Anyone seriously dreaming of a future in filmmaking should tune into the documentary “Side-by-Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cameras,” Friday on PBS.
The documentary, produced by actor Keanu Reeves, centers on the question “Is a movie produced digitally better than using celluloid film?”
Basically it boils down to two camps: those who like immediacy of digital and those who prefer look of film. Both camps are passionate about their arguments.
Director James Cameron (“Titanic,” “Avatar”) says of the oncoming digital tsunami, “It’s all going to be matter of time.”
“Celluloid is still going to be a choice” in filmmaking, says Martin Scorsese, director of “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas.”
Reeves interviewed filmmakers including Scorsese, Cameron, George Lucas (“Star Wars”), Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and the Wachowskis (“The Matrix” trilogy) about the impact of the technological change. Just as importantly, he spoke with the men and women most directly affected — the cinematographers, otherwise known as directors of photography (DPs), and the editors who cut the film.
Among the few problems with the documentary is you don’t always know who is speaking. Many will recognize Lucas, Cameron and Scorsese but few might know Reed Morano, a cinematographer (“Frozen River”) who speaks in praise of film at the very beginning but is not introduced by name until later.
What are the main bones of contention other than aesthetic? At least two important things: cost and time.
Film is expensive. A director shoots the actors, send the footage to be processed, and when it comes back the next day sees what he’s got and if he needs to re-shoot scenes.
With digital photography, it’s instantaneous. “You sit back or in a tent somewhere looking at this huge monitor and making adjustments for that,” Phil Meheux, DP for “GoldenEye,” “which actually I quite like because you’re seeing the picture exactly as it is.”
That can have unexpected problems. Joel Schumacher of “Batman Forever” had to talk one of his actors out of seeing every take when he used digital because it was making the actor’s performance “very self-conscious.”
Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) says of digital, “If you’re watching a monitor on set, and you feel that you’re really seeing what you’ve got, I think you’re fooling yourself.”
“Film is cumbersome,” says Lucas, who is passionate about going digital after his frustrations with filmmaking. “So I just said, I’m going to take my money and my time and I’m going to fix it.
“We went to Sony and we said we would like to help you, work with you to build a digital camera.”
Lucas shot “Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones” (1992) with high-definition digital cameras. He says that some people in the industry thought he was the “devil incarnate” for shooting that way. Scorsese remembers Lucas pointing out at a conference, “(digital’s) just another tool.”
Sensing a trend, traditional camera companies, such as Panavision and Arri, have also diversified into digital by constructing cameras that could use the already-owned film lenses in place on film cameras. New companies such as RED and Silicon Imaging created totally digital cinema cameras.
Lucas sees digital filmmaking as inevitable, “so you should jump over and help build that, ‘cause the more people who use it, the better it gets.”
For Nolan, the change is “a transition (that) starts with people offering a new choice but it finishes with people taking the old choice (film) away. I don’t think we’re technically ready to do that yet.”
By the end of “Side by Side,” Reeves himself says, with a touch of wistfulness, that he does hope that “people will still get to work with film.”
——— SIDE-BY-SIDE; THE SCIENCE, ART, AND IMPACT OF DIGITAL CINEMA Produced and hosted by Keanu Reeves, directed by Chris Kenneally 9-10 p.m. EDT Friday PBS
Side-by-Side trailer from PBS