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Side by Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cinema Reviews

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the official name of the institution that bestows the Oscars every year, and while most viewers tend to focus on the “Arts” portion of movies, the people who actually make the artistic endeavors we love must also be well-versed in the “Science” side of the equation. From the advent of sound to color to the widening of the film frame, technological advancements continually alter how cinematic stories are told. Christopher Kenneally’s Side by Side examines in detail one of the most galvanizing changes to the industry: digital film. Hosted and narrated by Keanu Reeves, the documentary features a number of respected filmmakers discussing their opinions -- both positive and negative -- regarding the decline of traditional celluloid film and the rise of digital technology. Even if the movie failed to teach us anything at all about this topic, the fact that Kenneally’s project features interviews with influential directors like James Cameron, Danny Boyle, the Wachowskis, and David Lynch -- who inspires laughs just trying to get his distinctive Midwestern twang around the name “Keanu” -- would make it worthwhile for any film buff. Thankfully, Side by Side is much more than just a collection of talking heads. Kenneally explains the early development of digital-film cameras, showing clips from low-budget indies like Chuck & Buck that were the first to embrace this new technology. While those pictures certainly don’t look nearly as polished as the digitally shot movies that would arrive just a few years later -- think David Fincher’s Zodiac -- a handful of directors and cinematographers seized on the freedom these lightweight devices gave them to move the camera and get very close to their actors. Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration is touted as one of the most influential artistic breakthroughs, as the Danish director took full advantage of the new cameras to make his audience feel like not just observers at a birthday party gone horribly wrong, but participants as well. One of the most eye-opening sections of the documentary details how easily digital film can be manipulated in post-production. For nearly a century, the color prints produced from any photographic negative could only be altered by changing the entire frame. But world-class cinematographer Roger Deakins explains how, in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he was able to make the sky take on the rich golden hue traditionally associated with filming at dawn or dusk, while also heightening the green of the grass and the trees within the same shot -- something that would have been previously impossible. If you like to keep yourself ignorant of how movie magic happens, Side by Side will, in some ways, break your heart. While the documentary is educational, it’s also very entertaining: Reeves’ interviews with the various directors and cinematographers are filled with notable insights as well as a variety of opinions. At one end there’s James Cameron, who argues that all filmmaking is fake, so it shouldn’t matter what kind of technology was employed to create Avatar. At the other end there’s Christopher Nolan, who resists these new developments in part because he believes that digital technology hasn’t caught up to traditional film’s ability to capture the dynamics of light -- radical differences between darkness and brightly lit spaces -- in the same frame. The interviewee that sticks with you the longest, though, is Martin Scorsese. Though he’s spent decades fighting for film preservation, he’s not afraid of embracing these changes. He takes the pragmatic approach that, like innovations in the past, it isn’t good or bad -- all that matters is how moviemakers use it to tell a story. That calm-headed reality check exemplifies the tone of Side by Side, which isn’t a polemic about the death of traditional film or a celebration of the newest advances in digital technology, but just an evenhanded examination of how we got to this point and where the most creative people in movies think we’re going.