Description image

Keanu Reeves and Tribeca Doc 'Side by Side' Asks: Digital vs. Film, Which Side Are You On?

Digital vs film. It’s the debate of our generation of filmmakers, and one we’ve all heard before. Some rave about the advances in digital technology and the convenience factor. Some lament the non-organic look of digital, or the fact that the on-set workflow has changed from artistry to assembly.  There are merits to both of these arguments, and in the new documentary Side by Side from Producer (yes, Producer) Keanu Reeves, these arguments are explored and commented on. Click through for a great trailer featuring some of your favorite filmmakers (Scorsese, Lynch, Rodriguez, Nolan) weighing in on the debate.

So am I the only person that watched that trailer twice in a row? If the final film is anything like the trailer, it will be very intriguing and educational for everyone who calls themselves a “filmmaker.” Side by Side is now available on-demand on Amazon, and I have to imagine that if you love making films, you’ll love this documentary. Digital vs. film debate aside, however, it looks like an incredible collection of dignified filmmakers to learn from.

Joe and Elle from Digital Bolex were invited to the premiere at the ASC Clubhouse on Monday, and had this to say about the film:

Going into this film, I was ready for deep sorrow. I was also ready for many of the ASC members to discount the content of the film and argue that film has been around for 100 years, and will continue to be around for 100 more, but neither of these things happened. The documentary was so well balanced and showed film in such a heroic light that I, and the rest of the room, didn’t feel like it was the passing of film, but more of a continuation of practices and traditions. One of the ACS members stood up towards the end of the Q&A and I think nailed it on the head: filmmakers are storytellers, and the tools and techniques we use to do this have been evolving since man first started to talk. The importance isn’t the continued use of a tool, but the continued stewardship of storytelling, its traditions, and its meaning from one generation to another.

I’m glad that the tone was that of reasonable discourse and it sounds like a truly remarkable experience and evening, to say the least.

Before premiering Side by Side Tribeca released short one-minute clips called Side Swipes, a series of one minute clips from the documentary. Here are a few of my favorites:

I think we can still have happy accidents without going to film, but Young makes a great point speaking to the organic nature of a true ‘film’ set.

If the opinions of the DP behind one of the most famous steadicam sequences of all time doesn’t hold some weight, I don’t know what does. Again, talking to the organic nature of film.

McAlpine makes a great point — the wastefulness of film, and the inevitability that something else, something digital, takes over.

Pfister speaks to the simplicity of Nolan’s sets, which I assume is largely due to the ease of use of digital technologies (he mentions a handheld Panasonic monitor after all).

And now for the burning question — where do you stand on the digital vs film debate? What are your on-set experiences? Do you want to see celluloid film continue, or are you ready for digital pointillism to take over?



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 33 COMMENTS

  • Geoff Stebbins on 08.24.12 @ 4:16PM

    Gotta love Scorsese’s even-handed reply. It’s just different. Did novelists go through this kind of soul-searching when they moved from quill and ink to typewriter to computer? Some painters like oil, and some like acrylic.

    • I agree. Though there clearly will be differing opinions in the film, I bet the tonality will reflect that remark. I plan to watch this tomorrow.

    • I’m willing to bet they did. The thought process is different for someone growing up writing by hand. I know quite a few writers who still start by hand, then move to the computer. I guess they like the organic, analog parts, too.

  • Going to check this out asap. I was like that guy in the trailer. I hated 3D, I thought it was simply for marketing too. It became clear to me that it was just the way people used it. When I seen Hugo in 3D I finally felt like 3D has a place. Just have to use it right.

    I’m hoping for a balance when I see this. I think I’ll get that.

  • vinceGortho on 08.24.12 @ 4:37PM

    I don’t believe the audience cares. They notice if it stands
    out, but good story distracts from the perils of both.

    • As a filmmaker, should I worry if the audience cares? The filmmaker should care! Be it digital or film, they should care about the pictures they paint. The audience is there to see the art made by someone else.

  • I hate 3D too, the only movie I liked it for was TinTin. 3D and live action doesn’t sit right with me

  • They are right about it being a different aesthetic if you’re working on a major film, but for the independent filmmaker, I enjoy the time spent planning and thinking when working on film rather than digital to get the shot perfect. I liken it to taking a photo with a 36 exposure roll of 35mm versus on a digital camera. With film, you frame correctly, think about all the little moments and you make that one shot count. In digital, its hard not to succumb to the urge of just shooting everything no matter what with the hopes of one of those moments working. Also the excited/anxious feeling of waiting for the dailies to see what you shot and what the film did on its own to add that extra bit of art. In digital its hard to shake the instant affirmation of watching dailies from the camera and constantly saying “we’ll make it look pretty in post.”

    With that said, in 2006 I left film and have done digital ever since. And digital works so well for me. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic :)

    • Well that’s just discipline. You can operate the same way with digital. Actually the best cinematographers that use digital use the same techniques. Setting up the shot etc. Getting it right. It’s not like that’s exclusive to film. Film just forced you to do it. Digital makes it easier not to, but that’s not the fault of digital, it’s the operators.

      • Well said :)

      • DigitalRules on 08.24.12 @ 6:06PM

        Absolutely…discipline is a choice…it is not stolen from you by a machine.

