Having walked the hallowed (and chilled) halls of a biobox as a proud projectionist and then continued working into the distribution side of the film industry, I was really excited when I learnt about Side by Side, a documentary that examines one of the direct contributing factors as to why being a projectionist is a dying profession, and also how the distribution — and making — of films is changing. I had an obvious personal interest in the subject matter, but that aside, this film isn’t limited to just a small audience of projectionists and/or distributors. This is a subject that will interest anyone who loves film and/or technology, and is guaranteed to generate discussion and divide said audiences into those who argue for and against.
In Side by Side, director Chris Keneally and producer/interviewer Keanu Reeves examine the history of film (the object) in film (cinema), and how it has slowly been changing over the last few years with the introduction of digital storage, cameras, and projectors. Managing to catch a veritable who’s who of current Hollywood, alongside a few lesser known and emerging filmmakers, Keneally and Reeves gather the varied perspectives from those who are on the frontline of a potential changing of the guard — from 35mm to bytes.
For the casual passerby, the seemingly simple change of format from film to digital may not seem like a big deal (kind of like how in the old days people used to respond to my being a projectionist with “Don’t you just push a buton?” but that’s a rant for another day). But unlike the shift from VHS to DVD, this isn’t simply the change of a format of how we watch films at home. The change to digital has affected all aspects of cinema, which includes how the film itself gets made. Back when computers were first being used to help expand stories and improve special effects, the bright minds behind the camera began to realise just how much stuff could be digitised. Naturally, this progressed to a whole film being shot and then transferred to digital, which of course, was then only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped — why not just make the whole damn thing in digital from the start?
Filmmaking used to be an exclusive, labour-focused, and expensive endeavour. Only those with the finances, proper dedication and skills for the technical side could get their films made. And this didn’t even guarantee a success. But with the advances in digital cameras, computers and editing software, and the ease of digital projection, practically anyone nowadays can make a film (whether that film is any good, again, is a rant for another day), and get it shown. Filmmakers can be even more creative with their stories and their camerawork (smaller, digital cameras equals better manouverability), and the possibilities for discovering new techniques are limitless.
One of the reasons why I really dug this doco was that extensive coverage of the many aspects that are connected to, and affected by, the changeover to digital. The film looks at not only directors who wax poetic about how they can now grab their own little RED camera and be right in the middle of the action, but also how much easier and accessible filmmaking has become. Covering a history of film and a round-up of those important roles involved in making a film that might sometimes get overlooked (cinematography, editing, sound, etc), the film also has a look at the distribution and exhibition side of the change, so that combined with the mouth-watering interviews with a treasure trove of filmmakers, we’re presented with a really engaging film.
But here lies its possible downfall as well. As much as I loved this documentary, and would recommend it to all, it might not have a broad enough appeal to be engaging enough for everyone. Apart from movie nerds, people in the biz, and film school students, it’s hard to see it really crossing over to a wide movie-going audience. To be honest, I don’t even know if things are explained easy enough for any random person off the street to understand. The film was clear to me, but then again, I went into the film knowing what they’re talking about. Considering most people might not know how much 35mm film is still being used (in all aspects of the film industry, from production to exhibition), or even what 35mm is, it might be a stretch to ask them to follow explanations on colour-grading, or feel either nostalgia or indifference to the prospect that film may one day soon be dead. I’m not trying to be a know-it-all, as I honestly want to hear the opinion of someone who has no clue about the subject matter, because I openly admit how clouded my vision is, how I had a prejudice to like this film before seeing it, and how this film kind of “Had me at Hello”. The problem is that those people who aren’t movie nerds probably won’t see this film. Hopefully I’m wrong, and Reeves’ name will certainly add interest, and maybe the film will get the audience it deserves.
At the “special” Q&A afterwards (“special” meaning the moderator wasn’t a Berlinale rep and everyone got to sit down and have little glasses of water), the crowd of film geeks were clearly frothing at the mouth to get a question in. As always, someone let two total geniuses have the mic — one guy from Brazil thanking Reeves for showing this film in Berlin because it gave him the excuse to come to Germany, and a chick who practically asked Reeves out. Thanks a bunch for wasting everyone’s time! But there were some good questions and genuine curiosity, and both Keneally and Reeves came across as passionate about the subject matter and eager to talk about it and share stories. For a nice change, those of you playing at home can actually watch this Q&A, courtesy of the Berlinale website.
So yes, this documentary is interesting for the mere fact that you have masters like James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese chatting away about their craft. But Side by Side rakes up a load more brownie points for its extensive coverage of the subject matter, variety of interviewees and their occupations, and even decision to stay neutral on that looming question “Which is better — digital or film?” Like a snapshot of a society at a tipping point, this documentary will, if justice is served, be one day an important historical document that captured this moment in time. And for the record, my personal opinion? Though I see all the advantages of digital and agree with all of them, I’m in no way in a hurry to get rid of film. It’s still part of the magic.
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