SIDE BY SIDE: filmmakers weigh in on the digital revolution

9 Sep

On Sept. 5, I went to see the new documentary, SIDE BY SIDE, about digital filmmaking, at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan. Directed by a post-production supervisor named Christopher Kenneally, it offered actor Keanu Reeves functioning as the on-camera interlocutor for a series of interviews with directors, cinematographers, editors and other film industry personnel, some of whom talked about their preferences for film or digital formats in making movies, while others simply waxed rhapsodic about the new digital tools available to them.


From what I’d read of the film, I was expecting a debate over the pros and cons of digital conversion and a “side by side” comparison of celluloid and digital images, with filmmakers on both sides of the issue lined up to explain their preferences. That wasn’t the film I saw. It seemed to me to be heavily weighted on the digital side, with more filmmakers and technicians expressing their enthusiasm for digital equipment and technology and the ease with which you can “correct” a digital image. George Lucas and James Cameron are among the most forceful advocates for digital seen in the film. There were a few dissenting voices, including Christopher Nolan, but only a few, and nothing, as far as I can recall, in the way of any visual demonstrations of why film might be preferable. There were a few very quick shots from classic films (THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, CASABLANCA) and a montage of quick clips from very recent productions shot on film (e.g. TREE OF LIFE, WAR HORSE, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), but nowhere did I hear anyone explain what it was about film that drew them to this art in the first place, e.g. the sensual pleasures to be derived from experiencing film and its unique textures projected on a silver screen, or the palpable joy of holding a strip of 35mm film in your hand and holding it up to the light to look at the chemically created image. While no one really made a passionate case for film, the benefits of digital manipulation were given sufficient illustration.

Keanu Reeves questions David Lynch in SIDE BY SIDE

After I finished watching it, I felt like I’d sat through a feature-length infomercial for digital filmmaking. At times the interviewees singled out specific digital cameras for recommendation, giving it the tone of a promotional film. A film professor colleague of mine felt it was more objective than that and directed me to an article in the current American Cinematographer that indicated that the makers simply wanted to record different filmmakers’ perceptions of digital vs. film in the midst of a monumental changeover that will transform the making and exhibition of movies for all time. The makers took no sides and offered no editorial point of view. They didn’t tell us whether they thought any of the notions expressed were right or wrong. They didn’t moderate the debate. They clearly wanted to talk ONLY with those responsible for creating the image and not with critics, theater owners, or audience members. They only talked to one programmer—Geoffrey Gilmore, the former director of the Sundance Film Festival.

On some level I understand their intention—ostensibly to create a document of this historic moment featuring the expert testimony of some of the most respected and revered names in contemporary cinema–and on another I’m profoundly dissatisfied. No one seemed to pay much heed to the audience. Only Martin Scorsese addressed the effects of digital on the consumer when he worried that young people might never again believe anything they see on film once they’ve become accustomed to so many manipulated digital images. We also see a shot of a subway rider watching a film on an iPhone, the only actual “audience member” seen in the film.

Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in SIDE BY SIDE

There also wasn’t a great deal of attention paid to actual content. No one talked about the stories they wanted to tell or specific images they wanted to create or the kinds of moods that can be stoked by digital imagery. Granted, they probably weren’t asked those kinds of questions, but I can’t imagine interviews with directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood that would have gone very far without mentioning stories or content. When I think of interviews I’ve seen with the likes of Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, John Huston, Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, et al, I recall the constant stress on stories they wanted to tell, ideas they wanted to share and interactions with other people. Just watch Fuller in any filmed interview act out the film he wanted to make and you’ll see what I mean. You didn’t see these guys going on and on about the properties of the cameras they were using. Hitchcock would talk about the ART of editing, not the tools. But the directors and cinematographers interviewed in this film are only seen talking about the tools. I started to zone out after a while. It was too much to process and it just wasn’t that interesting to me.

James Cameron in SIDE BY SIDE

Some important issues are raised but not explored in any depth, given the filmmakers’ avoidance of follow-up questions. Near the end, they do talk about issues of preservation and archiving when it comes to competing and constantly evolving digital formats. I would have liked more discussion of this, since it’s something I don’t understand well at all. Interestingly, it’s suggested by some in the film that the only viable storage medium today is 35mm film. I mentioned this to a young colleague who insists that the presence on the web of every film made at least since 1995 means that none of these films will ever be lost. [He elaborates further in one of the comments below.] I’m not entirely sure how that would help in a particular case of restoration, but it’s an intriguing notion.

