Side by Side: Berlin Film Review
Keanu Reeves, Justin Szlasa
Keanu Reeves co-produces a documentary on the rapidly evolving film industry.
It’s the end of film as we know it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of cinema, at least according to the all-star list of directors and technicians interviewed in Chris Kenneally’s illuminating documentary Side by Side. Tracing the rise of digital movies via a wealth of charts, clips and candid testimonies, this Keanu Reeves-produced and -narrated investigation offers a thorough analysis of what’s very likely the most important cinematic development since the advent of sound. Critics, crew members, students and any lover of the seventh art should seek this out on DVD, broadcast and select theaters, though probably not on celluloid.
Because movies are a business as much as they are an art form, technological advances that allow filmmakers to make movies more easily and, most important, more cheaply, have as much of a role to play in the final product as the script, direction and acting. But rarely do audience-friendly documentaries focus on the nuts and bolts — or nowadays, the chips and pixels — of the filmmaking process, which is why Kenneally’s intensive study feels both necessary and long overdue.
After all, and as Side by Side methodically explains, the revolution has been happening for more than four decades, but it’s only over the past 10 years that most viewers have become so conditioned to (some would say bombarded by) the powers of digital imagery.
Chronicling the medium’s development — from the original CCDs invented by Bell Labs through Sony’s first Standard Definition digital camera to the most recent HD models by Red and Arriflex and finally to the postproduction evolutions of CGI, the Avid, the Digital Intermediate and DCP projection — no stone is left unturned by Kenneally, whose army of above- and below-the-line interviewees debate the merits of digital filmmaking and its effects on longstanding cinematic traditions.
Among the Hollywood heavyweights questioned by Reeves (often sporting long hair and a beard, presumably for the shoot of the upcoming CGI blockbuster 47 Ronin), the most fervent supporters of the new process are clearly George Lucas and James Cameron (“What was ever real?” the latter snaps when Reeves complains about green screens), while holdouts like Christopher Nolan insist they’ll continue shooting on film for as long as they can. Somewhere in between are directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, both of whom see the advantages of digital but also the uniqueness of celluloid (“That was precious stuff rolling through there,” remarks Lynch, though he also is referring to the price of film stock).
Beyond the talks with directors, it’s the conversations with a host of top-notch cinematographers — among them Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman and Anthony Dod Mantle — that make Side by Side a particularly engaging exercise. Learning about digital imagery from the horse’s mouth is essential, and nobody is as affected by the changes as the DPs who battle with new shooting formats on a daily basis. What one pulls from such discussions is that the cinematographer’s power on set used to be almost magical (“They loved the voodoo of it,” claims an especially insightful David Fincher), but once the photochemical process was replaced by on-set monitors and the DI, anyone could come in and tell them exactly how things should look.
The cameramen are joined by editors, special effects supervisors and color correctors, who explain in laymen’s terms how digital has changed the way movies are finalized. While their remarks reveal to what extent the workflow has shifted in favor of postproduction, certain transformations, such as the rise of Fusion 3D, don’t seem to garner much favor with the majority of interviewees (“It’s a motherf—ing marketing scheme, isn’t it?” wonders Nolan DP Wally Pfister). Such candor is a welcome antidote to the usual industry backslapping, and Reeves manages to charm his subjects into speaking truths seldom heard by the general public.
If any complaint can be lodged against Side by Side, it’s that there’s perhaps too much material on hand for only 99 minutes, and things sometimes fly by before there’s enough time to let them register. Still, anyone who needs to give the movie a second look can eventually catch it on a range of digital formats, though, according to the documentary’s final segment, the most foolproof archiving system is still good ol’ fashioned 35mm stock. In that respect, the future of film is film.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production companies: Company Films
Director, screenwriter: Chris Kenneally
Producers: Keanu Reeves, Justin Szlasa
Director of photography: Chris Cassidy
Music: Brendan Ryan, Billy Ryan
Editors: Mike Long, Malcolm Hearn
Sales Agent: Cat&Docs
No rating, 99 minutes