Sunday Editor’s Pick: Side by Side (2012)

by on April 22, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Tue April 24 at 8:30 & Sun April 29 at 2:30 at SVA
Playing Thurs April 26 at 7:00, Fri April 27 at 2:30, and Sat April 28 at 4:00 at AMC Loews Village [Program & Tix]

 
Perhaps the single most important movie at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Brooklynite filmmaker Christopher Kenneally joins forces with the perpetually astonished Keanu Reeves to tackle the forefront issue of digital vs. film, and recruit the industry’s most relevant talking heads to offer their two cents.

 
Everyone’s already talking about the potential demise of 35mm- whether we can fight it and whether it’s worth fighting – and this will be sure to get ‘em talking more.
 
Gendy Alimurung introduces her most essential roundup on the situation and its ripple effects, for LA Weekly:

Today, the driving force isn’t so much a single movie as it is the studios’ bottom line — they no longer want to pay to physically print and ship movies. It costs about $1,500 to print one copy of a movie on 35 mm film and ship it to theaters in its heavy metal canister. Multiply that by 4,000 copies — one for each movie on each screen in each multiplex around the country — and the numbers start to get ugly. By comparison, putting out a digital copy costs a mere $150.
 
This year, for the first time in history, celluloid ceases to be the world’s prevailing movie-projector technology. By the end of 2012, according to IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, the majority of theaters will be showing movies digitally. By 2013, film will slip to niche status, shown in only a third of theaters. By 2015, used in a paltry 17 percent of global cinemas, venerable old 35 mm film will be mostly gone.
 
The repercussions will be vast — and felt down the entire length of the movie-industry food chain.

 

 
One of the earliest resounding voices was Julia Marchese of New Beverly Cinema, with her “Fight for 35mm” petition sent to major studios after procuring over 10,000 signatures:

The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high.
 
I firmly believe that when you go out to the cinema, the film should be shown in 35mm. At the New Beverly, we have never been about making money – a double feature ticket costs only $8. We are passionate about cinema and film lovers. We still use a reel to reel projection system, and our projectionists care dearly about film, checking each print carefully before it screens and monitoring the film as it runs to ensure the best projection possible. With digital screenings, the projectionists will become obsolete and the film will be run by ushers pushing a button – they don’t ever have to even enter the theater.
 
The human touch will be entirely taken away. The New Beverly Cinema tries our hardest to be a timeless establishment that represents the best that the art of cinema has to offer. We want to remain a haven where true film lovers can watch a film as it was meant to be seen – in 35mm. Revival houses perform an undeniable service to movie watchers – a chance to watch films with an audience that would otherwise only be available for home viewing. Film is meant to be a communal experience, and nothing can surpass watching a film with a receptive audience, in a cinema, projected from a film print.

 

 

David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson counter with a poetic introduction to their blog series “Pandora’s digital box: From films to files” at Observations on Film Art:

The idea of Pandora’s box spread throughout Western culture to denote any imprudent unleashing of a multitude of unhappy consequences. It’s long been associated with an image of an attractive but destructive woman, and we don’t lack examples in films from Pabst to Lewin. But there’s another interpretation of the maiden’s name: not “all-gifted” but “all-giver.” According to this line, Pandora is a kind of earth goddess. In one Greek text she is called “the earth, because she bestows all things necessary for life.”
 
The less-known interpretation seems to dominate in Avatar. Pandora, a moon of the huge planet Polyphemus, is a lush ecosystem in which the humanoid Na’vi live in harmony with the vegetation and the lower animals they tame or hunt. Nourished by a massive tree (they are the ultimate tree-huggers), they have a balanced tribal-clan economy. Their spiritual harmony is encapsulated in the beautiful huntress Neytiri. As the mate for the first Sky-Person-turned-Na’vi, Avatar Jake, she’s also an interplanetary Eve. And by joining the Na’vi on Pandora, Jake does find hope.
 
