Review: Side By Side

'I loved delving into the past, present and future of film technology with Keanu Reeves.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Produced by Keanu Reeves and featuring his narration and interviews with filmmakers, Side By Side is a documentary about the digital movement in film. It provides a complete history of digital advances, from camera to editing to special effects. It includes some of the debate between old school film and new digital sides, but really it’s a primer for anyone who’s watching this debate from the outside and maybe wants to get involved. Now you have the factors to join the debate, but the side you take is still up to you. It’s very technical though. I like that it illustrates every facet of the process.

A series of high profile soundbites lay out the superficial pros and cons, setting up the debate to come. Then it explains what a Director of Photography is for casual viewers (on the set of Reeves’ upcoming 47 Ronin), then the DPs get really technical before the film lays out simply how film works and how digital is different. It does that with graphics and Reeves’ wise narration. Shots of the film lab could be historically significant if they don’t exist anymore in a few years. 

The debate begins as we’ve heard a lot before. Some cinematographers prefer grit and the blacks of film. Digital proponents prefer the speed, the control of seeing it before dailies (Christopher Nolan eviscerates that argument). So it’s clear there are advantages of both formats. That’s good. That is a debate that should be had on each individual film, based on the needs of that film and that director. 

The DV revolution for indie films is significant, movies that would not be made otherwise. And they did look like VHS in the ‘90s but that would obviously improve. Longer takes and can be useful for filmmakers, and actors who prefer to keep working and not wait. The Coen Brothers and Michel Gondry can manipulate the color timing more specifically on digital. 

Thomas Vinterberg describes what he was able to achieve with small DV cameras on The Celebration, but every example clip from the film looks like crappy shaky video. I mean, so you can twist the camera around, but that’s not actually a good shot. It makes scale like 28 Days Later possible (shutting down London traffic, getting 10 cameras per take) but I still hate looking at that footage. It gets more convincing when they discuss the techniques of Slumdog Millionaire, but the question remains: Does being able to get this shot mean you should get this shot?

Then the digital editing issue. Funny hearing Robert Rodriguez say that the art of editing isn’t in the technology, it’s in the manipulation of the image. His later films have lots of sloppy cuts since he’s quite often just shooting on green screen and slapping shots together. 

Look, there’s a lot not to like about the film process too. Yes, Soderbergh’s right. Color timing dailies on film is a ridiculous process. So is waiting for dailies, but I really hope seismic changes to the industry aren’t predicated on looking for shortcuts. 

It even gets into projection, and how different every projector is. The frustrations with film projectors is correct. The answer is not to get rid of film projectors, it’s to force theaters to hire good projectionists and utilize good equipment. You want to show The Dark Knight Rises? Not if your projectors aren’t up to snuff. You think theaters won’t find ways to save money lowering the light on digital projectors too? It’ll happen. 

The technical detail gets really in depth when they get into the RED and Genesis cameras. This makes sense, the more current it gets the more subtle factors are relevant. They’ve given us all the relevant background and are now heavy into the current issues. You can definitely tell filmmakers like Fincher and Soderbergh know how to use new camera tech more than others, just by the nature of the examples they give. 

There becomes much more debate about 3D. There may only be a few defenders of film, but it’s half and half when you start hearing directors and DPs hating 3D. Nolan wins again with his Chips Ahoy cookie metaphor. 

There are so many film clips and behind the scenes footage, that alone creates a huge scope of film production. We’re on the set with Danny Boyle, David Fincher, and the array of clips is impressive. Obviously Avatar is a part of this but also TRON: Legacy, The Social Network, The Tree of Life. 

Side by Side doesn’t get into the Blu-ray issue. Digital cinematography can produce vastly different results on Blu-ray, and those compared to film transfer are even more diverse. It touches on digital delivery, but not the issues of accidental deletion or uploading problems. 

Obviously the issues discussed in Side by Side are provocative, and the film allows viewers to have their own opinion as much as its filmmaker subjects do. The film is comprehensive, perhaps not 100% complete, but an aficionado can always point out one facet of a subject about which they wanted to hear more. I loved delving into the past, present and future of film technology with Keanu Reeves. Of course I have some opinions of my own and I’m glad the film can spark that conversation in a reasonable, civil manner.