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.”