It’s easy to think of the sum of Keanu Reeves as the sufer-dude persona that’s defined his acting career. But if his turn as the host of a PBS documentary, Side By Side, that premieres at 9PM tonight doesn’t do much to dispel that general affect, his exploration of the debate between directors and cinematographers about the relative merits of shooting movies on film and in digital suggests that mien can be awfully useful in eliciting thoughtful meditations from some of the giants of cinema. Side By Side will contain few revelations for those already familiar with the history and science of film and digital cinematography, but it’s a perfect primer for newbies, and for anyone with any level of interest in the subject, a wonderful opportunity to hear terrific artists talk about the relative merits of their preferred methods.
Side By Side, among its other merits, provides a deft explanation of the basic setup of film and digital cameras, contrasting the silver halide crystals in film to the pixel capacities of digital cameras. And it walks viewers through a nice history of the development of digital cameras and their adoption, from the introduction of Sony’s digital camcorders at the same time that the Dogma 95 movement was requiring participants to shoot with handheld cameras to Red Digital Cinema’s efforts to design cameras from scratch.
This is all terrifically helpful when the directors and cinematographers start talking because it makes it easier to understand their principal arguments. While film proponents tend to emphasize the physical nature of film, and the patience and deliberation required to edit it by making physical cuts, fans of digital acknowledge some loss of image quality, but argue that the gains in the kinds of images they’re able to capture are worthwhile compensation. And Side By Side is able to flesh out the ways in which there’s no clear winner in these debates, simply the opportunity for a diversity of artistic approaches.
“There is something about the texture and the grain structure of film that personally, I hold on to,” Reed Morano, who shot the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings, a chronicle of Allen Ginsberg’s experiences at Columbia. “It feels more tangible.” Dick Pope, who’s worked on everything from The Way Of The Gun to The Illusionist agrees: “I like grit and grain and texture.”
Without disagreeing with them, the aficionados of digital Reeves interviews focus elsewhere, on the shots they’re capable of getting because of where they can take small digital cameras (and where they don’t have to carry film), and what they can do with digital files in post-production. Lana Wachowski says that working in digital allowed them to produce images it would be simply impossible to shoot in The Matrix trilogy. Danny Boyle said that the sacrifice in image quality was worth being freed up for 28 Days Later. “You could shoot illegally and surreptitiously without people knowing,” he explains. “I loved that freedom.” And Steven Soderbergh said that shooting on digital enabled him to go directly to locations that might have been impossible to use if he’d had to transport film for Che: digital might be less physical than film, but using it meant he could shoot on location rather than on sets.
The debate is even more pitched when it comes to the question of how to examine dailies and how to approach editing on film and digital. Both David Fincher and Robert Rodriguez argue that being able to check in on what they’ve accomplished during a day’s shooting rather than waiting for dailies has been productive for them. “I don’t like the betrayal of dailies,” Fincher explained. “I don’t like going in and getting swept up in a performance and seeing it go out of focus on a 25-foot screen.” And Rodriguez suggested that waiting for dailies sometimes made him waste time because he’d lose track of what he’d shot and what he felt he really got out of it.
But Christopher Nolan countered that monitors could be deceptive, particularly in terms of the difference between what you see on that small screen and what audiences will experience in theaters. “If you’re watching a monitor on set and you think you’re really seeing what you’ve got, I think you’re fooling yourself,” he insisted. Anne Coates, who edited Lawrence of Arabia said that she also felt digital editors were able to rush in a way film editors making physical cuts couldn’t that was counterproductive. “They don’t always have the time to just sit back and think about what they’re doing,” she explained. “And I think that if they work on film, they probably train their minds to do that a little bit more.” “Has editing gotten better because of infinite choice?” asked Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the action movie producer. “I’m not sure.”