Side By Side – Review

I’ve just watched Side By Side, a documentary directed by Christopher Kenneally about the history and future of film and digital filmmaking.

Side by Side Official Trailer (2012) from Company Films on Vimeo.

It is mainly a series of interviews conducted by Keanu Reeves, discussing the difference between film and digital, offering opinions on the pros and cons of each format, delivering a little history along the way.

The list of interviewees is impressive. It includes a wide range of directors from Christopher Nolan to George Lucas, several generations of cinematographers, VFX supervisors (including Jonathan Fawkner who I worked with at Framestore) and camera manufacturers. Each person sits somewhere along the spectrum of acceptance of digital, with Christopher Nolan and his regular DOP Wally Pfister at the far end, still defending film staunchly, and James Cameron and George Lucas gleefully declaring film dead. A lot of these opinions are common knowledge if you read any kind of industry press. Although it was interesting to hear a few tales or see some of these people talk so passionately about the film-making process they obviously love, I didn’t learn that much from the extreme ends of the spectrum.

The more interesting interviews were from the people who had switched from film to digital for practical reasons, not idealogical reasons. Robert Rodriguez talked about the expense of film and how digital shooting and grading allowed him to make Sin CityDanny Boyle, and his DOP Anthony Dod Mantle, talked about being able to shoot the deserted London scenes in 28 Days Later only because they had 10 cheap, small, DV cameras, or how they used the small SI 2K camera in the Indian slums for Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, I found Danny Boyle to be the most engaging and interesting person in the movie and could have listened to him for the entire 100mins running time.

Some of the most interesting arguments for and against digital were around the impact the technology changes have had on set. Directors and actors talked about how being able to shoot for more 10 minutes at a time affected their performances and the pressure they felt. Cinematographers lamented the fact that their secret was out and now everyone on set could see the images instantly and comment on them. Producers celebrated the fact that now everyone on set could see the images instantly and comment on them.

The movie was edited so it followed the historical developments of film-making technology, from the1969  invention of the CCD sensor through to the latest digital projectors. They showed how each part of the film production process has gradually gone digital, starting with editing, then VFX, then grading and now shooting and delivery.

Every now and again, they would add a little voice over and some archive footage or a graphic to explain the significance of each new achievement. The purpose of the explanations was obviously to put the interviews into some context, not to actually teach the viewer much about the technology. As someone who works in the industry and has read a few books about the history, I didn’t learn much here. I guess the director wanted to keep the movie about the people talking and avoid getting bogged down in the technical detail, which is fine – except for the fact it is fundamentally about technology.

My girlfriend Jen was watching the movie with me. She probably knows more about film technology than the average movie goer because she lives with me but doesn’t know the finer details and I don’t think she learned any from the movie. At one point, Keanu’s voiceover explains the significance of the arrival of HD video cameras. There is a graphic comparing the resolution of HD to SD. It also shows how close HD is to 2K, which is a very important point. But at no point in the movie do the filmmakers explain that 2K is the digital resolution at which film is scanned. Nor do they explain why this is the case. I found similar issue with the film’s explanations of dynamic range and sensor size. I found myself pausing the movie several times to explain these points further to Jen.

Ultimately the interviews were generally interesting but overall the movie was much shallower than I had hoped. If you have read interviews with any of these filmmakers, you aren’t going to hear anything new and if you know anything about the technology of history already, you aren’t going to learn much either.

More interesting sources of information around this topic:

Droidmaker by Michael Rubin

For a much more detailed history of the evolution of digital in the VFX industry I highly recommend reading Droidmaker by Michael Rubin. This book covers the story behind Lucasfilm, ILM and Pixar. It provides a great background to so much of the technology and techniques we take for granted today, including the invention of film scanners and how 2K was chosen as the resolution for scanning film.

PressPausePlay is documentary by Swedish creative agency House of Radon. Although it isn’t just about filmmaking, it is an interesting investigation into how digital technology has impacted the creative industry.

PressPausePlay from House of Radon on Vimeo.