Active Ingredients: Important, timely topic; Considers many aspects of production
Side Effects: Lack of experimentation; Cursory view of film history
While the title Side By Side may be a bit of misnomer, producer Keanu Reeves’ documentary on the impact of digital technologies in film production explores an important issue which impacts all of the film world. From photography, to editing, to exhibition and distribution, the introduction of digital media into filmmaking has changed some of the art form’s most basic properties and assumptions, established over 100 years ago. Side By Side opens in limited theatrical release throughout August, and will be available both on VOD and in conjunction with the Boston MFA’s Festival of Preservation, a perfect metaphor for the two extremes the film seeks to address.Through interviews with filmmakers of all kinds, and representatives on both side of the digital debate, Side By Side attempts an even-handed look at the impact of digital video. Still, perhaps it’s inevitable that a documentary at this moment in cinema history feel biased towards digital video. People like David Lynch, James Cameron and Lena Dunham extol the virtues of digital film production, for an interesting variety of reasons, but poor Christopher Nolan seems all alone in his loyalty to celluloid film, emotionally beaten down by having to defend his position. “I’m always to asked to defend my choice of shooting on film,” he sighs, “why aren’t others asked to defend their choice of digital?”
Given cinema’s long history with the photochemical process, it’s a good question to ask, one that Side By Side largely ignores in its haste to add to the growing list of digital defenders. While the documentary opens with a nice preamble on the history of celluloid film—which instilled in me a wonder over the magical, grainy silver halides that constitute a film image—a longer view of film history is mostly lacking. Though it may miss the forest for the trees, Side By Side should be commended for its thorough look at all aspects of the digital filmmaking process. Cinephiles often debate the contrasting look of the two media, but the workflow that both formats require on set and in the editing room is rarely addressed. Topics like color timing and digital archiving, similarly overlooked, are also considered here.
Because the film considers so many steps in production, and because of its easygoing, almost naive tone, Side By Side functions more as a introductory lesson in the history of digital film than as an authoritative take on one of cinema’s most important issue. It’s perfectly noble to simply inform, and Side By Side does that nicely, but it made me long for a documentary that practices what it preaches: a film that itself uses the contrasting forms of digital and celluloid film to explore both tools; a film that shows us the merits and drawbacks of both formats, without relying so heavily on talking head interviews. Until that film comes, Side By Side will serve admirably to continue the discussion on the past, present and future of the moving image.