Opening on Friday at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Center in New York (nationwide roll-out information is here), “Side by Side” is a brilliant exploration of the tensions between traditional film and emerging digital technologies. As someone who has recently spent around $2700 on a JVC prosumer camera and accessories in order to take part in the DIY revolution, the issues are of keen interest to me (see my Vimeo story of the search for a near-perfect video camera below). But even if you own nothing more than a cell phone equipped to take videos or a modest digital camera with the same capabilities you will be richly rewarded if you see this documentary since it touches on a universal experience—going to the movies.
The film was co-produced by Keanu Reeves who also conducts interviews with a virtual Hall of Fame of directors, including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, and David Lynch among others. If you—like me—have considered Reeves a lightweight, you will be surprised by his intelligence. He allows the various directors to weigh in on the future of an emulsion-based medium that has already suffered a virtual extinction as testified by Kodak’s outcome.
One of the greatest values of “Side by Side” is its ability to make seemingly obscure technical fine points relevant to the novice. While I am relatively up to speed on digital cameras and editing, the passages that dealt with traditional film were a revelation. For example, there are certain physical limitations in the standard can of film that is used in a traditional camera like a Panavision.
You see that round can on the top of the camera? You are physically limited to 10 minutes worth of shooting per can. After the clapboard is sounded and after the director’s assistant cries out, “Lights, camera, action”, you can only film ten minutes. Not only that, you can never be sure of what the film contains. An inadvertent intrusion of a boom mike means that the entire shot is wasted. After a day’s worth of shooting, the film cans are transported to a laboratory where “rushes” are made and viewed on the following morning in a screening room. This process should be familiar if you’ve seen any movies that have been made about movie-making, especially “Sunset Boulevard”.
Digital cameras change that completely. Monitors attached to the camera give you an instantaneous “WYSIWYG” version that makes slip-ups immediately correctible. Furthermore, there are no limits to the length of a scene being shot. With flash memory capable of recording up to four hours or so, the director has the ability to allow the actors to stretch out. If the film involves improvisation such as John Cassavetes’s classics, you can imagine the power this gives the director and the performers alike.
The earliest use of digital cameras in feature films surprisingly enough was made by the Dogme 95 group that violated its own precept that “The film format must be Academy 35 mm.” Lars Von Trier tells Reeves that digital cameras proved far more useful in conveying another precept, namely that “Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).” The wiki article on Von Trier clearly demonstrates his affinity with John Cassavetes who surely would have opted for digital:
Von Trier often shoots digitally and operates the camera himself, preferring to continuously shoot the actors in-character without stopping between takes. In Dogville he let actors stay in character for hours, in the style of method acting.
If digital cameras empower those with an experimental bent and a low budget, they also have been particularly seductive to big-budget, mainstream directors such as George Lucas and James Cameron. After his initial success with the first “Star Wars” film, Lucas converted to all-digital with the dismal results of “Attack of the Clones”. As one director, still committed to film, tells Reeves, “You can give a thousand people a pencil and paper, it is unlikely that anything memorable will come out of it.” Cameron, on the other hand, was far more successful with “Avatar”, a film that creates a totally artificial world that seems more real than the real one. As Marianne Moore once described poetry: imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
By the same token, the “old guard” using film is faced with the same problems. Even though film has conveyed a much richer visual experience (until very recently with the advent of new cameras from the RED and Arri corporations), you are still left with the challenge of making a compelling story. One of the fiercest bulldogs committed to emulsion is Chris Nolan, the director of the Batman trilogy. Frankly, it matters little to me what kind of camera he uses since the finished product—however it looks—will be a milling, incoherent, reactionary mess.
The bottom line is economics. Digital will eventually replace film because it is cheaper. It will allow a democratizing of the film-making business even at the risk of a lowering of standards. This was what occurred to me during the interview of the uber-hyped Lena Dunham, whose “Tiny Furniture” was shot with a Canon 7D still camera. She states that she never would have made the film if she had to bother with the expense and the logistics of traditional film, with all its overhead and steep learning curve. She says that she came to film as a writer and didn’t want to be encumbered with all the apprenticeship into a virtual priesthood that 35-millimeter requires. Unfortunately she needed much more apprenticeship in writing before she got involved with movie-making.
For those of you who have been even the least bit amused or informed by my own forays into film-making, the video below should serve as a guide to what to look for (or avoid) when dipping your big toe into buying a video camera for productions on the Internet. While “Side by Side” is geared to big-time theatrical productions using cameras that cost upward of $100,000, the rest of us have to make decisions based on a working stiff’s budget. Some of the most compelling videos on Youtube or Vimeo were made with a cell phone. But if you are interested in doing anything like a traditional documentary, as is my intention, you have to think hard about what will suffice, especially with respect to sound reproduction as I learned a bit too late. So without further ado: