Side By Side
Christopher Kenneally’s documentary sees the (some not so) great and good of the cinema world holding forth on the pros and cons of the inexorable rise of digital film. Does it spell the death of celluloid? Is it a superior or inferior medium? Keanu Reeves puts a face to the questions in consistently interesting but rarely groundbreaking piece.
By necessity of rendering a fairly technical subject accessible, Kenneally ensures we’re primed on the science behind the different mediums and the key roles in the process. It’s an effective layman’s guide and primer. Combined with Keanu inimitably unintellectual interview style (I don’t mean to suggest Reeves is dumb, as many seem to, but he has a guileless charm and self-effacement). This creates a balance to the sometimes involved discussions. Reeves is possessed of an ever-changing hair length, indicating the span of time it took to make this, and we see him on the set of the troubled 47 Ronin (the link between Kenneally and Reeves is that the former worked on the latter’s Henry’s Crime). The inimitable David Lynch may not have anything particularly earthshattering to say, but he has a delightful way of pronouncing Keanu.
Among those pressed on the subject are directors, cinematographers, editors, colourists and visual effects designers. The history of digital is traced, from its lo-fi roots (barely better than video) and embrace by the Dogma movement to George Lucas’ decision to shoot Attack of the Clones entirely in that format (the first such exploration for a big budget Hollywood movie). And on, to James Cameron and the push of 3D. Many of the points raised will be familiar, as early criticisms of quality give way under the influence of ever-improving specs. The conversation of “Anyone can now be a director” and the cheapness of the medium in comparison to photochemical film has been much rehearsed, so there isn’t a whole lot new in that regard. But we hear from a few dissenting voices suggesting that there’s a cost in quality that comes with the glut in quantity.
I’ll admit that I expected the anti- voice to be better represented here than it is. We’re mainly looking at Christopher Nolan and his DP Wally Pfister. Everyone else, to a greater or lesser extent, seems to see the positive side of the new medium. They all do seem to have one thing in common, though; nursing a cup of Joe is a prerequisite.
Entertainingly disdainful of many of the shortcomings of digital (particularly on the subject of lousy cameras and lack of dynamic range) is Geoff Boyle. I hadn’t heard of him before, but he was the DP on The Mutant Chronicles, amongst other less than salubrious titles. It’s not a little amusing to hear someone who’s worked on mostly crap eviscerating the tools of the trade.
The most interesting part is probably the trials and tribulations and potted history of digital; when it comes to speculating about the future, there’s little insightful. And, while I can see why they included a section on digital effects, since digital makes all so much easier, it comes across as an area that should have been mentioned in passing rather than getting a whole section.
In contrast, the colour timing discussion is fascinating, and you can quite understand why digital represents an enormous boon to a traditionally variable part of the filmmaking process. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is cited as the game changer in terms of digitally altering the look of the image (Roger Deakins was unable to achieve the results he wanted through traditional methods). Lucas, the prophet of digital, eulogises that the consequence was “I can do anything to fix this movie” (expect make a decent one, obviously George) and the perceived reluctance of some cinematographers to “giving away their power” to the colourists is entirely understandable. (Lucas also recounts how, when he announced his move to digital, he had meetings where he was told he was the devil incarnate and he would kill the industry; of course, the only people now calling him the devil incarnate are those who watched the prequel trilogy.) It’s certainly an area, more than any other, which I feel has been the bane of digital processing; the all-encompassing colour wash. Just bathe Harry Potter in a remorseless blue sheen, artistry be damned.
When it comes to the projection, the ever enthusiastic and insightful Martin Scorsese (who embraced digital for Hugo) observed that in the past “The real auteur is the projectionist” due to the fact that the picture would look different in every theatre where it was screened (not that this digital has erased projection issues; just look at the complaints that arise over badly screened 3D movies).
Most interesting to listen to is probably David Fincher, who is always erudite and incisive on his commentaries. He first made the trip to digital for Zodiac and is the touchstone on matters from dailies (he doesn’t miss the not knowing, and embraces the instantaneousness of digital; the wait-and-see voodoo could result in awe – Seven – but just as easily provoke distress) to the actor’s method (Robert Downey Jr. found the approach of just carrying on shooting upsetting; he needed the natural breaks that come from having to reload the camera after every 10 minutes of film was shot). In contrast John Malkovich finds the constant interruptions impede his momentum and digital is more like theatre (predictably, Nolan comes down on the “need a break” side of the fence). Then there’s Fincher’s incredulity at an early Panavision camera (“I can’t play the HD back because it’s the negative?!”) to his eulogy over the Red makers going that extra mile for different requirements (providing a camera with a carbon fibre body so he could shoot the boat races in The Social Network).
Steven Soderbergh fails to fascinate, maybe because I’ve heard him waxing on a bit too often lately. While Michael Mann isn’t interviewed (neither is Spielberg) his embrace of digital with Collateral attracts some discussion, in particular for the specifics of shooting at night (Nolan remarks, not of that film in particular, that night shooting “still retains the flavour of video”).
Anthony Dod Mantle makes a particularly good subject for charting the changes; his work on the Dogme picture Festen attracted Danny Boyle’s attention. They made 28 Days Later together, and Boyle developed a “taste for it”. The culmination was Mantle’s Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire, the first time a movie shot (mostly) on digital had won the cinematography Oscar (a pretty good result when one considers that it was so maligned at first).
Discussion of editing gives rise to a few reservations; while the move to the Avid would ultimately be seen as a means to make the editor’s life easier, the problem of cheap “film” now means that they have “masses and masses and masses” of footage to look through. The view is expressed that sometimes young editors don’t sit back and think about what they are doing.
Reeves and Keannelly rarely put anyone on the spot. It’s suggested to Cameron that it ends up that nothing in the virtual filmmaking world (of Avatar) is real, to which he responds “What was ever real?” It’s a fair reply on one level, but there is general acknowledgment that with the advent of 3D it is becoming harder and harder to impress an audience. Scorsese wonders whether, with the rampant use of CGI, audience actually believe in anything they are seeing any more.
Danny Boyle doesn’t have much time for those who don’t embrace the evolving medium; if you can’t get on board with it, your time is probably gone. Yet Boyle hasn’t made two billion dollar grossing movies like Christopher Nolan, so maybe he shouldn’t be so certain. The potential ephemerality of the digital medium is broached, in a closing section that borders on the philosophical, but also takes in the issues with storage and reading of different digital recordings. But, if all the digital movies are wiped out, we’ll likely have bigger things to worry about; we’ll also lose the underpinnings of how society now functions.