Keanu Reeves seems an unlikely face to slap on the 35mm purist’s side in a film, dissecting the influence of digital technology on one of our most encompassing, unchanging and influential artforms. But when watching Side by Side, the new documentary by Reeves and friend Christopher Kenneally, it’s obvious on which side he stands. Impassioned and often confronting as interviewer throughout, he boldly goes toe to toe with James Cameron, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh to name a few. Of course, amongst the champions of digital filming and special effects are the old boys, technical and artistic, editors and DPs, the almost powerless now in the race to cheaper, faster and bolder film making.
The documentary is half educational in it’s introduction taking much of the geek gumph out of the proceedings and then plays out as a kind of over opinionated talking head documentary, gathering the wordy gems of some of cinema’s best. As the film progresses even Scorsese is singing the praises of the new world 4K cameras and at one point even begins talking about holograms in the cinema. Wally Pfister and Christopher Nolan seem to be the only big name Director/DOP team who are still exponents of 35mm, speaking intelligently and frankly of the pros and cons.
There’s a great scene when Reeves is questioning James Cameron about filming Avatar in a blue cage and he asks; ” Doesn’t this seem a little unreal and fake to you?” Cameron answers; “You’ve been on a lot of film sets… when was it ever real? A rainy exterior night scene in New York is shot in the day under sprinklers in a studio in Hollywood!”. Academy award wining Anthony Dodd Mantle and director Danny Boyle back up Cameron with a different ethos but one which uncovers digital film making as a fast, light, inxepensive and experimental way of getting what you need under the contraints of studios and budget.
Kenneally keeps the interviews brief building a general consensus around intercutting and side by side comparisons of film and digital. It’s intriguing and interesting film making rooted in the romance of watching 24 frames per second flicker though a light bulb, it eschews most of the technical mumbo jumbo for the average audience well and manages to end up in the here and now even referencing Peter Jackson’s unfinished The Hobbit, which is to be shot with double frame rate (48fps) and in 3D.
Although hindered by a elevator music soundtrack which can become a little testing, it’s well worth your time no matter what side you are on. The question is this; would even a film as modest as this be possible if it was necessary to shoot on film but will it last, archived on a hardrive in some basement when it all goes down?