The irony of a super-sophisticated technology carrying a modern man to a primal state goes back at least as far as Wells’ Time Machine. But the motif has a special punch in the context of the Great Digital Changeover. Digital projection promises to carry the essence of cinema to us: the movie freed from its material confines. Dirty, scratched, and faded film coiled onto warped reels, varying unpredictably from show to show (new dust, new splices) is now shucked off like a husk. Now images and sounds supposedly bloom in all their purity. The movie emerges butterfly-like, leaving the marks of dirty machines and human toil behind. As Jake returns to Eden, so does cinema.

 

 

Time Out New York selects it as one of the Top 10 to see at Tribeca, Keith Uhlich:

Christopher Kenneally’s probing doc about the movie industry’s changeover from film to digital uses an impressive roster of talking heads—Vittorio Storaro, George Lucas, Davids Lynch and Fincher—and up-to-the-minute examples to examine the epochal technical shift cinema is undergoing. Zen-surfer tour guide Keanu Reeves winds us through pro and con arguments for each format, but true to its title, the clear and concise Side by Side affords equal airtime to both sides of the celluloid-versus-pixels divide.

 

Flavorpill includes it in “10 Under-the-Radar Tribeca Films You Have to See,” Jason Bailey:

The motion picture itself has been an attractive subject to documentary filmmakers for years, but Side by Side may be the most “inside baseball” movie-about-movies to date — and that is its strength. Ostensibly a look at the current struggle (and transition) between traditional photochemical film and digital moviemaking, it is actually an exhaustively detailed “state of the cinema” thesis. For those of us who care about this stuff, it’s a fascinating 100-minute think piece, and the arguments are well articulated by exactly the voices you want to hear from: name directors (Scorsese, Lucas, Soderbergh, Cameron, Nolan, Fincher, Linklater, Rodriguez, Lynch, Boyle), famed cinematographers (Michael Chapman, Ellen Kuras, Vittorio Storano, Dick Pope, Michael Ballhaus, Vilmos Zsigmond), editors, actors, and technicians. The result is an overview of the filmmaking process that’s remarkably comprehensive; they’re not just talking about shooting and editing, but visual effects, color timing, projection, archival, the whole nine yards. It’s brisk, lucid, and a lot of fun (especially for us movie geeks).

 

 
Susan Stone for the Los Angeles Times:

Capturing a fleeting moment in time before it disappears forever is one of the essential functions of a film camera. A new documentary, “Side by Side,” aims to grasp the transition from photochemical film to digital in an objective way, by talking to some of the most opinionated people in the business, from George Lucas to Lars von Trier to David Fincher.
 
One of the most compelling voices is that of Anthony Dod Mantle, who shook up the film world (and some audiences) by shooting by the critically acclaimed 1998 Danish film “The Celebration” with a handheld Sony digital camera. Dod Mantle says he was both “applauded and almost executed” for his nervy approach, but concluded early on it meant he would never get recognition for his work. But attitudes and technology have both advanced -– “Slumdog Millionaire,” also shot digitally by Dod Mantle, went on to win an Academy Award for best cinematography in 2009. Another theme is a sort of power struggle between cinematographers and directors. Some mourn the loss of a sort of vaguely unpredictable film voodoo that meant keeping the faith, while others excoriate the “betrayal of dailies.” Also, the almost limitless nature of digital encourages directors to just keep shooting –- never yelling “Cut!” means less down time for actors. Reeves tells Richard Linklater that during their (digital) filming of “A Scanner Darkly,” he was sometimes thinking, “Can we please stop!” And Joel Schumacher comments that with digital, some actors insist on seeing every take. “I’m convinced everyone’s just looking at their hair!” he jokes.
 
Kenneally and Reeves say that “Side by Side” is not meant to take sides; it functions more as a time capsule than a call to arms. “If 100 years ago, someone had done a bunch of interviews with all the top filmmakers -– the Lumiere brothers, and Edison, and all those people -– we’d love to have that. And I feel like we do have that [present day] document,” insists Kenneally.

