“Is film dead?” That’s the central question of Chris Kenneally’s Side by Side, co-produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves. He speaks to many of the top directors of the day, plus several cinematographers, editors, and performers to judge whether the digital revolution in cinema is a good thing, a bad thing, or just another choice.
Photochemical film, also called celluloid, was the way to shoot films for over the first century of the art form. Videotape, once it became feasible for home use, was the choice of television, documentaries, and pornography, and never used by any self-respecting filmmaker. But once digital cameras were introduced, which did not use film but instead a microchip to process and store images, the film world slowly started to change.
At first it was a matter of economics. Dogma 95, a Danish film collective, used it to startling effect, most notably in the film Celebration and then the work of Lars Van Triers. But it was still a niche way of making films, not taken seriously by big time cinematographers.
Over the course of discussion with directors and cinematographers, it seems that there has always been a bit of a struggle between the two. Cinematographers, it was said, were the only one who knew how to shoot film, and many became involved in the business for the “voodoo” of it, and because it was they who could make magic. They would shoot a scene, and a director had no idea what he or she had until the next day’s dailies. Digital cameras made it possible to see what they had immediately, and in takes much longer than the ten-minutes one load of film could give them. It made filmmaking faster and much cheaper.
It was George Lucas, who in the film comes across like Van Helsing trying to put the stake in film, who upped the ante. Stars Wars I was the first major feature to be projected digitally. At the time, there were four digital projectors. In a few years there will be 100,000. Then, Star Wars II was shot using high-definition digital cameras, which eliminated much of the grainy resolution problems that the old digital had. Hollywood was in an uproar. But the revolution has continued. In 2009, Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot Celebration, won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, the first cinematographer to win using that format.
Reeves covers the gamut of the filmmaking process in his interviews, conducting casually (with his tonsorial style changing from scene to scene). There is two sides to every argument–some actors like it, especially those trained in the theater, like John Malkovich, or started with indie films, like Greta Gerwig. There are others who don’t. A story is told about Robert Downey Jr., who hates that he can’t disappear to his trailer between takes.
I learned a lot I didn’t know. I mean, I knew basically how a camera works, but if you don’t, you get that here. I’ve always tried to ignore the technical aspect of cinema–I once took a course at NYU and when the teacher started talking about emulsion I knew I was in over my head. But digital filmmaking eliminates the need for a lot of this knowledge. It means that a lot of different people can make films, which Reeves asks, “Isn’t that a good thing?” But some say no, because the more films that are made, the more junk is made. Digital cameras means cinema is more democratic, but not necessarily better.
Reeves and Kenneally make sure to get all opinions. Christopher Nolan and his DP, Wally Pfister, are film-to-the-end guys. Lucas, of course, is “death to film.” David Fincher was pleased that a digital camera weighing only five pounds was developed for him for The Social Network. Others, like Martin Scorsese, see it as a choice, like black and white versus color, although Scorsese seems wistful for the old days, citing that shooting virtually takes a lot of reality out of it. James Cameron scoffs at this. “What about film was ever real?” he says, citing the artificiality of a film set. David Lynch is interviewed, and I would have liked to hear more from him.
The changing ways people view films are also discussed. “Film was the church of the twentieth century,” is said in the film, when “going to the movies” was a communal experience. Now, young people don’t view “going to the movies” the same way, watching it in any number of ways, whether on a TV or an iPhone. Barry Levinson remembers watching a film in theaters that had parting red curtains, a way of life that has disappeared.
The answer to the question, “Film is dead,” is complicated. For one thing, no more film cameras are being manufactured by the companies who made them. One expert says that in five years, film will be the exception rather than the rule. But it should be noted that film is still being used; two of the biggest hits of this year, The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises, were shot on film.
What’s important to remember is that what is most important about a film is not what camera is used, but how good the story is. A good story, even if it’s shot on a cell phone, is a good story.