Chris and Keanu’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure: Side by Side Zooms in on Role of Digital Techonolgy in Film

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Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in ‘Side by Side’

Have you ever wondered what your favorite director thought about shooting on digital film? How about actress Greta Gerwig? Have you even considered what the indie actress thought the first time she heard the whirring sound of an actual celluloid camera? What of cinematographers and colorists—how interested are you in exploring their relationships? (Are they adversaries? Do they work as a team? Did they start out adversaries, but thanks to advances in technology, now work as a team?) Have you ever wondered how Keanu Reeves would sound saying such profound phrases as “film has helped us share our experiences and dreams,” or “by the 1980s, Avid had developed digital editing into a cost-effective, computer-based system”?

If the answer to any of the above is “yes—but only if fed to me through a 90-minute documentary”—then you are exactly the niche audience longtime production manager and part-time documentarian Chris Kenneally had in mind for his second feature-length film, Side by Side.

Perhaps that sounds unduly negative. After all, there are many out there for whom portions, at least, of this documentary about the rise of digital film in cinema may be of interest. Side by Side manages the tough task of being an instructive look into the way technology has developed over the years while also being occasionally entertaining. There is a intriguing question prevalent in the movie—which taps the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Richard Linklater, James Cameron, George Lucas and David Fincher, as well as the special effects guy for Jurassic Park, for answers (and yet, for some ungodly reason, chose Keanu Reeves as its narrator)—one that can be summarized somewhat neatly: Are we at the end of film?

Unfortunately for the producers, that doesn’t take too long to answer. The only people who even try to argue against the relentless march of technology do so purely on an aesthetic basis. Digital film lets you shoot longer, and for less money. It is easier and cheaper to edit. It is better for the planet. The end. As Ms. Gerwig puts it, “They process digital now to make it look like film, as if film is inherently better. Just, we like the way it looks better. Which seems kind of arbitrary, because it’s just what we’re used to.”

Surprisingly, the film chooses independent cinematographers (Reed Morano and Bradford Young) to defend the more expensive, older technology, as if the idea of film reels is now so antiquated that the only people who use them do so specifically so they can talk about how it “feels different.” Hipsters, basically. The film barely acknowledges that most films are still mainly shot on celluloid, with digital cameras filling in occasionally.

With 80 minutes left to fill, Mr. Reeves is left to ask more questions about, you know, movie stuff. Judging from the answers given, the questions range from “Do you remember back when you had ‘dailies’ and had to edit movies by hand?” to “Did Robert Downey Jr. ever pee in jars and leave them around your set as a form of protest?”

It’s not that the answers aren’t interesting: Mr. Lynch, whose last film, Inland Empire, was shot entirely digitally, claims that he will never return to celluloid. Some like Mr. Fincher, on the other hand, recognize that digital film can lead to terrible-looking movies—though he rightly puts the blame on the people who make them, not what equipment they are shot on. And Danny Boyle is perhaps the best example of how an early adopter can turn a public’s interest and make something like digital film mainstream. After watching a Dogme 95 film called The Celebration, which was shot entirely on a Sony Handycam, the director tracked down the film’s cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle. The result was 28 Days Later, portions of which were shot with digital cameras. In 2009, their film Slumdog Millionaire became the first movie shot predominantly in a digital format to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Mr. Cameron and Mr. Lucas, meanwhile, are super-jazzed to talk—at length and ad nauseam—about every minutiae of digital editing and special effects. This would be less irritating if they weren’t busy taking credit for everything short of inventing the digital camera itself. Actually, Mr. Lucas comes close, boasting about how his company created the analog computer editing system EditDroid, and the next thing you know, he’s referring to the game-changing digital editor Avid as a “we” endeavor. It would have been good to take note here that EditDroid was a commercial failure and was sold to Avid in 1993 after the Star Wars remakes. Only 24 ED systems were ever made.

Frankly, the movie has too much time on its hands: it spends an exorbitant amount of it talking to colorists, special effects animators, editors and various other people with jobs that you’d only care to hear about if you were really really interested in how films are made. And when someone appears whose only movie credit is the new Joseph Gordon-Levitt feature Premium Rush, you have to wonder what he is doing sharing screen time with Mr. Scorcese.

Finally, in a movie that gets into the nitty-gritty of editing and special effects, you would think the glaring continuity error of Mr. Reeves’s hair length would have been noticed and fixed in post. (It goes from very short, with stubbly beard to very long, with neckbeard, before going short again, then long again, etc. It’s quite distracting.)

But let us not nitpick. It’s doubtful that anyone will leave this movie siding with the celluloid purists, believing that the digital process will be the end film as we know it. Auteurs will continue to shoot in whichever medium they prefer, and there will always be hundreds of forgettable flicks for every great one, no matter what technology is employed—a lesson Side by Side proves simply by existing.

SIDE BY SIDE

Two stars out of four
Running Time 99 Minutes
Directed by Chris Kenneally
Starring: Keanu Reeves, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron,
Robert Rodriguez, Walter Murch and David Fincher