The documentary Side By Side is a film for the cinephiles still trying to come to terms with the end of film cameras and the rise of digital cameras. Maybe 10 years ago the debate would have been more heated, but nowadays it is about coming to terms with the new format. A couple of years ago, I posted about how film lovers simply need to accept this new medium, as everyone from studios to projectionists to general audiences were moving to the new format with little sentimentality for the past (To accept the death of celluloid).

Co-produced and hosted by Keanu Reeves, Side By Side features the actor interviewing some of cinema’s great artists. From cinematographers to editors to colorists, he sits down with them all. These people provide a wide-ranging survey of not only how they make movies but also how the conversion from 35mm to digital has affected their craft. On top of that, everyone seems to have different feelings on the new technology.

Many have knocked Reeves for years as an actor of limited range, but he, with the help of director Christopher Kenneally, offers a nerd-worthy examination at all the moving parts in making a movie while diving into the state of flux in the industry. You cannot help but love him for his affection for the art, which translates to a thorough, easy-to-understand and entertaining documentary on filmmaking with relevance to the moment. No matter that Reeves injects himself in the dialogue; he does not put himself onscreen to upstage the medium itself. He feels cozy to watch as he chats with all these people who have their hands in the details of the medium. With his unkempt beard and his casual dress, Reeves is no movie star, but your disheveled professor, taking you on a tour of filmmaking 101. He introduces the various roles of the people behind the scenes whose names many audience members never seem to notice as they walk out of a movie’s closing credits. In the meantime, he reveals how digital technology has affected all departments from the creative side to the distribution and projection side.

Like any good documentary on cinema, Side By Side, opens with a celebration of iconic films once exclusively distributed in the photochemical film process most filmgoers over the age 20 used to only experience in theaters. It appeals to the nostalgic, sentimental and emotional connection most film lovers have with movies. There are still some youngish film directors who staunchly support 35mm film, though it seems to have become an uphill battle. Director Christopher Nolan says early on, “I’m constantly justifying why I want to shoot a film on film, but I don’t hear anyone asked to justify why they want to shoot a film digitally.” At the age of 42, he may be part of the last generation to care about 35mm.

When I started this blog I thought celebrating film shot and distributed in 35mm and music released on vinyl were the best ways to fully appreciate these arts. Music continues to exist in vinyl fine and dandy, but film is a whole other beast, as digital technology only continues to advance. The costs of making a vinyl record do not compare to producing a 35mm movie. As someone who has both carried vinyl records and canisters of 35mm film, I know. “Film is a 19th century invention,” says Star Wars director George Lucas. “We are at the top of the photochemical process. This is as far as it’s ever gonna go.”

While explaining the change over to digital, Side By Side also provides a lesson in the movie camera and establishes just how important the cinematographer, or DP (director of photography), is to the process. Not only do some of the cinematographers interviewed celebrate 35mm film’s natural grain, they also appreciate the natural breaks in action every 10 minutes in order to change the cartridges of film that attach to the camera. Some believe these breaks allow moments of essential reflection to assess work flow. Side By Side also reveals film’s cumbersome nature encourages reflection for film editors as well, as they must handle the physical reels of footage and tape them together in the editing room. Some editors celebrate the sound of such a craft, lamenting the loss of the whir of film to clicks on a keyboard. “It’s a different way of thinking,” says Lawrence of Arabia’s editor, Ann V. Coates.

That is the other level many of those working with the film medium appreciate the format for. As a writer who used to produce first drafts longhand and revised in notebooks before typing a final product out to a professor or editor, I understand how the process in which one creates often contributes to that product’s character. I would go through at least three drafts in my old process. There is something to be said about pausing one’s work that allows to activate moments of reflection by the creative mind. Martin Scorsese laments that something is lost when digital allows you to playback “dailies” right after shooting a scene. With 35mm, filmmakers must wait a day to see what the film captured. Undeveloped film has to be sent to a lab where it is processed and printed. It is then sent back to a screening room the next day. Hence the name dailies. Scorsese believes dailies need to be seen later, so one can concentrate better on shooting a movie while on the set.

As Side By Side continues to chronicle the changes to cameras, including one that produced a “negative” in a cartridge, filmmakers started to evolve with the new cameras. One thing that helped were technological advances in resolution. The better the picture got, the less complaints from filmmakers. The technology began to speak for itself.

Directors were also excited about new advantages like lightweight cameras that allowed for placement and maneuverability unimaginable until now. There was also a healthy sense of competition among camera makers that pushed the quick development of the technology, from functional design to resolution. By the time Danny Boyle won his Best Picture Oscar® and— even more shocking— an Oscar® for cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire, a film mostly shot in with digital cameras, the argument had become moot. Digital had arrived, accepted as one of the tools of the trade.

