Side by Side - Digital Killed the Celluloid Star

You can skip film school. In his 2012 behind-the-scenes documentary “Side by Side,” director Christopher Kenneally and actor-turned-wookie Keanu Reeves surf through the history of filmmaking and the transition from shooting movies with the saintly chemical process of 35mm film with silver halide, to recent heretical advancements in digital photography. Through fireside chats with directors and cinematographers with the highest of Hollywood pedigrees, we peep into their confined editing bays and learn about the technical aspects of filmmaking, the benefits of digital, and the reasons (real and emotional) of why losing film is a "bad" thing. It walks industry outsiders through the technical aspects of the whole production process from shooting, editing, color correction, special effects, and distribution. Cinematography porn for camera geeks.

There are chortle-inducing anecdotes that illustrate both sides of the argument in terms of the ways movie-making is changing; such as Soderbergh shooting "Che" with digital cameras which made longer, more efficient shots in the infernal Mexican jungle possible (35mm cameras can only shoot 10 minutes at a time); or Robert Downey Jr. getting literally pissed off, because with a digital camera you don’t need a break and actors don't get as much downtime. He would leave jugs of his piss all over the set in protest. It explores the anger-inducing democratization of filmmaking, as everyone with a cheap digital camera can now win an award, to the chagrin of some stuffy old movie makers.

We get the sense that we are heading into a world where the convergence of quality between film and digital is just over the horizon. However, some rightly complain that with digital you can’t achieve the same dynamic range as with film. (To understand what this means, you can set your iPhone camera to shoot photos in HDR, which allows you to capture a higher dynamic range of light, to let you capture more color with the sun at your back). As in the case of resolution doubling in digital cameras every couple of years, it’s not hard to imagine that the dynamic range in digital will catch up to film soon.

The most immediate changes are on the distribution front, as some movie studios have already given an ultimatum to theaters that they will only ship digital after 2013, bringing the cost of distribution from $1,500 per film reel (which will survive as emoticons) to around $150 per digital copy. This is where most interviewees agree that digital is better, because digital allows for less fuck-ups by the projectionist which could fudge the feed into the old projectors, make the screen brighter or frame the projection inappropriately. Also, Titanic played for so long that the film literally broke apart in the projector after a while, while digital copies don't age. Only the theater owners are upset because of the upfront cost of the digital conversion, although studios are financing conversions until the end of 2012. Ironically long-term storage will probably have to be in celluloid because digital storage (hard drives, DVDs, etc.) degrade quickly while celluloid can last over 100 years in abandoned underground mines.

When a caveman invented the wheel, there was someone in the tribe that went: “Oh well, that's the death of walking.” Listen, people are always going to be either afraid of change or motivated by nostalgia. In some cases, such as in the invention of high fructose corn syrup, credit default swaps, or reality tv, anti-changers are right. It’s true, when George Lucas shot “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace” in the late 1990’s (the first blockbuster distributed digitally), the digital cameras available at the time were not ready for prime time. But it did open up the race to create a higher-resolution CCD that could power the vision of the director that had Pandora in mind. On the other end of the spectrum, Christopher Nolan and his cinematographer, a very angry Wally Pfister (who is now branching off to direct his own films, ending the trademark feel of Nolan-Pfister movies) have sworn that they will continue to shoot in film as long as the medium is still available. Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" became the first digital film to win the Academy Award for best cinematography. Do you remember the dynamic chases through the slums, the palpable bustle of the city in the chase scenes? He would not have been able to shoot that with a heavy film camera. Sure, we'll miss celluloid, the same way we will miss walking.

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