Sunday, 24 February 2013

Film Review: Side by Side (2012)

Director: Christopher Kenneally
Writer: Christopher Kenneally
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Robert Rodriguez and David Lynch

Side By Side is a must for anyone with an interest in the history of movies and the process of making them regardless of your background knowledge of the subject. I have a good understanding of the history of cinema and the (literal) film making process and the rise of digital camera within the Hollywood mainstream, and there was still plenty to take away from this. It is highly recommended.

The documentary could, and probably will, be used in film schools thanks to the educational sections on how a film camera works and how film is developed and the progress of digital from its early SD days through to today’s 4K camera and the revolutionary RED cameras. Combined with this element are interviews with host/narrator Keanu Reeves with a who’s who of cinema, ranging from James Cameron and George Lucas to recent film school graduates.

The documentary doesn’t take sides on film verses digital because ultimately it’s either fact or opinion. Examples: Fact, digital does not have the dynamic range (being the range between dark and light) that films does. Opinion, film looks ‘better’ than digital. However, what really struck me was the reasoning behind some film maker’s preference of digital over film camera.

Take David Fincher, a film maker I admire greatly. He obsesses over the ability a digital camera gives to playback footage instantly, without the need to wait 24 hours to review film dailies (the footage filmed the day before which has now been developed); If the scene isn’t right or something is wrong, then you know there and then and correct it. Yet I ask this question; he never had that privilege in 1995 when he made his greatest film to date, the modern masterpiece Se7en, so was it such a problem before the technology was around? Moreover, why are his experience on digital some of his weakest films?

James Cameron gushes over the ‘virtual lenses’ he used for the majority of Avatar, a film which has, for better or worse (well, worse) changed the landscape of film making forever and the ways in which studios want their blockbusters to look. So why is Avatar infinitely inferior to the movies he shot on film, even with all the CGI and state of the art technology they encompassed, like Terminator 2 and Aliens? Furthermore, Cameron delivers a comment which, when played over footage of Avatar, was a truly laugh-out-loud moment:

“We never shot in a real jungle, we had to create a jungle.”

Really, James? Next you’ll be telling us those blue aliens weren’t actually real.

It amazes me when I hear some of the film makers like Steven Soderbergh saying that loading a flash card into a camera in 15 seconds rather than lugging film reels around made Che a “better movie”. Better how, he never says. Moreover, his love of digital film making has seen him churn out second rate crap like Haywire and The Girlfriend Experience which I doubt he’d ever have made on film. And where is David Lynch’s evidence for never wanting to go back to film? It’s certainly not in the short films he makes for his website. Will he ever touch the brilliance of Blue Velvet or Wild At Heart again on digital?

My opinion from watching Side By Side is that these great film makers are now manufacturing their films within an inch of the film’s life, as is shown in the section where we see the advancements in colour timing. So much attention is put on post-production fixing that the visuals are now unrecognisable to what was actually filmed. It begs the question why even film a real tree any more if the tree’s real leaves aren’t the right colour. That’s not to say colour correction is a new thing (of course it’s not), but the shift in focus from what was captured to what will be shown is getting greater all the time. These pro-digital directors only seem to praise the ease in the beginning to end process, but not the actual quality of the product it produces.

The quality of a movie still remains in the talent of the film maker, regardless of the format. A movie can be shot on film and be total garbage like A Good Day To Die Hard or a film can be shot digitally and look exemplary like Skyfall. The reasons why these two recent big-budget films are poles apart isn’t to do with the camera they used, but in the quality of writing, directing, and storytelling.

There is no substitute for talent either on celluloid or on digital.


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