One gentleman in the film complains that the “democratization” made possible by digital cameras has led to a glut of bad indie films. He laments the lack of a “tastemaker.” I totally agree with him but I couldn’t tell you who he was because there was no “lower third” identification of him in that passage and the earlier identification of him hadn’t registered with me because there were way too many people to keep track of in the film. In any event, had a critic been interviewed, he or she could have elaborated on this issue some more.

Most of the digital film clips shown in the film, especially the earlier examples, look terrible: fuzzy, soft, grainy, devoid of color. I have to concede that the more recent digital examples look fine so I’m not going to complain about them. Still, this is all part of a problem I have with so many documentaries that mix clips from different sources: images shot on film, whether for movies or TV, no matter how old, look so much better than more recent images shot on video or digital.

For me, the issue comes down to the whole question of what got me excited about film in the first place, what established that emotional connection back in my childhood when I would sit and find whole new worlds opened up for me in movies seen at neighborhood theaters. There was something about a projected 35mm image that looked so beautiful especially when the film had a setting or style that we weren’t going to find in any other source of entertainment. It was the way they looked and felt, the textures of the costumes and sets under the bright interior lights, or the sunlight cast on the outdoor locations where so many of the action scenes took place. This was true of westerns like ONE-EYED JACKS, BEND OF THE RIVER, and HOW THE WEST WAS WON, to name three I saw on the big screen at a young age; science fiction like QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE or ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS; Italian “sword ‘n’ sandal” films like THE TROJAN HORSE, THE MONGOLS, THE MINOTAUR and any of the Hercules, Samson and Goliath movies I saw; and, most especially, the epics like BEN-HUR, EL CID, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, which went on location and recreated historical settings with hundreds of extras, large casts and spectacular scenes. This was true even in the stylized urban settings of WEST SIDE STORY, which offered an idealized Hollywood recreation of a neighborhood very much like my own.

I wonder if an impressionable child of nine or ten today, a budding film buff like I was, would experience the same sort of awe and wonder at the current wave of digital effects extravaganzas. Do they have the same emotional response to, say, AVATAR, TRANSFORMERS, THE AVENGERS, and the Harry Potter films the way I did with the films I cited? There seems to be a narrower range of film experiences available to them than there was to me, at least at the multiplex, although the ones who know how to explore the offerings on cable channels and the web might have a wider choice. Young movie fans are emerging all the time, so clearly they’re responding to something. The more pertinent question then would be how my eight- or ten-year-old self would react if plunked down into a multiplex today. Would these films, mostly in digital projections, have the same impact that the earlier ones did? Or would I simply prefer to stay home and watch “Pokémon” and “Power Rangers,” as my inner child so frequently does, and pursue an interest in anime and manga rather than cinema?

I’ve enjoyed some digitally-made productions, including COLLATERAL, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and PLANET TERROR. (The filmmakers of the latter two, David Fincher and Robert Rodriguez, are seen in SIDE BY SIDE.) To me, Zack Snyder’s 300, made entirely with actors filmed against digital backgrounds, is the modern equivalent of all those “sword ‘n’ sandal” films I once enjoyed. Next to BEN-HUR or SPARTACUS, it will certainly pale in comparison, but next to things like THE TROJAN HORSE or HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN, it has an energy and style that represent a fresh look at a long-neglected genre. Overall I prefer seeing film prints, but I will acknowledge that digital has its place. Whether I’ll ever become as enthusiastic about digital movies as I’ve been about celluloid movies remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, in the Arts & Leisure section of today’s New York Times, critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis engage in exactly the kind of discussion that I wish SIDE BY SIDE had contained:

Ms. Dargis’s positions seem closer to my own.

ADDENDUM (9/12/12): In the current issue of Cineaste (Vol. 37 #4), there’s a discussion of digital vs. film in “From 35mm to DCP: A Critical Symposium on the Changing Face of Motion Picture Exhibition,” which features some of the voices I found missing from SIDE BY SIDE, including film professor/textbook author David Bordwell, repertory programmers Bruce Goldstein and Scott Foundas, and critic J. Hoberman, among others. There’s a contribution by a collective called The Ferroni Brigade and I love these quotes from them:

“One knows that there’s a difference between watching a film in a theater and watching it on TV or one’s computer–it’s just that culture in general got ever more adept at denying said fact. If our culture is able to accept that there’s a difference between looking a a painting in a museum and looking at its reproduction in a catalog, then it should also be able to accept that there’s a difference between watching a 35mm film properly projected in a cinema and watching its reproduction on one’s computer….

“Calling celluloid a fetish when talking about cinema of the predigital age is something for people devoid of any kind of historical perspective, people for whom cinema is little more than a story-line plus a few aesthetic affectations, people who think that a different world is impossible. Only quislings call celluloid a fetish.”

For further information on this article:

4 Responses to “SIDE BY SIDE: filmmakers weigh in on the digital revolution”

  1. Christopher Camp September 10, 2012 at 1:35 PM #

    Hey Brian,

    I understand your dislikes about the movie and about digital. I written and discussed this quite a bit. As much as I prefer film, digital is here to stay. Technically speaking, film is still the greater medium (9/10/12) when it comes to picture quality but cameras such as the Arri Alexa and the Panavision Genesis are really close to producing film-like images. The most glaring different between digital and film is how they capture highlights and react to blown highlights. On film they look great and natural. On digital, terrible. The dynamic range of digital cameras are also almost where film is. Camera gear company, Zacuto, has the definitive technical comparison of digital vs film. . Film wins, of course, but just like SIDE BY SIDE the overall sentiment is that your storytelling ability trumps your tools.

    I know the cinematographer who shot SIDE BY SIDE and was talking to him about it a early last year while I was interviewing Thandie Newton. I mentioned to him that by the time this film came out so much will have changed that it would be irrelevant (not true). I haven’t seen SIDE BY SIDE yet but I know in this year along, huge strides have been made on the digital front. High Dynamic Range (HDR) video is being pioneered by RED and promises greater dynamic range than film.

    You mentioned COLLATERAL, DRAGON TATTOO, and PLANET TERROR. I believe COLLATERAL was mostly film, DRAGON TATTOO the RED camera, and PLANET TERROR the Panavision Genesis. Each of these films have very different looks. COLLATERAL and PLANET TERROR used the same set of popular lenses so you can look at digital cameras like you would different types of film stock. If DRAGON TATTOO were shot an anything but the RED I’d guess you wouldn’t enjoy it as much. I can’t imagine it shot on the vivid vibrant popular Kodak 5219 stock we all love.

    Books can be written about this. Frame rates, aspect ratios, shutter angles, resolution, lens types, projector etc, have all changed over the years. Mathematically we settled on 16 fps (followed by 24) but it’s merely a popularity thing. It’s what we great up watching. If our kids grow up watching Peter Jackson’s 48 fps then that’s all they’ll know as movies. This applies for the other aspects too.

    And 300 looks terrible…but that was post production’s doing. 🙂

  2. Dennis September 10, 2012 at 3:39 PM #

    Thank you for discussing issues of preservation and archiving. Your young colleague mentions that every film of the last 17 years is on the web. But what was the web like 17 years ago and what will it be like 17 years from now? Who can tell? Will there be a cyber-attack? Will all the servers be obsolete? Will everything be transfered to new hardware? Will the cloud blow away (joke)? We hardly remember floppies and videodiscs and (ironically) Sony Betamax.

    Similar archiving issues exist in other fields. I’ve seen oceanographic data on 200 bpi tape. Unusable. NASA collected an enormous amount of data in the 60s but never analyzed it and now cannot. At the hospital where I work about 20 years ago we once had to read old tapes of lab data to retrieve employee immune info. We had trouble but were able to retrieve enough to save lots of employee time and hospital money. If we waited a few more years we would not have been able.

    The jazz museum in Harlem is finding it very expensive to process the Savory discs. I attended a lecture where a curator from another jazz museum was transferring old jazz film to DVD. But what good will DVDs be 17 years from now? I’m pretty sure she’ll have to do it all over again soon.

