Side By Side (2012) is an unexpected barn-burner of a documentary. They got together a bunch of A list Hollywood production talent (directors and cinematographers mostly) at what was, in retrospect, a turning point in the industry. For 100 years movies were shot on film, but in the late 2000s they started to shift to cheaper digital production. In 2012 and now, there were a few holdouts (Christopher Nolan being the biggest), but as digital technology gets better, film dies more.
I had my hand on the power button from the beginning. But the movie instantly grabbed me, even though I thought I knew enough about film production and its technology. Side By Side is light, focusing more on how the A-listers feel about the tech than the tech itself. The film is special because of this focus. It gives it appeal that will last long after the last movie is shot on film.
I say A-listers and I mean it. Keanu Reeves produced it and is the interviewer. It seems he didn’t write the pre-written questions, but he has a blast improvising follow-ups. Interviewees include George Lucas, James Cameron, Martin Scorcese, Steven Soderbergh. If you don’t know their names, you know their work: Avatar, Goodfellas, Ocean’s Eleven. It’s not brief cameos from A listers, this movie is A-listers. Cinematographers for famous films are all over this one.
It’s kind of a wake for physical film production. George Lucas dances on the grave (hell, he custom-made the knife he used to murder film) while Christopher Nolan can’t stop crying. Side By Side is biased towards digital production with who it interviews, but that’s how the industry is and was. I wish they dove more into the fairly bogus argument that physical film is superior to digital. But that would make it stuck in 2012 instead of a lasting metaphor for technical progress. The other throughline is praise for the “auteurs” of cinema – the Wachowskis stand out here as they always do. These creators are incredibly passionate and I walked away with at least two films to add to my watchlist. It does a great job documenting stylistic innovation in the digital film industry.
Even the tiniest, tiniest curiosity in how movies work would make this a great movie to watch.