Side by Side is probably Keanu Reeves’ most convincing performance in front of a camera to date. Granted, this is a documentary in which he is the principle interviewer of many of our subjects, so I presume it wasn’t the most challenging role he’s ever taken on. Side by Side is a very interesting and informative film about a subject which ought to be very fascinating for anyone even slightly interested in the process of making or producing films. It is about arguably the biggest issue facing films at the moment – the transition from old 35mm film to digital.
The film looks at both sides of the debate and it looks at it through the lens of those who actually make films. The cast list of people interviewed in this film is astounding. We get big-name critically-acclaimed directors of the calibre of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Richard Linklater and Lars von Trier. Then we also get many interviews with others whose names aren’t necessarily so well known amongst the public but are certainly well respected in the industry. Cinematographers like Wally Pfister and Anthony Dod Mantle, then editors, producers, colourists of both film stock and of digital, a huge array of people who know and understand both the artistic and the technical sides of filmmaking. Granted, perhaps George Lucas does not belong to such high company, being a man who has conclusively proved he has no business being anywhere near a film camera ever, but regardless, Side by Side features many people whose viewpoints are worth hearing.
Structurally the director Christopher Kenneally has done an excellent job here in laying out both sides of the argument for and against digital and for and against film stock. Side by Side also allows us to see how digital has affected almost every aspect of filmmaking. We are taken step-by-step right the way through the whole production process of a film and allowed to see how digital has changed filmmaking, in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse. The cinematographer’s job has been democratised due to the immediacy of digital over film development. Editing has become much quicker, but some argue that this means editors are now less decisive than they were before. Colourising a film in post-production is also now much easier, but some argue that if you control your colours on-set this is a non-issue. CGI effects are also talked about, and distribution is obviously easier, but is archiving?
Archiving is perhaps the most interesting fallacy of the pro-digital argument. Film itself is a storage medium, but digital has not been around long enough for us to understand how well it archives. We still have excellent copies of films made over 100 years ago, but we have yet to see whether digital will achieve the same longevity. As one particular interviewee points out, if you store something on a hard drive and never turn it on, the hard drive eventually deteriorates and breaks. If you constantly turn the thing on to make sure it is working, it again deteriorates and breaks. This may be a simplistic analogy, but there are similarities with music. CDs were always advertised as being more long-lasting than records, yet my dad’s favourite records from the 70s and 80s are still in near-perfect condition. Now go and find some CDs that have been in relatively constant play since the 90s. They’re absolute dogshit. Scratched to hell and unplayable. Even the pro-digital people in Side by Side acknowledge the issues with digital archiving. What is interesting is that they believe it will eventually be solved, though only time will tell.
The film runs a breathless pace through all these issues and more. Unfortunately, that’s also the main issue with Side by Side: it is almost too breathless. The film covers so much and features so many subjects that we rarely spend more than a few minutes on a particular aspect, and rarely do we hear one particular individual speak for more than a few seconds before we cut to the next one. In a film with so many very interesting and creative people being interviewed and asked for their view, I personally would have loved to have had a bit more space to be able to hear some of these people properly. David Lynch’s feelings about digital are interesting and worth hearing, but he is not given much time in the film to voice them. Same too for Martin Scorsese or Christopher Nolan.
In the opposite direction, Side by Side also arguably focuses too much on US or Hollywood-based filmmakers. The vast majority of the independent filmmakers interviewed here are Americans. There are some Brits interviewed (Danny Boyle for example), but they too are largely those who command a bigger budget. Only Lars von Trier sits outside these groups in being an independent filmmaker from a non-English-speaking country. It would have been highly interesting to hear the opinions of someone like Michael Haneke, or even someone from further afield like Japan or South America. But then again, in a film as breathless as this and a film tackling a topic as big as this, this would have meant that the prevalence of such voices would have dissipated even further.
Despite these minor flaws this is still a highly interesting film about what is for me a very interesting topic. If you have any interest in the work of the people involved in this film, and I’m sure almost every cinephile will hold at least a few of these interviewees in high regard, it is well worth seeing, even if it tackles arguably too big a topic for just one film to handle.