The documentary Side By Side was directed by Chris Kenneally, but could just as easily be called “a Keanu Reeves film,” since Reeves is the narrator, the onscreen interviewer, and—as one of the producers—likely a major reason why Side By Side has such an impressive lineup of interview subjects. The film is about how the digital revolution has changed the ways moviemakers capture, edit, and manipulate images, and it gets practically every famous, relevant person on the record. Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, David Lynch, Lana and Andy Wachowski: Side By Side has them all, giving their opinions about whether digital is ruining cinema, or just part of the natural evolution, like the switch from silent to sound, or black-and-white to color. And Reeves asks the right questions, too, playing devil’s advocate while getting all the different sides of the story.
This isn’t to discount Kenneally, or anyone else on the Side By Side crew. When the documentary starts, there’s a bit of “Webster’s defines ‘movies’ as…” to the setup, but it doesn’t take long for Kenneally and Reeves to get to what matters. There are multiple issues to consider: Is the image quality of celluloid inherently (and permanently) superior to digital? Is the freedom to shoot long takes and watch them immediately a boon to creativity, or an excuse to waste time? Are digital effects, color-correction, and editing on computers all a cheat? How has all of this affected the theatrical experience? And can we really trust hard drives to preserve our cinematic legacy?
Side By Side doesn’t take firm sides in these debates, though Kenneally and Reeves seem to accept that most of these changes are inevitable, and that at least there are artists like Fincher and Soderbergh out in front, telling the engineers what filmmakers need. Side By Side gets very specific about the pros and cons, with some digital proponents talking about being freed from the “voodoo” of past movie sets, where everyone worked hard all day and then had to wait until morning to see whether they had anything (“like painting with the lights off,” Robert Rodriguez says), while others talk about the special focus that comes from knowing that money is running through the camera with every blown take.
What’s most valuable about Side By Side is how comprehensive it is in documenting how the art form changed. Kenneally and Reeves start with the Dogme 95 filmmakers, who proved that video could be used artfully. Then they track the simultaneous efforts of Hollywood types who are commissioning higher-quality cameras, and indie types trying to get their hands on equipment that’s cheaper and more versatile. Twenty years ago, the prospect that most movies would be shot on video would’ve seemed ludicrous to film buffs, while now only the most hardcore reject video completely. It just goes to show the perception of what’s possible—and even what’s ideal—can be changed by the right people in the right circumstance.