Side by Side

Does the rise of digital movies mean the death of film? Keanu Reeves investigates.

Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan is a digital refusenik. “I am constantly being asked to justify why I shoot film,” he says in the new documentary Side by Side. “But no one is asked to justify shooting digital.” Nolan may be outnumbered, but—for now, anyway—he’s adamant: “I’m not going to trade my oil paints for a set of crayons.”

The digital takeover of contemporary movie-making may not be a hot topic around the American water cooler, but in Side by Side it is revealed as a large and fascinating subject—the most radical development in the industry since the introduction of sound in the 1920s. The director, Christopher Kenneally, is a busy young post-production supervisor. Two years ago he was working on a Keanu Reeves movie called Henry’s Crime. Reeves was around a lot for the post sessions, and he and Kenneally began talking about the changes being effected in their industry by digital cameras, imagery, and editing, and what they meant for the future of traditional photographic film -- if it had one. Reeves decided they should make a movie about this. He would produce and also conduct interviews with top directors, editors, and cinematographers—something at which he turns out to be very adept.

Reeves’ enthusiasm for the project was obviously key to getting it made. “He did everything from haul equipment and put up lights to help book some of the interviews,” Kenneally says. And his presence was surely important in attracting the participation of such major directors as James Cameron, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch, to name just a few. Kenneally has assembled all of this stylishly shot talking-heads material into a clear narrative about an art form undergoing turbulent transformation.

Film was the bedrock movie medium for more than a century, but it always had drawbacks. Film cameras were bulky, and outdoors, film itself was vulnerable to high temperatures. There was also an awkward time constraint: Film cameras could only shoot for about 10 minutes at a time before reloading was required. (“I always thought there was way too much waiting,” says actor John Malkovich, putting in a brief appearance here.)

The future began to take shape in 1969, when the first digital “imaging chip” was developed at Bell Labs. The first Sony camcorders appeared in the mid-1980s, and a decade later, this inexpensive video technology was embraced by the young Danish filmmakers of Dogme 95, a group formed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. English cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who had shot the first Dogme film, Vinterberg’s 1998 The Celebration, was shortly contacted by fellow Brit Danny Boyle, who had become disaffected with big-studio filmmaking. He recruited Mantle to shoot the low-budget zombie flick 28 Days Later—with revelatory results. The new digital cameras were so cheap that 10 of them could be used to allow maximum coverage of a big scene; and they were so small that stealing shots without permits became delightfully easy. Boyle and Mantle collaborated again on the 2008 Slumdog Millionaire, which became the first digital film to win an Oscar (eight of them, in fact). The tide was now beyond being turned back.  

Digital technology also transformed movie editing, and allowed more precise color-balancing. (The Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou, we learn here, contains a subtle digital effect in every frame.) And the new high-tech digital cameras, like the Arri Alexa and the RED One, could shoot for 40 minutes without reloading. (Great for directors, but tough on actors: David Fincher recalls that Robert Downey Jr. became so frustrated by the long days of endless takes involved in shooting the 2007 Zodiac that he left little jars of his urine scattered around the sets in protest.)

The digital triumph is not yet complete, however. Preservation is a serious problem. A digitally recorded feature film takes up enormous amounts of hard-drive space, and is subject to ruinous clicks and glitches. Film remains a preferable repository for archival purposes. And Martin Scorsese, who has embraced digital, up to a point, doesn’t think film will disappear—from now on, he says, “celluloid will be a choice.”

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  • mr simple||

    The Loder review is up and still no Morning Links? Did someone have too much fun live tweeting last night?

  • sarcasmic||

    Apparently. I've got my daily fails all dressed up with no one to fuck.

  • ||

    How do you deliver them so quickly? I just typed up something in Notepad in order to copy it over. Is that the quickest/best delivery method?

  • sarcasmic||

    That's what I do. Line them up in notepad, then CTRL-C CTRL-V.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    And I, for one, am quite impatient to get at them!

