Side by Side – Movie Review

Fascinating combination of the technical and the aesthetic. The best exhibition to date of the digital revolution in filmmaking.

“Side by Side” is the documentary/critique of the digital revolution in the context of the waning use of emulsion photography in filmmaking. A fantastic film that is long overdue, “Side” presents both sides of the digital vs. chemical image capture argument with cleverness and humor while offering real insights into what we are gaining, and losing, with that amazing digital photography.

Digital black is not photochemical black. All those microscopic silver granules in chemical negatives provide a different type of black than the black of a pixel with zero energy against a plastic black background. When projected, the chemical black seems to shimmer, to have a depth, the kind of depth we imagine in real pitch darkness when our brain is searching for some image, any image, where there is none.

So, see if you can match that black, Mr. Lucas!

It is universally agreed that digital filmmaking offers special effects and journeys into dream worlds that conventional photography cannot touch. As true as that is, it does not plumb the real problem that is the proliferation of second-rate digital photography that threatens to lull us into forgetting how beautiful and effective those shimmering blacks really are. We know what we are getting with digital effects, but are we aware of what we are losing?

There is always going to be a great emerging filmmaker who will have a smash hit using an electronic background to film a Venetian mystery thriller in Omaha. The tragedy of that is that most of those viewers will think that they have seen the thousand-year-old luster of oxidized oil paint when they have only seen the dimensionless digital depiction of the color itself. The life has been pulled out of the photo and we do not even know it.

This is the best film to date in terms of comparing the subtleties of conventional vs. digital picture rendition. At some point, this breaks down into two considerations. The first is the actual mechanism by which the brain “sees.” The second is what does the brain have to “see” to trigger the responses of happiness, sadness, euphoria, despair, fear, disgust and the untold inventory of other human emotions that make up what we call art. Is a light speed flight into a Higgs boson mass field the ultimate in creation or is a photograph of the infinite complexity of a sand dune even better?

If there are highlights within a teardrop that we can only “see” under a microscope but that have been proven to affect our perception of sadness, is that teardrop better than the teardrop twice as large produced through digital imagery?

The movie is a fast paced and intelligent dialog between the most articulate and respected names in the field. Neither side is favored and the comment range from “Don’t reject it just because it is different” to “I refuse to trade by oil paint for a set of crayons” and “We are going to destroy an art form after we have sodomized it.”

There will be some who will label this as some kind of nerdy “techie” film and this opinion should be firmly rejected. This is a vitally important dialog in the film making business right now. The fact is, digital filmmaking is cheaper and it will replace photochemical film making universally unless the consuming public knows better.

There are cases where newer is better and there are cases when silver emulsion carries the day. The value of this excellent dialog into the aesthetics of image capture is that it arms the viewer with the knowledge to approach the issue.

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Directed and Written by: Christopher Kenneally
Featuring: Michael Ballhaus, Dion Beebe and Danny Boyle
Release Date: August 17, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color