VIFF 2012 Review – Side By Side: The Science, Art And Impact Of Digital Cinema

The first documentary I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival was Tribeca Film’s Side By Side. It first caught my interest on opening day as I was assigned to be an usher for the screening. I was lucky to see it as an audient three days later. I’m glad I did because this is of a topic I’ve been interested in over the past ten years.

The documentary is hosted by Keanu Reeves and it is on a hot button in the filmmaking industry. this hot button is the transition from making celluloid motion pictures to digital motion pictures. It attempts to answer the question: “does it mark the death of an art form or does it accelerate it?”

The documentary starts with some opening opinions by some of the biggest names in directing like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle. It also features opening comment from independent filmmakers too. The beginning also gives descriptions and computer simulated examples of how images from both celluloid cameras and digital cameras are created. Interesting is the terminology used for filming: film filmed on a reel in a single day and developed the next day would be called ‘dailies’ while digital images would be described as ‘immediates’. Later on the documentary would describe the invention of digital filming dating back to the late 60’s to George Lucas experimenting with it. The progress of digital filming would be described more over the remainder of the documentary, which I will elaborate on more throughout my review.

The documentary also points out that the use of video cameras was not accepted by the film industry at first because video cameras were seen as something for ‘cheap movies’. They showed the first two movies filmed on video camera that made an impact on video cameras’ use in film: Denmark’s The Celebration from 1998 and the US’ Chuck And Buck from 2000. The quality was obviously cheap but the cinematic angles it was taken from caught people’s eyes. Nevertheless many people still felt video cameras were not good enough quality for something like motion pictures. To think back in 1999 when George Lucas announced after The Phantom Menace that he would no longer film on celluloid, most people didn’t take it that seriously.

As I just mentioned, we shouldn’t forget at the time digital film was still lacking in quality. Slowly but surely big name directors would take notice over time and make the switch. That’s another quality of the documentary is hearing of how so many big name directors made the switch to digital. They describe the scene filmed on digital that put the nail in the coffin for their use of celluloid film. The most interesting for me is Danny Boyle’s story about the change. He described one scene in 28 Days Later–the scene of a deserted London–that was able to be done on digital because he could shut down traffic in one area temporarily for a few minutes while he would have to shut the whole of downtown down for hours if he did it on celluloid. Many directors said that filming on celluloid film has gone as far as it can go and none sensed any limit to filming on digital in sight.

Back to the part which give demonstrations of the two filming methods. As the descriptions of are demonstrated, film professionals interviewed would describe their experiences in dealing with both filming forms, both the positive aspects and the negative aspects. One filmmaker talked of the use of dailies of how they’d look at the dailies in the screening room and at how they were taken aback by what they’ve created. It was often the case but not always. There were times when the dailies would be something flimsy. As for digital, the ‘immediates’ were convenient because they were there in an instant and they were cheaper. It’s not to say the ‘immediates’ were a complete solution. One director even said immediates would show the filming well immediately on a computer screen but won’t answer what it will look like on a 50-foot big screen.

Also described in the documentary are the various changes to how one does their job. The director and cinematographer, or director of photography (DP), have always worked as a team during the days of celluloid. The two still work as a pair even during digital filming but there are changes to how they work and communicate to each other during their job. The documentary also describes how actors have had to make adjustments of their own. During filming of celluloid, there was always a period of time when the cameramen had to do technical things that would allow for a break. Now with digital there’s more consecutive shooting less of that break time, if any at all. There’s even mention of a certain ‘protest’ done by Robert Downey Jr. when he did his first digital picture. Another thing involving actors, which would get on the directors’ nerves, is that they’d want to see the ‘immediates’ to see what they looked like all too often. Should we really be surprised? Film editors as well describe how their job has changed from literal cut and paste of reels to the computerized cut and paste. Some say the quality is still there while others say it’s cheapened. And we also see how visual effects personnel work with digital film as they’re able to create greener trees and bluer skies.

Another aspect showcased in the documentary is the changes in technologies over time. I mentioned at the beginning that video camera use for motion pictures were not accepted at first because of the lack of quality. What a difference more than ten years can make. Over time just as computer technology has improved, so has video imagery and designs of cameras. The documentary showcases the pixel quality of pictures over time and also highlights camera companies creating digital motion picture cameras that would be breakthroughs. Interesting how images shot for the big screen are at least ten times better than they were at the start of the century. Video cameras used for filming motion pictures have also become better and even smaller which allows for more unique angles. The simultaneous use of two cameras for filming 3D movies is another example of technological breakthrough. Then the news of the ultimate: the announcement from motion picture camera companies in 2011 that they would no longer manufacture celluloid movie cameras.

