A few years ago I transitioned from using the term Film and Theology for the various live, written and podcast versions of what we do here, changing the name to Cinemagogue. It seems this may have been prescient since using the term “film” may soon go the way of the dodo, similar to old folks calling a new music release a “record”. An insightful look at the slow death of film in the digital age is the subject of Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side by Side, a thoroughly entertaining, educational look at the rudiments of filmmaking… er, I mean movie-making, through the eyes of actor Keanu Reeves who takes point on the interviews.
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The film… whoops, it was shot digitally… the movie introduces us to a wealth of storytellers: directors like Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez and cinematographers like Michael Chapman and Wally Pfister. While the transition that’s occurred over the last few decades has involved the obvious tensions – arguments sourced in nostalgia or rational comparisons of visual quality – the documentary reveals how much more involved the change has been, involving which part of the creative team has the most control, how it affects people’s employment, and even the different demands it puts on actors and those in front of the film or digital cameras.
A layman’s explanation of the science – how film actually captures images and how digital has come from a few pixels to a truly competitive and surpassing quality – is helpful to set the stage for the clash of cultures, preferences and creative process. Even refreshing my memory on some classic filmmaking traditions like gathering in the morning for “dailies” (watching the processed film shot the day before) made me feel nostalgia for something I’ve never even been a part of. The death of dailies? Sacrilege! Yet when you consider what is gained, the losses seem petty, quashing innovation in favor of tradition.
I’m tipping my hand here, and found myself in sharp disagreement with one of my favorite directors, Christopher Nolan, who seems to be the most ardent holdout for using film and holds the line in Side by Side. While I don’t have a lot of love left for George Lucas as a storyteller, I realized just how influential he’s been in vocally and technologically pushing the digital transition. The visionary who has revolutionized the industry of sound, light, and movie “magic” with ILM, THX, and the visual effects we’ve enjoyed - from water tentacles to Jurassic revisitations – since the 80s has an amazing, futurist’s view of where digital can take us: it just took the rest of the industry a couple decades to begrudgingly see his point. While I might have my frustrations with his approach to narrative, Lucas’ vision of evolving tools for storytellers is unparalleled. Shooting digitally is certainly a win for science fiction and effects-laden films, no longer a clash of “film” and “digital effects”, a more seamless blending when the live shots are originally captured digitally as well.
In many people’s minds, the role of the Director of Photography – the “DP” – has been reduced in the digital age, meaning a loss of control for a role that once wielded power over the director. The DP’s control, described by some as a mysterious “voodoo” with assurances like “trust me, it’ll look great in dailies” is lost when the director can see exactly what things look like on the screen during a digital shoot. When lighting, colors, clarity and more can be altered in post-production, the roles of related on-set personnel are either reduced or irrevocably changed. Those in charge of old processes like photochemical processing and hand-editing film together are becoming obsolete.
From the actors’ standpoint, some love that they don’t have to worry about film canister changes every 11 minutes, that a scene can keep going and they don’t have to turn their emotions on and off for the limitations of the equipment. Many accustomed to stage performance where there is no “cut” find a freedom in this. Conversely, others think the endless rolling and ability for retakes robs them of that needed pressure to bring the A-game. Some hate the way digital cameras can keep rolling, meaning they don’t get as many breaks and are stuck on set for hours and hours with relentless directors.
What’s fascinating is that so many of the opinions don’t really seem to be about art, so much as how it impacts the person where they are in the industry and the artistic process. Those who are honest admit it’s about how it affects them. For directors like Danny Boyle and David Fincher, it seems they side with Lucas because of how it enables them to capture the art of a scene. Just like Orson Welles dug holes in the ground to put cameras lower and make characters seem larger than life, Boyle wanted to capture the kinetic energy of Mumbai children running and this led to cameras that could be held at child height with the cameraman running along. Fincher wanted shots from the thin rowboats in The Social Network and even the existing, lightest digital cameras were too heavy. In these cases (and those Academy Award-winning movies) digital technology reveals how it will ultimately render film obsolete, because of its ability to evolve for the creative directions of the 21st century.
I was surprised to see older directors like David Lynch say they’re “done with film”, but upon consideration I think Orson Welles would have gone a similar road in his day. With the Arri Alexa and the Red Epic cameras boasting unparalleled pixels and resolution, even Pfister and Nolan can’t help but admit the inevitability. The manufacturing of film cameras has all but ceased, and soon it will be like using a Super 8 or putting out your album on vinyl… something done for nostalgia and the niche crowd.
The other fears are about what some in the film call the “democratization of filmmaking”. While this technology puts the ability in the hands of more people, does it mean that there will be less quality, and that true art and craft will get lost in all the noise? You no longer need to be wealthy (or persuasive enough to get financing) to make a film, which sounds like a good thing: the artist lacking those elements may now be seen and heard. However, many fear that Hollywood’s own controlling role as the taste and content police will be diminished. Michael Chapman even comments on Scorcese’s classic line about cinema being the church of the 20th century. However, in Side by Side he says cinema was the church of the 20th century: past tense. In a world with so many offerings and so many screens (including your smartphone) is the shared, gathered experience around central stories in our culture something else that’s coming to an end? Welcome to the 21st century, everybody. Maybe when the credits roll, theaters should start taking an offering.
In fact, the nostalgia and adamance of some in the film reminded me a lot of church life… how many don’t like the church to change, whether it’s the paint or the music or the hymnals versus ProPresenter, the incense and the liturgy versus the innovation and the liberty. While there is nothing wrong with appreciating history and tradition, Christianity is unique because its heart is tied to a story, not a storytelling method… it’s tied to a person, not a tradition, a relationship and not a ritual. We aren’t defined by what we do or how we do it, but rather who we do it for (in light of what’s been done and given to us). This movie about film and flexibility reveals hearts and questions that transcend movie-making and touch on timeless questions.
Do you fear change because it means loss of control, established rhythm, or comfort?
Do you fear changes of status quo and tradition invariably mean a negative loss versus positive gain?
Do you feel change somehow tears a piece of you away: i.e. your identity?
Is your identity found in a routine, tradition, occupation or material entity?
If everything material you hold dear fell away, who or what would you be?
Are you creative enough to be re-created?
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:17