Side by Side

side-by-side-film-canister

By the time I had entered college, there were no film strip editing bays or film cameras in my program. Everything was shot on digital cameras and edited with Avid. Our program was fairly new with the focus primarily being on news so they had no need to show us exactly how a film camera works or how splicing came about. And yet our professors would wax poetic about the old newsroom days when everything was ran on reel-to-reel and video cassettes were thought to be too fragile. They would talk about how precise their edits had to be, how deliberate their camera had to be positioned. One professor even shot her recent project on film and showed us her rough cut by bringing in an old style projector. At the time I thought that idea was quaint but unnecessary. Why not shoot on digital? It was cheaper and easier to manipulate. It wasn’t until I started watching a butt load of classic films that I realized that these films could never be made digitally. There is a quality to film that is incomparable to anything else.  And yet it is cumbersome, expensive, and hard to manipulate. Which one is better? As a film geek I have my thoughts. And so does so many other people who Keanu Reeves (this such a random celebrity pick and yet he seems really knowledgable about it) and Christopher Kenneally decide to show both sides of the argument in the documentary Side by Side.

The argument isn’t just what you shoot on. It is what you edit on, how you act, how you light, how effects are handled, and the control you have over your product. In the old days things that involved human contact and intuition now are able to be fixed by using a computer. Keanu interviews many different professionals in order to get the true debate going. What do film editors think? What do visual effects people think? What do cinematographers think? These are all arguments and stories that are usually not told in this huge debate that has been going on for years now. You usually only get an actor’s perspective (which is usually very surface) and a director’s perspective (which is usually detailed), but not the perspective of the people whose jobs are being affected by the transition. These people need to have a say and I am glad they chose to interview these people as well as the other big names like James Cameron, Steven Soderberg, and Martin Scorsese. I almost care more about what these day-to-day people have to say more than what the director has to say. Christopher Nolan will never be run out of the room because he still wants to shoot on film, but a color correctionist whose job is now being done by the computer will be. They should have as much say in their fate as anyone else does.

The history of film is well-known, but the history of digital is not. Side by Side aims to correct that lack of history by showing us how digital technology came about. This is the portion of the documentary that could be seen as boring to people who only have a passing interest in this argument, but I thought it was essential in order to truly understand the debate. The problem with the digital history of filmmaking is technology constantly evolving. A couple of filmmakers that came early to the digital revolution remark on having to put a reader next to the archival print because in a couple of years nothing will be made that can still read it. You never had that problem with film. Although the editing bays had gotten better, the film stock itself has gotten stronger, and the methods of preserving them has improved over the years, it could never be not read. Stick one of those reels on a projector and you are good to go. Now whether or not it is a good print is a different matter but the fact that it could be read at anytime by anyone passingly familiar with projectors is something that digital technology right now doesn’t have. How many people do you know still own a VHS player? How about laser disc? How about Beta player? These are just consumer driven examples, but you understand where I am coming from. James Cameron believes that in a decade the Avatar original negative will still be able to be read and I would have to disagree with him. And it is his fault. He is putting all of his man power, expertise and money into improving digital technology to the point that the camera that Avatar was shot on will non existent in a couple of years.

Side by Side is effective for me purely because it gets me thinking about this debate and challenges my conclusions that I had coming in. We are in the midst of a change that is completely taking a hold on the way we see films, the way films are shot and the way films will be archived. Do I want to be an ardent supporter of the change or do I want to resist? Only time will tell.

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