  • WTF||

    And Martin Scorsese, who has embraced digital, up to a point, doesn’t think film will disappear—from now on, he says, “celluloid will be a choice.”

    Just like typewriters.

  • Rich||

    "celluloid will be a choice."

    It's not a choice. It's a *film*.

  • mr simple||

    Keep your laws off my camera!

  • ||

    Or Vinyl records?

  • SugarFree||

    Photographs didn't completely supplant painting. They are going to diverge as mediums.

  • T||

    I recall, and I'm sure somebody will correct if I'm wrong, that film still has superior pixel density as compared to digital. How much this matters depends on what you're trying to do.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    And once that ceases to be the case, see WTF's comment above.

  • R C Dean||

    Since they're going to digital projectors anyway, I doubt the superior density will matter unless you are staying on analog from shooting to showing.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I believe this is still true. I was just reading something about our current U-2s still employing film cameras for their superior resolution.

  • np||

    That ends up being irrelevant since all editing and post production is done digitally anyways

  • Rich||

    Outta here until someone disciplines the squirrels. 8-(

  • Fluffy||

    The digital triumph is not yet complete, however. Preservation is a serious problem. A digitally recorded feature film takes up enormous amounts of hard-drive space, and is subject to ruinous clicks and glitches. Film remains a preferable repository for archival purposes.

    I don't see how anyone could make this statement.

    This is like saying that it's easier to preserve Ebbets Field than a digital picture of Ebbets Field.

  • SugarFree||

    Final cuts of film, archivally stored on polyester film base (as opposed to acetate) and in proper temperature and humidity conditions are stable for hundreds of years. Yes, the conditions have to be perfect, but they are no more stringent than the constant migration of digital-born materials to new formats and new recording mediums.

    And film requires only light to have its information retrieved.

  • Fluffy||

    The survivability of an item rises in direct proportion to the number of existing copies.

    Putting a million perfect digital copies of Lawrence of Arabia on hard drives and DVDs makes it much more likely that the film will be preserved than maintaining a single print, no matter how well that print is cared for.

    Sure, maybe the physical copy could better survive the total fall of civilization, Dead Sea Scrolls style, but if that ever happens film preservation is the least of anyone's worries.

  • Brett L||

    Eh. Which one is right when they all have some amount of bitrot? Its real and the scale is about 15 years +/- 5 years.

  • T||

    Speak for yourself. I plan on opening a brewpub style theater after the apocalypse. Fewer asinine TABC regulations to deal with then.

  • SugarFree||

    Archival prints are rarely one-shot deals. Lawrence of Arabia is probably on 15 or 20 preserve prints in secure locations all over the world.

    It's best to not think of an archival print as an artifact, but rather just another medium for the preservation of the information the film represents. Right now, it's the most stable medium. It probably won't be eventually.

    In fact, a lot of places are employing your digital copy proliferation as well as storage on a physical medium. The Dandelion Method, lots of seeds blowing all over the place.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm a thinking there be no linkies this mourning.

  • RBS||

    What the fuck am I supposed to do all morning? Work?

  • ||

    What the fuck am I supposed to do with this awesome story about a French socialist politician?

  • Mike M.||

    I guess the convention main speech is a wild party night when you're inside the Beltway.

  • RBS||

    When I worked in DC the day after the State of the Union was always rough.

  • Lord Humungus||

    cocktail partiez!

  • Suki||

    Cosmotarians for all.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    I haz disappoint.

  • Tim||

    I remember when the Reason website was on film.

  • Tim||

    You had to type your posts in triplicate on carbon paper.

  • Suki||

    By the time I got here we had mimeograph copies. Good times!

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm about ready to dump my daily fails right here, right now.

  • WTF||

    Premature linkulation?

  • SugarFree||

    Fun fact: Before copyright law caught up with the new medium of film, movies had to be printed on long strips of photopaper and that print was the medium that was copyrighted.

  • Fluffy||

    There may never be AM Links again.

    Think about that.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    I tried to comment "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!" but the HampersandR squirrels ate it.

