The documentary Side By Side (2012), now at theaters, on VOD and on iTunes is an interesting exploration of photo-chemical filmmaking versus digital moving image making at a moment in time where the two co-exist. That is not to say they won't continue to co-exist, but it's not to say they will either. It depends on who you ask and the debate on which is the better medium is still a heated one.
The transition from film to digital continues to affect more people, and the movie industry itself, than most might think (above, a film projectionist in 1958, now slowly being replaced by digital projectionists). As I watched Side By Side I did wonder, however, if it's drawing viewers who don't work in movies in one way or another. It is a niche subject matter in a way. Do people care about film versus digital?
With all the HD, flat screen televisions and IMAX theaters, sometimes the public appears indifferent to the quality of a picture's appearance? I don't know if the average consumer considers the richness and contrast film is able to provide, or the amazingly seamless visual effects offered from a digitally created or enhanced image? Maybe cinephiles, but I'm not so sure that the every day movie goer thinks about the art of what they're watching. After all, consumers love entertaining online content that doesn't necessarily exude beauty, but has a very wide following. In some cases much larger than movies which are theatrically released. I'm not knocking web's presence as a current entertainment option either. Sure there's a lot of schlock (some of it, still worthy of a view), but I think online and transmedia options are exciting.
And in contrast to online video, theatrical blockbusters with the endless, often gratuitous, surreal special FX, can loose their 'wow' factor by overdoing it. A little of that can go a long way. It's no wonder 50% of the audience was texting during the entire feature at the last Michael Bay film I saw (yes I admit I went). I like my FX both campy and stunningly beautiful, but too much and I'm both worn out and bored. So as I said, I wonder, do audiences care whether something is shot on film or captured digitally? It might be that consumers care more about whether something is engaging and entertaining, then rich with film grain or so real it's coming toward you and jumping off the screen. Me, I believe it's all important and depends on the story.
The superhero genre with intense FX remain the king at AMCs and Loewes across the country. These films depend on digital FX and they wouldn't be quite the same without them. The IFC Center continues to fill their venue with projects created by independent filmmakers and viewers do turn out to witness film restoration screenings at places like the Film Forum. These films remain a mix of mediums and the options need to remain open. It seems as though experiencing movies in theaters will continue (even if other venues for viewing create competition and spread out audiences). How we're viewing them in most cinemas, however, won't.
The documentary film, Side By Side, directed by Christopher Kenneally, produced by Keanu Reeves and Justin Szlasa is fascinating the way it weaves the for and against opinions on film and digital, as well as details on how the industry has changed due to the digital option and the medium's growth. But it also addresses how this artistic and technical transition changes the finished product's delivery and in turn, how audiences are experiencing theater movies differently, whether they realize it or not.
Reeves guides viewers through the differences between the two formats and then converses with experts in the field from Martin Scorsese, David Fincher (pictured here) and Steven Soderbergh, to Michael Chapman (cinematographer) to Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia editor) and Walter Murch (editor of everything) to colorists and projectionists. You can imagine, these become passionate interviews.
I was particularly interested in the way Side By Side explores movements that brought certain technologies into acceptance, such as the Dogme 95 Collective that Lars von Trier was a part of. I also found its coverage of the projectionists to be well thought out. Side By Side doesn't stop at the post production process. They go into how movies are being seen in theaters then and now.
Today many theaters don't project actual film anymore. As a committee member of New York Women in Film and Television's (NYWIFT) Women's Film Preservation Fund (WFPF), I know that theaters with film projection are dwindling rapidly. There are those of course that are committed and due to their archive collection or the films shown at their venue, they'll retain a 35mm projector, and in some cases 16mm, but many no longer do. I look forward to seeing New York Film Festival's screening of the new 4K Digital Cinema Display of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) this coming weekend. This movie from 1962 won't be arriving in canisters but by digital file (DCP) and will be projected from that.
While some venues remain faithful to having film equipment it's getting more challenging to not only find the equipment and maintenance parts, but the experts to run them. Projectionists are less and less film projectionists. It's becoming a lost art. So I return to my original questions, does the average person care whether they watch a movie that's made and/or projected from film, or if it's a collection of many pixels configured into a picture? Maybe not, but it is my thought they should at least consider what's happening. Like any other important piece of historical technique and/or art, it is important to preserve, especially a medium that really can't be replicated in terms of it's look. You might need to be a cinephile to notice, but that's also why film preservation education and outreach is important to. While as an editor I'm working with digital files and not film, I still recognize that film preservation is just as important as the preservation of a painting and it's method or the preservation of history as an important social and technical document of who we are.
Personally I think Side By Side is a success because it explains something that can feel complicated without treating it's audience like they're idiots. I also think it could be very interesting to the average movie goer, but of course that's hard for me to perceive as someone who has an invested interested in the industry. As a biased media maker and consumer of movies, however, I do hope that film and digital image making continue to co-exist, Side By Side.