Side by Side (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 17th January, 2013

Produced and presented by Keanu Reeves, the feature-length documentary Side by Side is a comprehensive refresher course at this moment in cinema history, as photochemical film faces potential extinction in favour of digital capture and exhibition. It’s well-known that Reeves got the idea when seeing digital and traditional colour timing side by side in the postproduction of Henry’s Crime, that he was seized by a realisation that film was going to die, and that he and his team have tracked down a plethora of great interviewees to talk on the subject of film vs digital –directors like David Fincher, Chris Nolan, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, cinematographers like Michael Ballhaus, Vittorio Storaro and Michael Chapman.  What’s surprising is how much ground Side by Side covers on this multi-pronged issue, and how entertaining it is for both experts and the uninitiated.

We get the usual discussion on 35mm’s dynamic range and romance versus the rapidly evolving yet ultimately computerised nature of digital, and the bulky, unpredictable practicalities of ‘real’ film as opposed to the portability of digital cameras and hard drives. But further to that, Reeves’s narration asides into wonderfully clear explanations of technological basics like how the silver halide crystals in film emulsion react with photons to create images, and how the diodes on a digital sensor do similar. The evolution of digital cameras is covered, from models like the substandard HDW-F900 that was first touted as a rival to 35mm when it was used for Attack of the Clones, through to the Panavision Genesis (Superman Returns, Apocalypto), which has a capture area similar to 35mm, to today’s superbly expressive models like the ARRI Alexa and RED Epic. Nor does Side By Side forget that digital intermediate colour-correction has been the industry norm for the past decade, or that digital tools have been gaining traction in the worlds of sound, special effects and editing for several.

The film even manages to get into the vitally important but often under-discussed issue of archiving. David Fincher points to a stack of master tapes he has of music videos he’s directed, but says he can’t find machines to play the formats, and so it may be with digital – codecs change and digital data can corrupt beyond repair, while physical film is still the most reliable method of preservation. (Kodak recently released Asset Protection 2332, a film stock specifically designed to archive digitally captured images.) It’s terrifying to think how much data we have stored in 1s and 0s, and how prone it is to obsolescence and decay, not to mention, say, electromagnetic impulses. George Lucas’s response on the matter is a cop-out: “There’s too much digital information for us not to invent a foolproof way of preserving it.” In other words, it’s such a huge problem that it will solve itself.

It almost seems pointless to write about Side By Side in summary, as its wealth of information speaks for itself. Perhaps instead of reviews of the film or interviews with its makers, we could persuade them to publish their project as a book alongside the DVD – or eBook alongside the video download, to keep it topical. It’s one of the definitive additions to the debate it covers, which has been so covered that – see below – even I made a documentary about cinemas’ switch to digital projection, which is, admittedly, a lot shorter than Side By Side and slightly more of a polemic than a chronicle.

The big evaluative criticism I’d have about Side By Side is that it is better at demonstrating history, science and technology than aesthetics. It doesn’t give us a side-by-side comparison of image qualities – how could it, without being a multi-format exhibition? – plus its archive footage, even from classic films like Lawrence of Arabia, sometimes looks rendered on a par with its own documentary footage’s lo-res digital capture, which was done on the $2,000 Panasonic HPX 170. I asked producer Justin Szlasa about that, and he said it was due to problems conforming different source formats to the DCP. I understand the pressures of low-budget film production, but it seems a shame than in the mad rush to accept digital tech at the expense of photochemical beauty, even the examination of the issue suffers from some of the obvious downsides.