 

 
S.T. VanAirsdale finds out how Reeves and Kenneally actually got the Wachowskis to sit in front of the camera, for Movieline. (And yes, that’s “Lana” Wachowski up there on the left.)

 
Simon Howell for Sound on Sight:

A reasonably comprehensive primer on the rise of digital film and its implications on every facet of filmmaking, exhibition, and conservation, Side by Side manages to corral enough of the film world’s most outspoken filmmakers, as well as a less-familiar but equally influential collection of editors, DPs, colorists, effects supervisors, and industry types, that its attempt to summarize such a massive issue mostly holds together while only occasionally feeling like an infomercial for contemporary moviegoing.
 
Buoyed by a balance of film clips, archival footage, and new interviews, producer and host Keanu Reeves eases into the specifics of photochemical film shooting and exhibition, carefully laying out the joys and difficulties of a science that remained more or less unchanged for a century, before chronicling the evolution of digital film, from its invention to its first uses in serious filmmaking. Among the film’s greatest virtues is its inclusiveness, though some of that is by necessity: as the Dogme 95 crew were perhaps the key popularizing force for digital filmmaking in the late 90s, the likes of The Celebration, The Idiots, and Julien Donkey-Boy are excerpted between the likes of Avatar and Clash of the Titans. (von Trier himself pops up, seeming to regret the manner in which digital film grew safer and more sophisticated over time, even while he continues to use the technology.) Arthouse provocateurs and blockbuster scientists get more or less equal credit here for driving technological innovation.

 

 

Owen Van Spall for Eye for Film:

Yes, that’s right- Keanu Reeves and David Lynch, in the same room as each other.What saves the film is the fact that over the course of its 90-odd minutes it does actually take the subject quite seriously and does at least address both sides of the chemical versus digital filmmaking debate, at a time when Hollywood is stumbling through a transition phase.

 
The film also deserevs credit for focusing not just on the directors and their work on set, with an increasingly dizzying range of digital cameras, but the lesser known team players who work on a modern Hollyowood picture, such as those who work in the editing and color timing phases. There are also stop-offs along the way to look at visual effects and the surprisingly complex issue of digital data storage – hard drives might offer on the surface eternal life for stored data but, in reality, can freeze up if left unspun for too long, and can burn out if kept running – and the diffculty in ensuring the correct playback technology will be avallable in future to match the many formats of stored digital film data. You will learn a few things here, even if you are a film buff.
 
Its also a chance to be reminded of where different directors draw their lines. David Lynch reiterates that he has long ago waved goodbye to analogue film processes, but interestingly director-of -the-moment Christopher Nolan is adamant that aesthetically speaking, he will be sticking with celluloid… for now.

 

 

Jessica Kiang for The Playlist:

Doing an impressive job of tracing the evolution of filmmaking technology (not just the cameras but the editing, post-production, distribution, exhibition, even the archiving aspects of it) from 1895 to the present day, “Side by Side” is an old school talking-head documentary on the subject of digital filmmaking vs. photochemical filmmaking. It sounds pretty dull as a logline, but stacked with gossipy, informal anecdotes and opinions from many of the most respected directors, cinematographers, editors, execs, VFX artists and digital wizards in the industry, it proves instead to be highly entertaining and informative, and by its close has presented a thoroughly diverting overview of the debate.
 
The film opens with a montage of clips of iconic films from the past century of cinema, with such beautiful, evocative imagery that if not by the “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” moment, then certainly by the time Mookie looks over his shoulder in close-up, you may find yourself resolving to settle firmly on the side of celluloid and Not Be Moved. But then the prologue proper kicks off, with a zippily edited sequence of the people we’ll return to in greater depth later basically giving their topline feelings on the subject. What results is a fantastic bird’s eye view of a wide range of opinions. A little further down the filmmaking food chain (and this film is nothing if not balanced in its respect for both the famous, name-above-the-title directors, and the not-so-famous craftspeople who participate), the picture is more varied; not all cinematographers are as embracing of the new technology, seeing it in some cases as an erosion of their importance to the process, while some editors bemoan the lack of discipline that push-button editing can engender.
 
