'Is this the end of film?' asks Keanu Reeves
by Alex Strachan
Side by Side explores cinematic film versus digital technology
Film has helped us share our experiences and dreams, thrilled us and captured our imaginations, Keanu Reeves says in the opening moments of his new documentary Side by Side, a look at how digital cinema is reshaping the movies as we see them today.
Like vinyl records, print film and black-and-white TV, the days of old-fashioned cinematic film may be about to fade into history, just another receding memory, replaced by digital cameras and editing technology that is lighter, faster and less expensive to use.
Photochemical film has been the exclusive format used to capture, develop, project and store moving images ever since the early days of nickelodeon movie theatres in the early 1900s, when a nickel or dime would buy you entry into an indoor movie theatre showing silent classics like Catch the Kid and The Romany’s Revenge.
For more than a century, theatregoing audiences were held spellbound by the likes of Casablanca, The Godfather and The Wizard of Oz. It is only recently that a new technology has emerged that is challenging film’s place as the gold standard of quality in big-screen entertainment.
Digital technology is evolving to a point that may well replace film as the primary means of creating motion pictures, the stuff dreams are made of, Avatar being the tip of the filmmaking iceberg. As filmmaker James Cameron explains in Side by Side, the world of moviemaking has changed dramatically in the short time between Titanic in 1997 and Avatar in 2009.
Side by Side has been a labour of love for Reeves, who both hosts and narrates the film, as well as co-producing alongside director Christopher Kenneally and fellow producers Justin Szlasa and Chris Cassidy.
Reeves recently made his directorial debut with Man of Tai Chi, filmed entirely in China. He is familiar with stepping behind the camera: He starred in and produced the 2011 (actually 2010. - Ani) romantic comedy Henry’s Crime, and has performed on stage, as Hamlet in a 1995 Manitoba Theatre Centre stage production.
As he has grown older — Reeves is now 48 — he has grown more interested in the process of filmmaking, how moving images are imagined, created and realized for a mass audience.
Side by Side first screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012, followed by New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. It makes its network television debut Aug. 30 on PBS.
Earlier this month in Los Angeles, Reeves acknowledged that, just in the past year, there has been pushback from a number of established filmmakers who fear that, as with the debate over vinyl LPs versus digital CDs, film will lose much of the warmth, richness and vibrancy that made classic cinema what it is today.
Side by Side features commentary from established film directors Cameron, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, Danny Boyle and David Fincher, all of whom have strong feelings about digital technology’s place in the modern filmmaking world.
“Digital technology has continued to grow and improve, just in the year since we did the film, which ties in with why I did the documentary in the first place,” Reeves said. “There’s a sense of, ‘Is this the end of film?’ A year ago, I was skeptical. Now, even though film stocks are already harder to find and there’s always the issue of who’s going to develop it, there’s been an artistic pushback that I now think will help it survive in a niche way. I think there’ll be a way that (film) will hang on a bit longer.
“In the documentary, we absolutely have people who speak about the unique aspects and qualities of the photochemical film process, how there’s something unique about that and how they see themselves as the protectors of the flame. There are also artists, though, who are there to tell a story and who feel that they’re simply utilizing a different tool. These are early days.”
Michael Mann’s 2004 street-noir thriller Collateral, filmed entirely at night and much of it outdoors, used a then-new digital camera that enables feature films to accurately reflect the night sky lit up by city lights. It was one of the first times the night sky was accurately depicted in a Hollywood studio film.
“Certainly, in terms of light sensitivity, that was a breakthrough,” Reeves said. “I don’t know if we’ll get more night movies.”
Collateral created a unique look for big-budget studio films, but it’s with independent film, and documentary and film shorts that digital technology has had the most immediate impact, Reeves said.
“Technology has influenced a lot, in terms of availability, cost, means of production and ease of use, not only through the camera but in exhibiting and distribution. We’re seeing a lot of short-form storytelling, serialized stories. I’ve got a phone. I have a camera. I can tell a story. I have the Internet, so I can share my story. I think that, digitally and as a tool, technology has had a profound effect on keeping us connected.”