It’s hard to believe that it’s been twelve years since Star Wars: Episode II was the first movie to be shot entirely on high-definition digital cameras, ones that were still physically monstrous in proportion with footage dumped to large tapes. Of course, while it wasn’t shown digitally in many theaters at the time, camera manufacturers and digital projectors have come down in price thanks to names like RED, Sony, and Arri who have helped make filmmaking, end-to-end, an almost entirely digital process. Side By Side, a new documentary produced by and starring Keanu Reeves, goes through the paces of interviewing dozens of industry professionals, from iconic directors like Scorsese, Cameron, Lucas, and Nolan to cinematographers and color timers, through which we learn that, yep, film is pretty much dead.
Side By Side doesn’t just stick to the medium of which movies are captured, oh no, its reach is far beyond that. The documentary touches all the way back on the origin of moving pictures, but its interest is primarily in the past fifty years. Its first digital touchstone? 1969, when the first Charged Couple Device (CCD) was developed at Bell Labs to capture those same moving pictures in a native digital format. As someone who tries to keep tabs on the advancement and history of movie technology, I realized I still had much to learn about filmmaking’s transition to zeroes and ones. Editing became one of the first components to convert with the arrival of George Lucas’ EditDroid. We get to see the first primitive digital films out of Denmark shot on handhelds and how, wave by wave, the industry’s entire production pipeline became a matter of mouse clicks and button presses. The film goes a step further by not only explaining the nuts and bolts of how these things changed, but how these various roles have changed over, well, just the past decade or two.
The movie keeps pace by cutting between so many interviews that the editor deserves an award on workload alone. Side By Side feels like it’s working beyond its boundaries at times in explaining virtually everything there is to know about movie-making while Keanu’s droll narrative is never recommended over the various talking heads, but it’s thankfully scarce. With digital projectors still only in about half of theaters nationwide, it feels like an odd time to measure how filmmakers feel about switching entirely to digital, just five to ten years before such a full transition is complete. As a result, the film finds the stray director, or as presented here, a clan of DPs, who are still unconvinced at 4K’s fidelity, even as Panavision, Arri, and others have ceased production on film cameras entirely. Side By Side shows us that as this army of gray-haired filmmakers advance off the edge of the conveyor belt, film will become a boutique format.