Side By Side does not hold back on how thoroughly it covers the evolution of digital, as 35mm is almost consistently proven as outmoded. It even goes into the hype of the supposed next generation of theatrical digital projection: 3D. James Cameron talks of his anticipation to shoot in 3D as early as 1999 with digital technology. His Avatar certainly revealed the money studios could make with 3D. Cameron seems proud of himself, noting the successes that followed Avatar, including Tim Burton’s shallow and garish Alice in Wonderland, which nonetheless brought in a record haul at the box office. But director Joel Schumacher warns of abusing the technology, as, he says, there are films made for that technology, like Avatar, and films that are not.

Digital technology and digital effects have grown together, the documentary notes. However, when Scorsese says, “I don’t know if our younger generation is believing anything anymore as real,” and Cameron retorts, “When was it ever real?” in separate interviews, I will hand that round to Scorsese. Even though Scorsese famously followed Cameron into digital effects and 3D with his most recent film, Hugo, which ingeniously paid tribute to cinema’s origins while embracing technological advances, I believe Scorsese is right. The weight, shadow and light interplay on digital characters still have not achieved the same level concreteness as the cheapest, rubbery creature of the B-movies. There is an artificial, almost gimmicky quality of live action characters mixed with what I consider fancy cartoons. This mix of digital and flesh and blood lightens the stakes compared to pure live action, as it calls attention to itself, disturbing the illusion of suspension of disbelief. Side By Side gives Cameron the last word, but for all he created with computers with Avatar, I do not believe he wins his argument.

In the end, Side By Side tries to hand it to celluloid in a token moment, noting it works better for archival purposes. Digital has a tendency to disappear off hard drives, and, with formats constantly moving forward, various methods of archiving also become outdated, leaving files irretrievable. Celluloid actually lasts longer, adds Scorsese. Though most everything seems to point to the advantage of advances in digital filmmaking, this seems to raise some bigger questions, as the documentary ends on a philosophical note tangled in the practicality of archiving. What does saving a film mean, anyway? What ultimately matters to anyone in the future will be saved somehow and even “dug up” when it matters. Ultimately, filmmakers are storytellers, and the value of the story will carry on. It doesn’t matter what sort of medium you use to tell it, be it music, books, film or some new medium that has yet to be perceived.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

Side By Side is not rated (contains no offense material, though) and runs 99 min. It premieres exclusively in South Florida this Friday, Sept. 22 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Tribeca Film provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. It could already be playing in your city or coming soon. Jump through this link for more locations.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Indeed, it was time for a woman to win not only Best Director but Best Picture at the Oscars® last night (the usual trend for Best Director winners, by the way). I figured that race would go to Kathryn Bigelow’s the Hurt Locker. I still believe it was a political statement by the Academy and less about the film’s quality.

Mo’Nique said it right when she won for Precious and talked about how her win was not about the politics but about her performance (she refused to cancel stand-up shows in order to campaign for votes in the Best Actress category). We already had several black actors and actresses as winners. Until we have one of these kinds of wins for a female director, this win will still be about the politics. This recognition is only the beginning for women, but there is still a long way to go, to make this win appear like something more than charity.

Granted, it was great to see an independent picture win, but all the hype surrounding the competition between Bigelow and her former ex James Cameron, was getting tiresome, and trivialized the contest. Not to mention the hype that it was time a woman director should win. It all took away form the quality of the film, which was good. But, again, still not as well crafted as Inglorious Basterds.

Of all my predictions I got wrong for the Oscars®, the only two I slipped on was the Foreign Language Film category, which was just a wild guess, as I had yet to see any of those movies in Miami. And though, I had acknowledged the stiff competition by Jeff Bridges, I sort of waffled on my decision for George Clooney to win over Bridges, so I at least got that one half wrong. Otherwise, the Oscars® went quite predictably for my tastes.

Read the full list of 2009 Oscar® winners by visiting the Academy Awards’ official website here.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Since I have been asked, I shall use this blog entry offer my Oscar® picks and predictions. Though I have hardly ever given them any credit for furthering my appreciation of cinema, it’s been a fun game to predict, which goes way beyond the quality of filmmaking and into the art of politicking.

Last week, we had the BAFTAs (the British equivalent to the Academy awards). It was nice to see Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son, win an award for Outstanding Debut By A British Writer, Director Or Producer. I happened to have recommended his short film “Whistle” for programming at the Miami Film Festival a few years ago. I am very happy to see him get that award. Moon was an amazing addition to the thinking man’s science fiction cannon, plus he is a real down-to-Earth guy for a guy with his head snuggly in the sci-fi world.

But more revealing was how the Hurt Locker swept up so many major awards at the BAFTAs, beating out Avatar in several categories, including Best Film and Best Director, and casting a shadow over the awards it lost to Avatar at the Golden Globes. That said, I think it portends good things for Hurt Locker at the Oscars this weekend, but, for my tastes, Inglorious Basterds is the stronger film.

