Side by Side

by Sarah Slade


One of the interviewees in this thoughtful account of the rise of digital moviemaking called the film production process “sculpting with light”, and they have a point. Film-making captures light and shade, and creates something solid, permanent: a thing that can be carried between places, handled, edited and projected. Whether digital or celluloid, the end result is the same, isn’t it?

The first half hour of Chris Kenneally’s documentary, which is produced and presented by Keanu Reeves, concentrates on the film production process. Film gives a sharp, complex image with plenty of depth and warmth. But celluloid production is expensive; the physical length of a reel of film means that takes are restricted to a maximum of ten minutes. After shooting, the film has to be processed, and the earliest the director gets to view the results is 24 hours after shooting, and even then, the quality of the image depends heavily on the technical and artistic skills of the cinematographer.

Cinematographers are the link between the creative and technical process: technically accomplished photographers who can capture the light and commit the director’s vision to celluloid, or to ones and zeros. In celluloid production their expertise is integral to the creative process, but the demands of digital production don’t necessarily require the director to cede as much control.

Film-making beefcake George Lucas, pictured here next to a still from some film.
Film-making beefcake George Lucas, pictured here next to a still from some film.

Directors direct. Their vision is the film, but if you’re George Lucas, you may resent having to wait 24 hours to see the results of a shoot, or work in ten-minute takes, or defer to another’s visual expertise. Digital filming sounds like a good idea, but the standard of the technology and the quality of the image are way too low. You’re not a Dogme filmmaker, making bad-quality visuals into an artistic manifesto about the truth of filmmaking, and your vision is too grand and expensive for celluloid. So you do what any director would have done, and you develop your own digital camera: a bazooka-shaped contraption that you use to shoot… Attack Of The Clones.

Right there, I think, is a potential problem with digital filmmaking. Early adopters such as James Cameron and Lucas are responsible for some of the most technically proficient, visually rich, plodding, overlong, indigestible spectacles in recent years. Cameron and Lucas talk of the ability to create entire worlds that only exist on a computer screen that they then insert the actors into, like another component. The trouble is that so much attention is lavished on the look of the movie, they forget to consider other things like plot, and character development. The look becomes more important than the story, or the people in the story.

“…and here is the sacrifice we must give to the gods of the cinematograph.”

Much of Side By Side‘s attention is on the directors and the cinematographers. One or two actors get to offer an opinion, but this is primarily a film about the way the production process governs the creative dynamics of a film set. It’s a kind of virtual argument, conducted through interviews with Keanu Reeves, between early-adopting evangelists for digital film like Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, Lucas and Cameron; the ambivalent David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, who see the benefits but are wary of digital;and those, like Christopher Nolan, who insist on continuing to work with celluloid. It would be too simplistic to divide them into pro- and anti- camps, as the arguments are too varied, the positions too complex. Many of those interviewed admitted an aesthetic preference for celluloid, but generally accepted that, from a technological point of view, film had reached the end of its life. Camera manufacturers are concentrating on making digital cameras; as their products are getting smaller, more portable, and less bazooka-ish, filmmakers are exploring the possibilities offered by digital.

Signs that the Dogme days are far behind came when Slumdog Millionaire became the first digitally-shot film to win a Best Picture Oscar. The film’s cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and its director Danny Boyle exploited the physical freedom offered by digital cameras to create a swooping, kinetic, energetic riot of a movie that satisfied eye and mind. Less spectacular works like Collateral, a thriller set entirely at night, made use of the tonal possibilities of digital cameras, giving what on celluloid would have been… well… black, a sombre palette of blues, browns, greens and ochres.

At the other end of the digital market are the indie filmmakers, students and first-timers who have access to (relatively) cheap cameras that mimic the production values of a bigger-budget film. The message is that you no longer need to have a huge film crew and budget: you can shoot and produce a fairly decent-quality movie with a laptop and a digital SLR camera. Some old pros may protest that the quality is still not good enough for the theatre, but even who needs to go to the cinema when you can watch a film on your phone?

The rise of digital affects even the relationship between filmmaker and audience because there is now more than one way to watch a movie. Some interviewees maintained that the the group experience of the cinema is still the best, the only way, but others, like the Wachowskis, likened it to a one-to-one conversation. Other interviewees saw the blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur filmmaking as a heralding a decline in quality cinema. But something that wasn’t addressed was the growth in home-grown film festivals, which use digital technology to create pop-up neighbourhood cinemas in places where no one would have dreamed of showing a film, for example, showing The Ladykillers alongside locally-produced shorts in a south London cemetery, or running a film on bicycle-powered generators.

The Side by Side interviewer, who wisely stays behind the camera. Euch!

Without really noticing in advance, I had decided to test a lot of these theories in my experience with this film. Instead of visiting a cinema (a near impossibility for working parents with a Tottenham-supporting babysitter anyway), I downloaded the movie from iTunes and watched it on my desktop. The result was fragmented. While I was fascinated by the subject, and its delivery (Keanu is a charming, knowledgeable interviewer, and still hot, even with a beard), it was too easy to hit the pause button, wander off, make tea, whatever, and then return. All very convenient, but – for me – still not a patch on the full cinema experience.

Wherever Side by Side ranged, and it did range far and wide, it always came back to the same question of quality. Quality of experience, quality of image, and quality of output. More films being produced by more people, with more places to show films, does not mean that those films are essentially better, just that there are more films around. Better quality films, by which I suppose they mean films like the examples featured in Side by Side, that push the boundaries in some way, are in danger of being lost in the crowd. There are no “tastemakers”, no benchmarks of quality, apart from what came before. The sheer quantity and range of digital output militates against a gold standard of cinematic quality. At the same time that digital is being used to create effects-heavy extravaganzas like The Hobbit, the likes of Lena Dunham are using digital technology to make intimate, low-fi vignettes of modern city life. But this has always been the case, and I think the directors are underestimating the audience’s filtering skills. There will always be a market for Danny Dyer movies, and let’s not forget that Cameron, Soderbergh, Scorsese and Lynch all produced movies on celluloid in a market that featured straight-to-video shockers, Barbara Cartland romances and The Care Bears Movie.

The good stuff usually has had a habit of rising above the rest over time.  The danger, in the brave new digital world, is that good stuff will remain buried for longer, or even for ever.

About Sarah Slade

Middle-aged, middle-sized and reluctantly middle-class Learning designer, based in London. Wife to Mr Perfect, Mother of Little Miss Perfect. I write a lot of learningy businessy stuff for a living, and as a consequence am very lazy about writing for myself. I occasionally write my own blog about living in London and sometimes I’ll find something interesting to say about my professional life. I sew a bit, paint a bit and I sing very averagely and play a terrible game of badminton.

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