by Luke Whitmire

Anyone who loves the medium of filmmaking will love the compendious rhapsodizing on film vs digital technology in Side by Side. This docu examines the intrinsically fascinating technical specifications of the two formats that have dynamically altered the way we view and interpret art on screen. Over the last ten years, the titans of the film industry have switched over to digital cameras to convey their art. Acting as the dominant voice and one of the pic’s prodigious producers, Keanu Reeves orchestrates and comprises a plethora of A-list filmmakers whom espouse their view on the photochemical film process against the indelible, newfangled capabilities.

There are plenty of rousing opinions, ranging from James Cameron praising digital 3D as a mind-altering experience (if used correctly), to one cinematographer bemoaning that the digital age is like trading in his oil paintings for a box of crayons. Also, we see a brief history of 35mm film and the genesis of digital in a flutter, without giving us enough time to process all the complicated and detailed information. In a flurry, the glorification of silver halide, the precious grain, and the dynamic range ingrained in 35mm is deemed insurmountable by the old school auteurs.
Writer-director Chris Kenneally and Reeves take us through the process of how digital is used in its endeavor of filmmaking: color correction, editing, projection and visual effects. We see how digital information is stored and archived compared to 35mm film. This comparison is the most contentious issue discussed in the documentary. David Fincher laments how he can’t even view his older film projects due to not having anything to screen them through. He is a very robust advocate of the digital age, and articulates his points with precision.

Keanu Reeves interviewing Cinema Auteurs in Side by Side

Keanu sits down with Christopher Nolan who advocates that film will always be his format for storytelling, and praises film for its latitude and its other nuances. Keanu typed a letter to Nolan on an old typewriter, instead of using todays high caliber digital technologies to pique Nolan’s interest in participating in the documentary. Keanu understands that Nolan is a purist, an old school visionary with a particular style.

The filmmakers do lay out some technical issues that even a layperson can comprehend, like how the number of “pixels” in the Redcamera and a Sony F950 is much better than the standard-definition cameras. And we see clips that illustrate how the dynamic range in film surpasses the pixel rate in these high def formats.
Plenty of interview time is given to other prolific filmmakers who prefer the aesthetic of photochemical over digital. Joel Schumacher has a funny segment where he says digital gives the actors more time to look at their hair rather than their performance. He doesn’t like how digital provides the actors and crew with instant playback. David Lynch and Martin Scorsese want the two formats to coexist so artist can have a choice of what aesthetic they want to achieve.
Overall, the documentary is extremely informative and educational for anyone who has a strong love for filmmaking. The creators accentuate the issues with clarity and do an impeccable job of giving an honest assessment of each format. All the filmmakers agree that film is better, but the power of digital is shifting ineluctably every year, simply because it’s cheaper and easier to manipulate.
Bottom line: An educational feast for fan boys!
* * * * * (5 out of 5 stars