  • sarcasmic||

    Another cop gets a paid vacation.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....d-car.html

  • LTC(ret) John||

    'Back-up was not immediately available. And maybe our officials shouldn't make comments about their concern until the investigation has run its course.'

    Yeah, stupid civilians, SHUT UP, he explained.

  • sarcasmic||

  • sarcasmic||

    Dude punches pizza deliveryman in the face. What does he think he is? A cop?

  • sarcasmic||

    Political correctness meets the Dukes of Hazzard.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....storm.html

  • RBS||

    'Some unnamed genius at the company feels that the flag is "offensive to some" and therefore it has no business on a classic t.v. comedy about a bunch of good ol' boys and girls in the Southern mountains. This is a new level of "P.C." idiocy. I don't know about you, but I am tired of being insulted by morons,'

    Awesome

  • sarcasmic||

    Lady Gaga's perfume features notes of blood and semen. SugarFree preordered a case.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/fem.....rdrug.html

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Did you mean to say Warty?

  • Tim||

    Warty was the donor.

  • SugarFree||

    Who do you think designed the perfume in the first place?

  • sarcasmic||

  • Fluffy||

    Ewwwwww you got those links in our hair

  • sarcasmic||

    I got 'em in your hair too! Everyone's hair!

  • sarcasmic||

    You can smell the body odor from orbit.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....-heat.html

  • RBS||

    Now we know where Doherty is, he should write dispatches from there.

  • MWG||

    Damn hippies!

  • sarcasmic||

    Apparently Steve Jobs wasn't always a complete prick.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....areer.html

  • sarcasmic||

    Drew Berrymore is ready to pop!
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvs.....class.html

  • Fluffy||

    http://www.boston.com/politica.....story.html

    Which Romney is that to Mitt's left in the pink?

  • MWG||

    It appears to be his 12 yr. old. granddaughter. Why do you ask?

  • Fluffy||

    To give offense.

    Why do I post anything?

  • MWG||

    Actually, in the video feed I saw last night, she appears to be much older.

  • ||

    Kris Humphries is '100 percent sure' he did not give Kayla Goldberg herpes. Anyone here have something to share?

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvs.....z25885ixnF

  • Tim||

    It'a an orgy of linkage!

  • Loki||

    Reeves was around a lot for the post sessions, and he and Kenneally began talking about the changes being effected in their industry by digital cameras, imagery, and editing, and what they meant for the future of traditional photographic film -- if it had one... Reeves' enthusiasm for the project was obviously key to getting it made. "He did everything from haul equipment and put up lights to help book some of the interviews," Kenneally says.

    Huh. My level of respect for Keanu Reeves just went up a bit. It sounds like he's actually at least somewhat interested in the technical side of movie making, not just showing up, doing his scenes, and collecting his multi-million dollar paycheck. Not to mention he's apparently not so much of a prima donna that he refuses to do any heavy lifting. As opposed to being a prick who leaves jars of urine everywhere as some kind of protest for having to "work" for more than 10 minutes at a time.

  • T||

    From a lot of accounts, he's supposedly a fairly nice guy. I recall he bought gifts for his stunt people on one of the Matrix movies for making him look good. And by gifts, I mean Harleys.

  • Brodik||

    I think there is certainly still a place for film. Just as there exists a place for vinyl or for using an old Nikon SLR. I buy vinyl records frequently as do many other people and that is what is keeping that market alive. If enough people continue to go and see movies that are shot on film then they will continue to be made. So goes the free market!

  • sloopyinca||

    You guys can overcomplicate this by arguing back and forth or you can just watch this clip. It's the issue down to its essence.

  • pinostabaum||

    arrrgh. i read reason.com to AVOID encountering keanu reeves.

  • luciusmarcus||

    "Martin Scorsese, who has embraced digital, up to a point, doesn’t think film will disappear—from now on, he says, “celluloid will be a choice.”" --So long as Kodak keeps manufacturing film! As of this week, they have made it known that they are considering selling off their film division.

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