Film VS Digital – The Documentary “Side By Side” Nails It

Film VS Digital – The Documentary “Side By Side” Nails It

You know that moment when you start to watch a documentary, not knowing if it will be any good, and then walk away with your jaw on the floor as the credits roll? That was me last night. If you're interested in the film VS. digital debate; the progression of technology; where things are going for visual media; cinematography; how the media we use to create images affects how we feel about what we see or watch (and why), or how changes in the photographic industry have influenced cinema, you positively, absolutely need to check out Side By Side. Like, now.

Narrated and produced by Keanu Reeves, this doc has actually been out for a while now, but I just happened across it on Netflix this week and gave it a go. Talk about almost totally snoozing on a gem, this was easily one of the most engrossing documentaries of the year for me. The impact on what’s going on in the movie making industry, and (importantly) how that affects all of us, from image conceptualization through to content creation and curation, is covered.

The trailer can be seen here:

Keanu does a great job as interviewer as he speaks to some of the crème de la crème of great American and British cinema directors, editors and cinematographers.  He takes a bit of a no-holds-barred approach to his interview style. I guess as a long time Hollywood vet, he doesn’t feel any need to pander to any of the big guns he is talking to, or isn’t intimidated by them at least. It feels like he just wants to get to the nub if the topic at hand. I know he’s grown up making films, but I don’t think there are that many actors who are really that interested in finding out whether the impact of the 5D and it’s video capability has been a positive thing or not for film making world.

He ends up chatting to the likes of a few people you might have heard of - Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, David Lynch, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez, to name a few. They all voice their thoughts openly and candidly too, this is straight talking, no messing about kind of material. Keanu doesn’t stop with the director set either - he peels back the layers and speaks to the cinematographers, editors, VFX engineers and film colorists who have all been affected by the change a digital work flow environment has brought to the art and craft.

The astounding thing about the doc is that it never takes a position over which medium is better to make movies on. It largely stays objective and just gives us the open thoughts and emotions of those who have lived and breathed the industry. It simply aims to lay out a very clear view of where we have come from, where we are now and what the future might hold for both film and digital, and it succeeds on all fronts.

Whether you think shooting film provides a better texture or dynamic range to your images than digital ever could, or whether you just love the freedom that comes with digitization, this documentary can teach us all something about the art and craft of image making. I don’t do movie reviews but if I did, I’d give this an straight 11 and three thumbs up (which is probably why I don’t do movie reviews).

Enjoy, and let me know what you thought in the comments once you’ve had a chance to check it out.

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Samuel Cabral's picture

Not available in my country...

dusko pilic's picture

google "media hint"

Nathan Hamler's picture

This is one of the greatest docu's on Netflix's so good. I love when they talk about storage needs, and how hard drives never last and wear out, and how any kind of digital tape based medium requires you to have different players, or put a player IN the vault when you store the tapes....but with film you just take it out 1,000 years from now and shine a light through it, and it just works. Something to be said for that.....

As a side note, check out "The Impostor" on Netflix as well...SICK documentary.

Eric Duminil's picture

Are you sure about those 1000 years?

Nathan Hamler's picture

Well as long as it's stored in a nitrate vault, in proper conditions, i dont see why not....either way, the medium of film is far more stable and usable over time. Even like 20 years from now, people may not remember what a jpeg is, or a h.264 file, etc...but if everyone who knows about digital cinema DIES, and someone stumbles upon a celluloid film hundreds of years in the future, they just have to look through it to know what it is....

Henry Stradford's picture

Think they said 100 years?

james johnson's picture

Maybe, but....

One thing I think they missed talking about is internet/cloud storage— where the same digital information is stored in multiple places (and often multiple formats). Like everything else, the internet has democratized archiving, and it is perhaps the safest archiving system in the world. All it takes is one person digitizing a rare film and uploading it to youtube (where it will be stored <em>and</em> backed up) for the whole world to have it available not just to watch, but to make their own copy.

This is what I see as the positive side to digital piracy. The film makers might not have been able to control their creation (or receive the rewards), but barring a global electronic melt down, their film has more of a chance to survive and be viewed for generations to come.

Shannon T's picture

...IF the color negatives and slides are kept at very low temperatures and low humidity. ( B/W negatives, on the other hand, don't require such care.

Jake Brown's picture

One of my favorite documentaries of all time. Wrote a paper about this subject in school and used this as a source. Got an A. Thanks Keanu.

Henry Stradford's picture

If you're unable to see it from this page, try here --&gt; I hunted it down...

Ashanti Millaun McClain's picture

Interesting. Like the conservation of energy. Film was expensive, but overall was the cost more than that which went into creation and improvement of the CCD? Is a team of digital artists less expensive than a team of puppeteers and set designers? Maybe...?

james johnson's picture

The answer to all your questions is"Yes, it is less expensive"?

Film is a continuing expense. Every time you use it, it costs you. Digital is a one time expense, it actual costs you less per frame every time you use it. And, although digital processors and chips continue to be developed, the developments build on each innovation (they don't have to re-invent it every time).

A team of digital artists is less expensive because most of the time consuming work (time is money) is being done by computers. The set designers are still there (digital artists) as well as the puppeteers (animators), but the construction costs are nill— no materials to buy or carpenters to pay.

S Wade's picture

Not sure what this means: "how the media we use to create images can affects how we feel about we watch (and why)"

But if it is a movie a photo, I really don't care if it is film or digital if it is impactful.

Keegan Evans's picture

This is a fantastic documentary. Like it or not, Digital is here to stay and has opened doors for thousands of filmmakers to do things they never could with expensive film equipment.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Dave, thanks for the review. I definitely intend to watch the documentary.

Chris Brock's picture

I've been wanting to watch this documentary for a long time. Based on your review, I'm getting straight on to Netflix!

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

"Paus Press play" is a documentary a must to! :)

Gary Winchester Martin's picture

I watched this last night! Aweomse! i loved seeing Keaunu's hair style completely change with each interview....... I AAAAM AN F.B.I AGGGENT

James Johnson's picture

This is on Netflix by the way... Youtube has it to rent also. Can't wait to watch it!

Mansgame's picture

great documentary. I always knew shooting movies with 35mm film was a pain, but I had no idea just how big of a pain it was (10 minute clips and all). It seems that much as with still photography, those who are still holding on to film are making irrational justifications for such an expensive and labor intensive workflow that no longer has the best quality. Digital for ever.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Myself being one of those under 30 and only ever getting into photography in the digital age I see digital as the thing to master and move forward on. Yes I have learned about film and its history and boy what a history it has with 100+ years! In the end like most of those directors and story tellers said its about the story and how the director sees the film to bring it to life and have that impact it has. Now the big thing is like James Cameron he has the knowledge of great story telling and he wants to use all the tools he can to create something magnificient. Then you have on the other end Christopher Nolan blowing peoples minds with film still! Now both movies being top 10 highest grossing of all time? You can see that the camera and gear is just a tool, what they do with those tools and what they create with it is what matters in the end. Just an incredible doc and Keanu (the wyld stallyon Bill) just amazed me with how he would ask the questions to each director in almost the tone of both sides.