For the film-literate, film-passionate viewer, “Side by Side” is simply a delightful experience, because to hear people we admire talk knowledgeably about the medium we care about has the effect of putting us back in touch with our own passion for it, whatever the format.

 

 

Doug Dibbern chimes in from the spectator’s seat, for MUBI:

For me, the most important difference was that the 35mm print did seem a bit more “alive” than the DCP. They say that this is because the film print is moving through the projector and the micro-millimeter flexings of the film every 1/24th of a second does make the projected image quiver ever so slightly. If you concentrate on the subtitles, you can sometimes notice the edges of the letters vibrating the tiniest bit. When you’re watching a movie, though, your eyes adjust and you don’t notice it, but these subtle movements do seem to add a vibrancy that the DCP lacks. The differences between film and digital projection reminded me of the differences between LPs and CDs. When CDs came out, the music industry boasted that they sounded crisper and cleaner, that they’d never have pops and crackles, and that they’d never skip—that last part turned out not to be true, of course—but there was a fervent band of conscientious objectors who never bought the corporate sloganeering. Digital audio tends to strip music of presence and weight; it sounds like a detailed plastic hologram of the recording. LPs sound warmer, more human, and more musical. Besides, the type of people who complain about crackles and pops on LPs are the same type of people who rhapsodize about heretofore undetectable maracas that their $30,000 sound system has liberated from the depths of the orchestra in a track from Captain & Tenille’s late, decadent period. Perfection, indeed, is often the enemy of art.
 

But to treat a movie as the manifestation of something sacred is a mistake. I agree with Rick Altman, who said that we should think of a film not as a “text” but as an “event.” That is, when we see a movie, we’re not watching one idealized entity. In fact, no such Platonic ideal exists. Every print—whether a spanking new 35mm release or the worn-out 16mm print you programmed in your college’s film series—has different specks and scratches and its own particular warps in the soundtrack. Every theater has different acoustics and a different brand of speakers in a different state of disrepair. Everyone watching a VHS tape or a DVD or a Blu-Ray at home has a different size of TV and different set of speakers. So films are not like avatars or incarnations. If movies are events rather than texts, we don’t watch one Psycho, but dozens; every time we see it—and listen to it—we’re experiencing a different work of art. It’s not logical to treat 35mm prints with reverence. Maybe the best reason to prefer film to digital projection is for the sensual aspects of the medium—its vibrancy and warmth—but how will you know that the print you’re about to see is in good condition and that it will be projected with care and the proper equipment until you’re actually experiencing it?

 

 

Leah Churner earlier this year on Film Forum’s DCP showcase and digital effects on repertory filmgoing, for the Village Voice:

First scenario: You go to the multiplex. The words “Presented in Sony 4K” sweep across the screen in pixie dust, but as the previews begin, there’s no sound. So you call out to the projection booth, only you’re yelling at a bunch of deaf, malfunctioning computers, and the kid at the concession stand can’t reboot the system. The same automated system your $18 ticket paid to install has replaced the troubleshooting projectionist.
 
Second scenario: You go to a repertory cinema or a museum screening. You know they still have projectionists on staff, but you’re not sure what it is you’re going to be looking at when the show begins. The program notes say “Digital,” now a catch-all term for anything that’s not a 35mm print: tape, Blu-ray, DVD, DCP, and everything in between.
 
In 2012, we’re in the late stage of a seismic shift in the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies, roughly in the same position with digital cinema as we were with talkies in 1930—well past the tipping point. DCP is a mixed blessing for art-house cinemas as well. “People thought the digital era would be easier for programmers,” says Scott Foundas, associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He estimates that only about 100 library titles per studio are available on DCP. “Singin’ in the Rain is fine, but if you’re looking for something more obscure, you might not get it.” This is because the high cost of transferring and remastering movies for DCP means that only a small percentage have made the jump, effectively winnowing the selection to greatest hits. For this reason, 35mm will stay in high demand for retrospectives and revival screenings.

 

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