Well, here is the first half at my look of the picks, mainly the competition trying to beat the favored Hurt Locker. The second half of this post will appear tomorrow and focus on the acting categories.

Directing

Avatar (James Cameron)

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)

Precious (Lee Daniels)

Who will win: It’s about time a woman director won an Oscar ®, and Bigelow has ironically produced a strong testosterone-fueled movie that also offers some deep insight into the kind of person war creates. This film could win it for her. Plus, our society has increasingly grown concerned about equating injustices against those in groups whose rights have been historically tread upon for centuries, which adds to her chances.

Who I think should win: Tarantino. If this category were not so overshadowed by the battle of the exes (Cameron and Bigelow were once married) and was truly about the craftiness of the director, Tarantino should get it.

Writing (adapted screenplay)

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)

An Education (Nick Hornby)

Precious (Geoffrey Fletcher)

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner)

In the Loop (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche)

Who will win: These are some real nice, varied nominees, though, again, I’m too behind in my movie viewing to fairly guess. If I had to go on the politics that drives this awards show, I’d say the only contenders here are Up in the Air and Precious. Both are the serious movies here. Up in the Air has something to say about the state of today’s day and age thanks to the messed up economy. But Precious is also a powerful comment on the constant of society, those people typically ignored as damaged goods in today’s day and age.

Who I think should win: I think because of the latter’s perspective I just offered, I think not only will Precious win this category but also deserves it.

Writing (original screenplay)

The Hurt Locker (Mark Boal)

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Up (Pete Docter and Bob Petersen)

The Messenger (Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman)

Who will win: Hurt Locker has not only won awards for Bigelow’s work but also for Boal, a journalist once imbedded with troops in Iraq. The momentum behind this movie will certainly see it through to the Oscars®.

Who I think should win: Yes, Tarantino, who has done some amazing ballet with words throughout his career. Basterds is no exception. The opening scene of the movie itself was an amazing exercise of suspense through dialogue.

Animated feature film

Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker)

Coraline (Henry Selick)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore)

Who will win: Seriously, how many Academy members even heard of the Secret of Kells much less saw in its brief run designed to have it qualify for this category. Coraline is too far in voters’ memory (I thought it was released in 2008, when I tried to think back on my favorite movies of 2009). Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably to odd a film for most to swallow, often the predicament of Anderson’s movies. The Princess and the Frog is old Disney, and comes from a different era (hence its failure at the box office, proving audiences have moved on to 3-D computer-animated films). That means Up will undoubtedly win this category.

Who I think should win: Up deserves it. It is a strong, simple and emotional story, which happens to unfold in an animated 3D world. However, I do happen to think Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stronger film, due to its complex story and whimsical delivery, which does not lean on sentimentality for its emotional tug, unlike Up. Still, if either one wins, I’d be happy, but I’m secretly rooting for Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Foreign language film

Ajami (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Israel)

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France)

The Secret of Her Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, Argentina)

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany)

The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru)

Who will win: Being stuck in Miami, foreign movies have to work hard to play at movie theaters here. None of these have even played our few art houses here. I can only guess Haneke will win for being overlooked so long by the Academy.

Who I think should win: I cannot fairly even guess. I have heard some great things about several of these films and look forward to checking them out, beyond the Oscars ® hype.

Best picture

Avatar (James Cameron and Jon Landau, producers)

District 9 (Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, producers)

An Education (Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, producers)

The Hurt Locker (nominees to be determined)

Inglourious Basterds (Lawrence Bender, producer)

Precious (Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, producers)

A Serious Man (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, producers)

Up in the Air (Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, producers)

The Blind Side (nominees to be determined)

Up (Jonas Rivera, producer)

Who will win: OK, first off, let’s pretend this renewed idea of 10 nominees in this category never happened. If that were the case, the only films up here would look like this:

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

Precious

The Blind Side

Up in the Air

Yeah, no Avatar. It’s just too much of a technical showpiece. It’s all about the technology used to make the movie, the 3-D aspect and the box office, superficial elements that do no make a classic film. That would also null the contest between the ex’s James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, and her movie would win, making her also the first female director to get the statuette for Best Picture, as she was during the BAFTAs, a tidbit helping to hype her movie, which has enjoyed buzz all year long.

Who I think should win: No doubt about it, in my opinion, Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino is a master filmmaker, and he has shown it again and again since his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, Bigelow’s catalog is much more suspect, filled with too many superficial action flicks like Point Break and Strange Days, which have not aged as well as Tarantino’s work. His latest work was relentless in its pace thanks to its camera work, writing, editing and the performance he elicited from his actors, an all around master work deserving attention on its own merits, not the hype that surrounds Hurt Locker, which was a strong movie, but not the masterwork of film craftsmanship that was Inglourious Basterds.

So what do you think? Am I wrong for loving Inglorious Basterds so much? Beyond the hype, does Bigelow deserve the awards, which I have no doubt she will win?

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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