Despite the mention of all the technological progresses of digital cameras and its progresses leading to digital practically overtaking celluloid filming, the documentary does remind us there are still Hollywood movies and independent movies shot entirely on film and there are also still ‘celluloid purists’ who won’t hop onto the digital bandwagon for their own personal and professional reasons. Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture The Artist was shot entirely on film as were Best Picture nominees Moneyball and War Horse. Even two of the biggest moneymakers of this year, The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises were shot entirely on film. In fact both Christopher Nolan and his personal DP Wally Pfister have even declared that if they’re the last people in Hollywood to shoot movies on celluloid, so be it. There are even some independent filmmakers that talk of the beauty of shooting on celluloid that digital can’t equal.

This documentary may give a lot of examples and opinions about the filming types but it doesn’t give the final word on the future of film. It cuts off to now and will leave the future to define itself. With no more celluloid cameras being made, the ‘celluloid purists’ will face a bumpy ride if they want to stay true to their principles. As for moviemaking, where will an industry full of predominantly-digital movies take this in the future? Will the ‘celluloid purists’ succeed despite the odds? We’ll see. One thing one director said was as long as a director has a vision, they will try to create that vision with whatever means they have.

I admit that this is a topic that caught my attention and it’s one dating back ten years ago. How it caught my attention was when I attended an acting class which a top Hollywood cinematographer Monty Rowan. He talked about celluloid filming and brought up George Lucas’ comments about never filming on film again. Rowan mentioned that digital will never have the same artistic quality as celluloid. Years later I read a magazine–either Time or Newsweek–that talked about filmmaking and once again Lucas’ talk about filming on digital: “You don’t work at the office the same way you used to. So why should I do my filming the same way I used to?” It also mentioned of a younger generation weened on digital this and that and who don’t have the same appreciation for the filmmakers of the past. That had me scratching my head. Even hearing how filming on digital has cut costs on filmmaking has still led me wondering about Rowan’s comments. Yes, filmmaking is an art but there’s this vice called ‘showbiz’ that’s unavoidable. Can celluloid continue one despite the business demands of showbiz? Especially as movie viewing is no longer cinema-only and now flexible to the point one can see movies on their tablet or cellphone?

The best quality of the documentary is the big names and wide array of professionals being interviewed by Keanu for this picture. We not only hear opinions and experiences from some of the top name directors in the business but some of the independent  filmmakers who have their own say, whether positive or negative. We also hear the various cinematography, film editing and visual effects angles from some of the top names in their respective fields. We also hear from the various ‘trailblazers’ of digital filming who did something that would pave the way to the future of film, though they didn’t know it at the time. Hard to believe that Anthony Dod Mantle filmed with video cameras with the thought “I may never win an Oscar but…” and he did for Slumdog Millionaire. It does however limit the number of independent filmmakers in the business. Yes it’s great to hear opinions from the big Hollywood names but the independent directors were limited in numbers and opinions.

Another thing I liked about the documentary is that Keanu did it unegotistically. He wasn’t like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock who try to steal every scene and force their personal opinions. Keanu stuck to the topic and put focus and emphasis on the facts, the technologies and the professionals’ opinions. I don’t think I noticed anywhere in the documentary him talking about his own personal experiences.

As far as this documentary goes, I would not consider this to be a documentary meant for a movie cinema. One of the things with the VIFF is that there will be a lot of documentaries shown. Some will be lucky enough for a big screen run. Some will most likely be shown on television through either a documentary channel like Vancouver’s Knowledge Network or a teaching channel. This documentary looks like something that would be best suited for something like a science channel or even an entertainment information channel. I would like to see it again as this this about a topic I’m interested in as I mentioned earlier. I like how thorough this documentary was.

Side By Side is an important documentary for anyone in film, whether a professional or a student at a film school, should see. It doesn’t just present the situation but is very thorough in presenting the examples of filming, history of technological advances, and how some of the biggest names in moviemaking have taken it on. Thank you Keanu for doing a great job of giving us the facts.

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