Side By Side – The Science, Art, and Impact of Digital Cinema

Side by Side is a documentary movie in which Keanu Reeves interviews a bunch of directors and cinematographers and other people involved in the making of movies. He asked them what they think of film vs digital in the world of cinema. Explained along the way are the history of digital video cameras used in movies, as well as digital efex. All are expected topics that are well covered. What was a pleasent surprise was the survey of how digital cameras have changed the aesthetics of cinema and storytelling and the type of scenes you can create. This goes beyond the efex heavy ideas of Hollywood and starts with the ultra pure Dogme 95 movement.

That technology influences the movies is no surprise. It always has from its invention. Rotoscoping, soundtracks, talkies, color, wide screen. Like still photography, the technology of cinema is linked to film history. Changes in technology bring changes in storytelling. When digital video was first introduced, the cameras were much smaller than the film counterparts. This allowed for more handheld shooting and freewheeling scenes. It also allowed for angles that are harder to get with film cameras because of the weights of the cameras.

Digital cameras for longer takes, so scenes could be longer between cuts. The battery and storage has limitations, but they are usually an hour. Film is limited to about 10 minutes because of the physical nature of the film stock itself. This difference not only affects the editing process, but also the acting process. More takes can be done more quickly. Scenes can go longer, requiring more lines spoken and characterizations be maintained for longer. How stories get told can be influenced by the choice of the tool used to tell it.

There is also the matter of the movie’s budget. Digital can be a lot cheaper to shoot. It does not require the expensive cameras and film and development fees. On the other hand, it does require more work on the backend. Sound familiar? The result is that anyone can make a movie now. You do not have to have a Hollywood budget to make a film, or to disturibute it.

The documentary explains the entire filmmaking process from capture to storage. The details of the resolutions of the different videos cameras are shown. Mentioned, but not shown are the differences in color and latitude between film and the various video formats. The differences in quality are part of how the various filmmakers make their choice.

Reeves interviews with the filmmakers is interesting but a bit distracting. He doesn’t always ask insightful questions, and yet he still gets some insightful answers. Better still, the examples the filmmakers are talking about are shown. You can see for yourself the nuances of the different techniques.

In some senses, the debate can break down to one of nostalgia vs progress. But there is more to it than that. There is definitely a transition happening right now. Film is not dead. It is a viable choice with some benefits. But it is also obvious to even the diehard film advocates like Christopher Nolan that the choice is not going to be there in five to ten years.

The debate really starts coming down to the individual artists themselves and what they are hoping to accomplish. What do they need to tell the stories they want in the way they want to do so. All of this debate has been happening in the still world for just as long. All of the problems with stills exist for movies, too. The technological siblings are experiencing similar growing pains. In a way it is telling to see John Knoll interviewed in this film. He works for ILM, but is also co-creator, with his brother Thomas, of Photoshop.

As with some many other areas, digital tools are changing things. What is not changing is the desire to use tools to get the job done. In the end it is the result that is important, not how the result was achieved. How the work is done is the decision of the person doing it. The rest is just debate.