Keanu Reeves Turns Director and Speaks Up About Celluloid Vs. Digital
by Graham Fuller
Keanu Reeves has emerged as a thoughtful commentator on the growth of digital cinematography and its ramifications for shooting on film.
Ahead of making his directorial debut on the martial arts movie “Man of Tai Chi,” Reeves co-produced “Side by Side,” in which he interviews on camera an impressive array of directors and technicians on the effects of digital on the movie industry. Directed by Bill Kenneally, the documentary premiered at the Berlinale in February, and on Saturday it opened Plus Cameraimage: International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
“We are looking at an industry and a way of working that has been assaulted by new technology,” the 48-year-old actor told the festival audience according to Screen Daily.
“There was a photo-chemical way of working together. Digital inherited this way of working,” he continued. “There was an independent element that first adopted digital but when it got to Hollywood and the mainstream, every role had to be looked at. People lost their jobs. Industries have fallen because of this transition. But jobs are also being created. It is nature and it can be brutal sometimes. And it can be beautiful.”
“Side by Side” features interviews with such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, James Cameron, Lars Von Trier, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan; cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond, Dick Pope, Donald McAlpine, Wally Pfister, and cinematographer-director Ellen Kuras; editor Anne V. Coates; visual effects artist Dennis Muren; and colorist Tim Stipan.
Reviewing the film for Variety, Leslie Felperin observed that the “[o]pening montage of talking heads sounding off on the merits of old-fashioned photochemical film versus the newfangled means of production gets things off to a rousing start, with plenty of robust opinions, ranging from Steven Soderbergh rhapsodizing about the liberation of digital to one [director of photography] lamenting that switching to digital is like trading in oil paints for a box of crayons. A brief history of photochemical filmmaking whizzes by in a flurry of fair-use-sanctioned clips and somewhat primitive but helpfully explanatory animation, as several artists – and and not just ones from older generations – exalt the glory of silver halide, grain and fingers sliced on Steenbecks.
“Ultimately, the [documentary] doesn’t argue that one format is necessarily better than the other,” Felperin concluded, “but it does make clear that we’re living through a key moment in film history. Interviewees differ in their estimates of how long photochemical filmmaking will last, but nearly everyone agrees the balance of power is shifting ineluctably toward digital, simply because it’s cheaper.”
Reeves shot the Chinese-language co-production “Man of Tai Chi” on digital in Beijing and other parts of mainland China. “I had a lot of pressure from the producer to investigate the digital side of [Shooting],” he told Schumacher, who is serving as Jury President for Plus Cameraimage’s Main Competition. “I did some camera tests, shot some film, went through a couple of digital cameras and then worked with a cinematographer. Luckily, I came up with a digital look that really worked.”
He later told Screen Daily: “If I had not been part of this documentary, going into making a film in a digital way, the conversations with me [on “Man of Tai Chi”] would have been another 50 per cent of me asking people to explain things again. Making the documentary really helped. I knew a little but of the forest from the trees and learned more about the paths that I was heading onto.”