Side by Side Illustrates in Great Detail The Ongoing Debate Between Celluloid and Digital Film

Side by Side Poster

Side by Side Poster

TitleSide by Side
Director(s)Christopher Kenneally
Release Year2012

The ongoing debate between purists and critics of celluloid film about whether digital filming is the way of the future has been going on for several years now. If digital is the way of the future, where does that leave photo-chemical film? In Christopher Kenneally’s documentary, Side by Side, he outlines the basic debate between the two sides, and goes into an incredible amount of detail which covers everything from differences in exhibition, to how the cameras operate differently. Utilizing a plethora of interviews with directors, editors, and so on, the viewer gets opinions on the debate from those who have the most to gain (or lose) from going digital. It is one of the most robust documentaries that catalogs our fears and aspirations when it comes to the digital revolution.

Narrated by Keanu Reeves, with interviews done by him, Side by Side gets into the issues of digital and film without being completely one-sided, presenting both the complications and benefits of each side. However, the way the film is illustrated, it comes off more favored towards digital than film with only a handful of people that speak against digital by the end of the movie, but recognize it as an inevitability, from Greta Gerwig to Wally Pfister to Christopher Nolan (the most passionate of celluloid-defenders). The interviews with Nolan seem to be used more as a devil’s advocate against digital, being placed in there periodically, and then immediately followed by another director being a little more balanced about the issue. Issues like physical storage and endurance of film are where Nolan’s arguments shine, but most of the time, there’s a feeling like he is only there to be the one guy who sees no value in the digital process. The movie paints the image of a future where film and digital cannot exist together, with people like Nolan as the stragglers who stay behind and cling to the past.

Martin Scorsese inviting us into the digital revolution.

Martin Scorsese inviting us into the digital revolution.

Keeping your eye on the past though, is not what this film encourages. One of the ways it shows just how helpful going digital is, is by portraying the technical aspects of cinematography, editing and color timing, to provide a robust look at how the change to digital affects many departments within the film crew. Scenes can be seen if they are worthwhile immediately, as opposed to waiting for the dailies to show up the next day; editing feels less stressful because it is all done digitally as opposed to manually cutting and pasting reels of film, and; the process of color timing is less physical, with the implementation of digital intermediates who can change colors on the computer as opposed to having to soak reels of film in baths of dye. Side by Side shows the common argument for digital being one of reducing stress, and that digital delivers an immediacy which photo-chemical film cannot provide.

There are plenty of other interesting tidbits from the perspectives of each member of the film crew, most of which point to the celluloid film fading into obscurity. One of the complaints I have is that there seems to be this notion that digital copies of a film can disappear because hard drives die out, and compact discs stop working eventually. This plays as a benefit to the physical attributes of celluloid, yet the idea of uploading digital copies to the internet doesn’t seem to even be entertained as an option. I suppose that this is because of the issues of privacy, with almost no online community feeling safe with hackers like Anonymous out there. However, the idea was not even mentioned, which is a slight nitpick, but something I would have liked to see as an argument. Side by Side is all about entertaining the idea of digital film being the future, and photo-chemical film being at its height, but there still seems to be a nostalgia for celluloid which the movie doesn’t really explore either. If you ask someone who loves celluloid film, why they do, most will immediately go to the feeling of watching a reel of film which has been shown several times, giving it a wear-and-tear that digital does not have. It’s a superficial argument, but nonetheless, it is an argument that film purists cling to in debates.

You kind of forget how terrible the Star Wars prequels were when George Lucas starts being the guy who strives for the future.

You kind of forget how terrible the Star Wars prequels were when George Lucas is seen as the guy who strives for the future.

Overall, the debate between film and digital will continue to rage on, regardless of Side by Side‘s detailed visual essay on the matter. It becomes clear that digital is the way of the future, just as sound was in the 1930’s and color was in the early 1900’s. The inexpensive process of digital allows for writers and other film fans to get their own imaginations put on the big screen, creating a more democratic process for making films. It also manages to ease the stress of those on the film crew, by making parts of the movie-making process relatively easier. Side by Side tries not to point fingers and choose one side over the other, but by the end it feels like there is nowhere to go but to digital film. With people like George Lucas and James Cameron pushing the envelope for what digital films can look like and be, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a disdain for what will inevitably be the future of movies. Kenneally has created a wonderfully detailed look into the digital future of film, one that will be referenced for years to come when the next technological innovations begin arriving at the forefront of cinema, and people fear that change as well.


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