A film for anyone who enjoys films

A typical web-surfing session, that ritual many of us consider an integral part of the day, found me checking in rote fashion the usual suspects of all the most important sites.  Sending out a cleverly worded Tweet about the proliferation of Michio Kaku in televised scientific discussion inspired by my latest binge, clicking through some Castle Age adventures (join my army, please!),  and keeping up to date on the important news of the day.

Incidentally, i came across this fantastic piece of artwork which struck me so profoundly that i was rethinking a recent position i’d taken during a conversation with a friend about the Great Debate of which is better: Marvel or DC?  Okay, not really – i’m still firmly in the camp of the former – but this splash panel had so suddenly and powerfully taken root in my imagination that i thought if the Distinguished Competition were heading in this direction it would provide them some serious ammo for changing my mind.

A black Superman, Beyond-ish inspired Batman and Apokolips in the background? i like where this is going. The fact that Grant Morrison is beyond the ‘Multiversity’ event turned this radar blip into a full-fledged alarm beacon.

The last article i landed upon asked the question ‘The Matrix cast: where are they now?’ and, while the sequels disappointed me because of their grossly squandered potential, i gave it a read because as a Fannibal i wanted to see what the entry about Laurence Fishburne said of the show i’ve been eating up lately.  And thankfully, after reading that “Reeves also produced the 2012 documentary ‘Side by Side,’ where he interviewed directors Christopher Nolan and George Lucas,” Netflix actually had the film available for viewing.

Now, i’ll be the first to tell you that these days, i’m more of a television guy.  The new Golden Age of TV that we’re experiencing, with its remarkably engaging hyperserialized programs that have given rise to the binge-watching phenomenon, has me hooked as surely as the blue sky Walter White cooked up brought the whole trend into cultural consciousness.  But there was a time when i was a strictly avowed movie buff, one of those snobby elitists who enjoyed cinema exclusively.

But with a one-sheet featuring names like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh offering their perspectives on both digital and photochemical film creation along with the aforementioned Nolan (yay!) and Lucas (nay!) i felt compelled to give it a go.  And on a personal level, my own meager contribution to the world of film would not have been possible without digital technology, so there was some individual investment at stake as well.

By the time the 98 minute run time was completed, i’d been given a comprehensive guided tour through the history of cinema from a creation standpoint that kept my attention more than any Blu-Ray extra feature ever could.  For any fan of film or student of the genre, ‘Side by Side’ should be viewed at the earliest opportunity, offering an insider’s perspective on the art of filmmaking like nothing i’d ever seen.  For anyone who is serious about a career in cinema, this thought-provoking documentary is required viewing and if it’s not already part of film school curriculum it ought to be.

Reeves, who both produced the piece and took the role of narrator and interviewer, was certainly a fine choice for the position.  With his experience as an actor, he brought a credibility to his questions while connecting to those he spoke to with.  There were a few scenes early on during which i felt like ‘Side by Side’ leaned more heavily on projects he was personally involved in like ‘Henry’s Crime’‘A Scanner Darkly’ and of course ‘The Matrix’ films, but these thoughts were quickly brushed away while he met with folks responsible for creating films every step of the way.  From directors to cinematographers, colorists and editors to the engineers and scientists who develop the technology used in cinema, ‘Side by Side’ approaches the comparison of film and digital capture from every angle.

It was particularly fascinating to hear what the old guard of film had to say on the matter.  For instance, it was widely publicized that Martin Scorsese was abandoning film for the digital format because the collapse of the format was “impossible to fight.”  But his perspective on the issue carried a hefty gravitas.  Here is a guy who’s been making celebrated movies through the traditional photochemical film process for 40 years, and although i suspect the acceptance and transition to the digital format was not a decision made lightly, you can sense the excitement in his voice and demeanor when he explains his feelings regarding the possibilities.

Interspersed throughout the documentary are segments wherein Reeves helps the viewer understand the technology involved, both historically and on the cutting edge of today.  Thankfully, these segments were well-crafted so that even someone like me, who couldn’t tell you the first thing about a film camera or any of its components, was able to understand.  And to hear the creators speak of their tools was equally engrossing.  Many of these people are rarely seen by audiences, and hearing their stories about the increasingly superior tools at their disposal was as much a treat for me as using these toys is for them.  David Fincher, in particular, offered some of the most down-to-earth experiences.  He was exceptionally impressed with the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company, manufacturers of the cameras he used while shooting ‘The Social Network.’  He and several other directors were blown away by the emergent relationship with equipment makers.

Fincher talked about shooting a scene of kayakers, and how even the relatively lightweight cameras they were using proved too heavy to mount on the boats he described as about as thick as a potato chip.  So he called up Oakley founder Jim Jannard, who founded and finances Red, on a Friday to explain his dilemma.  By Sunday night, Jannard called him back to say a carbon-fiber body would reduce the weight to where Fincher needed it to be, and in fact had the specialized model sitting in front of him on his desk already.

But not everyone in Hollywood is on board with the digital revolution.

One of the staunchest holdouts to abandoning film was Christopher Nolan, acclaimed director the ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy, ‘Inception’ and ‘Memento.’  He and frequent collaborator Wally Pfister were downright adamant in their opposition to the digital format, with very little in the way of praise.  Really, only Pfister reluctantly even acquiesced that a completely digital process was inevitable.  They were perhaps the most fierce proponents of film, but certainly not the only ones.  The pair did, however, seem to be a bit obstinate in their position, with other diehard photochemical filmmakers at least conceding that there were pros and cons to digital and simply preferring traditional film.

As a counterpoint to their perspectives though, the biggest advocates of digital film – folks like Robert Rodriguez and George Lucas – made the strongest and simplest appeals for the virtue of digital filmmaking.  Both creators made note that photochemical filming has reached the highest potential it could, something even film users admitted.  They reason that, as either an artist or technician, it would behoove them to make the jump to digital because it offered a chance for them to help develop the technology that was only growing in prominence, giving them an opportunity to shape the course of where it was going.  To further illustrate this point, the documentary notes that photochemical film cameras are no longer even manufactured, but does discuss their unique place as both a capture and archival tool.

As the documentary winds down, one of Reeves’ interviewees makes the most profound statement regarding the debate, framed in a way that can be applied to any similar argument and therefore gives it a universal appeal. He tells Reeves that, in any revolution, if a group of people washes their hands of the debate and walks away to let others fight the battle, then they’re the only ones who have truly lost because a revolution of any kind will result in change, meaning that to be stagnant in the conversation is, essentially, giving up.

That being said, whether you’re a filmmaker yourself with a stake in either side of the argument, or if you’re a fan of the medium who enjoys classic cinema or can’t wait for the next big blockbuster, there is a wealth of wonderful insight into how and why movies are made that should but ‘Side by Side’ in your Netflix queue.

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