‘Side By Side’

Questioning the pros and cons of digital film


Technological progress comes at us so fast and furious, its claims so inflated, its cautions so ignored, that it’s easy to be swept away by the sort of Wired-magazine techno-utopianism in which every leap forward is ipso facto a good thing. But the more mundane reality is simply that if something becomes possible, and someone stands to make a buck off it, we are convinced it is unavoidable progress, like it or not.

Now you might imagine me to be some old Luddite sitting here with his Woody Allen-style typewriter and listening to scratchy old 78 rpm records, but the fact is I’m typing on my iPad, and I also produce music using a wide variety of software, synthesizers, and digital effects. I embrace technology — when it offers something new, or simply a better way of working. But what I fear is the unthinking adoption of new tech, that gnawing feeling that sometimes we’re moving backwards. The perfect example, of course, is the MP3, the sound of which is significantly thinner and worse than just about every format (vinyl, tape, CD) that preceded it.

The same holds true for cinema: digital filmmaking and projection was a long time coming, but the stampede in that direction is such that film cameras are in danger of becoming extinct. Digital certainly has its advantages, but are we losing something crucial by abandoning film so quickly?

Exploring that issue is “Side By Side”, a documentary — narrated by Keanu Reeves — that interviews dozens of major filmmakers on the issue of film vs. digital, while also tracing the rise of digital production within the industry. With no perceptible bias, it makes a good case for both formats, although the march to digital may be irreversible at this point. Directors as diverse as David Lynch (“Inland Empire”), James Cameron (“Avatar”), Stephen Soderbergh (“Che”) and Danny Boyle (“127 Hours”) are all happy converts to digital, while it’s mostly cinematographers who wax nostalgic about film, although Chrisopher Nolan is a notable holdout.

And yet, what does it mean for Nolan to say he prefers the quality of film, when his movies like “The Dark Knight Rises” or “Inception” are full of digitally rendered effects sequences, digitally edited, and digitally colorized before being rendered to a print? Even movies shot on film are a hybrid today, and the reason for that is because the digital tools available are often vastly superior. (Although I tend to agree with Nolan and “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes that real, physical sets and stunts are infinitely more convincing than CGI.)

Digital compositing, for example, allows effects and live action to be mixed together with no degradation of the image, unlike film, which is why people like George Lucas were quick to adopt it. Digital editing was also a huge improvement, much faster and more flexible than the old hand-splicing techniques, which has led to greater experimentation. (But as sound editor Walter Murch asks rhetorically, “Has editing gotten better because there’s infinite choice?”)

Yet on the other hand, digital transmission of media along the Web — for delivery to phones, home computers, tablets and streaming sites — has resulted in digital cleansing of the grain of film itself, including old classics, to give a less textured look that can be rendered in lower resolution, and hence reduce its bandwidth imprint. Like with the MP3, online digital distribution has resulted in a triumph of convenience over quality.

“Side By Side” tackles many such pro-con debates, and is great viewing for anyone even remotely interested in how films get made. The Dogma 95 film “Festen” and Robert Rodrgiuez’s “Sin City” are well-known as early adopters of digital production, but who knew that the Coen Brothers “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was the first film to have every single frame digitally color-enhanced in postproduction, or that “Slumdog Millionaire” was the first entirely digitally-shot film to win an Oscar? Boyle is a particularly enthusiastic digital proponent, praising the ability of lightweight cameras to get new kinds of shots, in locations where traditional set-ups would not be possible.

Perhaps the biggest cautionary note comes when the documentary addresses the problem of storing digital content. While film standards have stayed remarkably consistent over the past century — Martin Scorsese calls it “the only reliable storage medum” — there have been over 80 formats of video to date, and most of them cannot be played anymore. David Fincher (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) notes how he can no longer access his 1980s archives, as well as the basic problem with hard drives: don’t use them and they freeze up, use them and they wear out.

Leave it to George Lucas, though, to chime in with the technophiliac/nerd mantra: “Yeah, there are problems. But they’re going to fix them!”

We can only hope.