    However, every weekend a million college kids go out and get drunk and document their adventures and upload them to Facebook filling up thousands of servers worldwide. Thank God these are digital. We don’t need to archive this crap.

    The Mormons have it right regarding geneology. They have microfilm inside a mountain that can withstand a nuclear attack.

    Analog media, whether they be vinyl, film or Babylonian clay tables, last longer. A thousand years from now what will future archeologists deduce about our culture?

  3. LC September 10, 2012 at 3:49 PM #

    Admittedly, I have not seen the documentary in question. This is, however, an issue I have run into frequently, and it is one that concerns me deeply. The debate, in my opinion, has consistently been examined from the wrong angle. Digital cannot, has not been, and never will be able to be a replacement or a stand-in for film. The technical qualities of the digital image have, of course, begun to closely approximate film, and its present pitfalls (the inconsistent treatment of bright light, for example) will likely eventually be eradicated. We absolutely cannot ignore, however, the fact that the frame rate and the projection process will always present glaring differences in the experience of actually watching a movie. When we watch a film, we spend exactly half of our time in the theater sitting in complete darkness (as the projector’s shutter closes fully between each frame)–although this cannot be perceived by the human eye, I would argue that this must account at least in some measure for the more relaxing qualities of the film image (as opposed to digital.) The film image draws one’s eye in; the digital image repulses it. Furthermore, film presents us with a series of complete and fully constituted pictures–each frame, in digital filmmaking, is interlaced with the preceding image, perhaps also accounting for the repulsion of the spectator’s eye.

    Naturally, we could make far more abstract arguments concerning these importance of two qualities. The “relaxing” quality of film is only a very simplistic example. Following this line of reasoning, however, we might consider the fact that some films are accordingly much more suited for digital production and distribution. Jia Zangke’s “The World,” for instance, simply could not have been made on film. The movie’s particular use of HD video conveys immense interpersonal distance and alienation in a manner which the film strip would not have been able to approach. (This is, of course, not to say that such topics cannot be treated with film [c.f. L’Aventuura etc] but the particular way we are confronted with them in “The World” is due as much to the choice of digital as anything else, and with such a marvelous subtlety.) The very fact that the image appears impenetrable to one’s eye is used to the movie’s advantage.

    There are many such examples of wholly effective uses of digital video in its own right and NOT as a replacement for film–Godard’s “Histoire(s) du cinema” being another extremely obvious one….and I do, truly, believe in the potential of digital filmmaking. If I dread a loss of emphasis on film, it is less for the sake of the movies to come (which might, simply, have to be different sorts of movie than we have been accustomed to) but rather the films of the past. Does Stan Brakhage’s treatment of the film strip make sense on DVD? Do the final moments of Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” have any currency or meaning when shown on digital video? These are my concerns, more than anything else. The distribution and preservation of older films on film is, to me, a far greater cause for concern than the infiltration of digital filmmaking, which must, in the end, realize that it will have to come into its own as an entirely new medium.

    • Joseph September 11, 2012 at 9:23 PM #

      I am that young colleague in question (thanks for the shout out Brian). 1995 was probably a bit too specific, as I was just throwing a date out there, but what I meant was that pretty much any movie *released* in a digital format – like DVD – has been disseminated throughout the internet via legal and not-so-legal means. That doesn’t mean that today’s video formats won’t become obsolete in the near future. However, what’s important here is the sheer scale of that dissemination. Movie files are being copied and shared literally every second throughout the world; a process that would have taken days in the past. They are being stored on hundreds of thousands of separate hard drives and servers around the world. And as each of those movie files are replicated, they will also be updated into whatever format is relevant at the moment – not by professionals, but by consumers. Amateur programmers are regularly writing code that can translate older file formats into newer ones, even if software companies haven’t done so yet. The result is that, barring some kind of worldwide calamity, any movie with an even modest presence on the internet is most likely here to stay. Now, “preservation” means different things to different people. An mp4 iPod-formatted video file of Lawrence of Arabia is certainly not what most industry professionals would call a definitive version of the film. That’s why professional archiving is extremely important, particularly with regards to films that consumers DON’T have any significant access to. But if we are talking about films simply being saved from oblivion, then I’m really not worried about our world losing any major motion picture made in the last generation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: