about movies. The technology has changed the daily rhythm of how we work on everything -- including movies. The time-consuming and costly nature of shooting on film meant that directors and film editors ruminated on their work, the pace of a film shoot almost required that kind of slow reflection. Now some of those decisions are being made without much time for thought.  Some of the most famous images in film history -- like the legendary blowing-out-of-a-match cut to a sunset in Lawrence of Arabia -- would almost certainly not exist if directors had been working in digital.

Side By Side offers heaps of insider (sometimes textbookish) information about movie-making. For anyone who likes to passionately debate perceived advances or declines in cinema and pop culture in general, this documentary will provide live ammo for many future discussions.  It may make you rethink your stance in the analog-vs.-digital debate.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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