        • Well I’m a director mostly and so I was speaking more from the perspective of set mentality of a small budget film vs. from the point of view rather or not a dp is disciplined. For example: You’re low budget, you only have five rolls for the day, then waiting to get the dailies, seeing what happened or what the lab sends back…Only having the ability to get a few takes so lets make each take count. Again, I’m a huge fan of digital and everything I’ve directed in the last 6 years was digital. BUT it would be nice to talk about how things have changed on set.

          Just wanted to add that last part so we can have a discussion about onset mindset of a director/crew instead of simply rather or not a cinematographer is disciplined, you know what I mean?

  • Great documentary. rented it yesterday. I especially liked what Fincher and Scorsese had to say. Storytelling is the main thing, format comes after. Film or digital, doesn’t matter. They both have their advantages, and great stories can be told with both mediums. I hope that film is always around, but I think it’s good to embrace the future.

    • As Jeff Cronenweth has said as well as many other cinematographers.. some stories are better told with film and others are just better told digitally. ‘traditionalist’ filmmakers need to accept that.

  • In 30 years or so (maybe much less) this argument won’t matter anymore. I’ll watch it nevertheless.

  • The film shows an interesting divide between the people championing digital and those clinging to film until the bitter end. I think a lot of this comes down to an ugly question that new technology raises, a question stirs fear in many of the cinematographers interviewed for this piece: what is the role of the cinematographer in the digital world?

    This point is touched upon by the Ballhaus interview, but not so much in the doc itself, except for the very real fact that an image, in digital workflow, goes through numerous hands (editor, colorist, compositor, VFX artist, etc.) who each tweak the image to their liking until it’s finally declared “done”.

    Traditionally, it’s the cinematographer who decides when the image is done: as the director of photography, the look of the film is his (or her) singular vision. Traditionally, the cinematographer’s role is to support the narrative through imagery–through lighting, composition, and movement choices. The cinematographer creates the mood of the scene. Conveys emotional subtext. This is their job–many great DPs never even touch the camera.

    Unfortunately in the past decade, but more particularly since the DSLR “revolution”, many “cinematographers” have become little more than camera operators–their role is simply to capture the image, rather than to control it, or give it meaning. And cameras have become cheap enough that producers request certain models and “cinematographers” buy these cameras, content only to operate without adding any narrative quality, and the cycle perpetuates. Get a DSLR, slap it on a slider, and you’ve got a natural, dynamic shot. Right?

    When Joe and I are asked over and over again “what’s your top ISO?” there’s always a noticeable frown when we answer: “400″. But here’s the thing: we WANT you to light. If you are making a fiction film, lighting is an extremely IMPORTANT part of telling your story. But many young filmmakers–or at least unseasoned filmmakers–think they want a camera that means they do not have to light. That means you don’t have to think about what you’re shooting. Canon wants you to buy a 5dIII so you don’t have to light–it’s a huge selling point of their cameras. They hire Vincent LaForet to make shorts at night in DTLA proving you don’t need to light–because Canon doesn’t make lights, so what do they care?

    But in most cases, not lighting hurts your project. Not lighting means you aren’t exercising control over your image–you’re not thinking about your image. Which means you’re not thinking about your story. Let’s be honest: how many iconic movie moments–or even simply emotional movie moments–have been shot using natural light in poor lighting conditions? How many have been meticulously lit? The answer is obvious.

    I was talking to someone on the ASC education board and he said that, when meeting recently with teachers and film professors, the question was raised as to what they were supposed to be teaching. This depressed the hell out of me. And I think it’s what many of the digitally-hesitant cinematographers in the documentary fear: on a film set, when all the voodoo is on the stock inside the camera, they’re the boss. But will they ever really be able to do their jobs on a digital set? If they can’t, will anyone?

    Going to write a blog post on this over the weekend if I can (I’ve been ill for the past few weeks, gross), but it’s a huge frustration of mine, and I think the major reason why–as opposed to questions of image quality– so many notable cinematographers remain skeptical of digital acquisition.

  • I’ve been reading American Cinematographer magazine recently, and I think the debate posed by the different filmmakers there is more compelling than the arguments against digital that I’m seeing here. I’m slightly biased, I think digital is fine for most uses, but film should be in your toolbox for creating the moods you want to create, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way I can learn how film can be superior is to be shown shots where the film technology did something positive that a digital camera wouldn’t have done.

    The interview clips here that speak against digital aren’t really speaking against digital, they’re speaking against a change to their entire structure, and it sounds to my young ears like they’re speaking out of fear and tradition for tradition’s sake.

    And what does 3D even have to do with it? If you can’t do 3D on film, what were the 50s and 80s 3D booms made with? I think 3D has yet to actualize itself properly as a school of art because it’s been relegated to a gimmick by executives and nauseated audiences.

    • You can also point to things that digital can do that film can’t do. There just two different things. The problem is people are trying to make it seem like one is better than the other and you MUST shoot on so and so to be a “real filmmaker”.

      “I think digital is fine for most uses, but film should be in your toolbox for creating the moods you want to create” That just makes no sense to me. Mainly the “moods you want to create” part. Why must I use film for that? What if my movie is all about exploring shadows? I might be able to convey that mood better with a digital camera like the C300 that has crazy low light capabilities. Don’t tell me “if I want to create a certain mood, I should have film in my toolbox”.

      Maybe I can achieve that mood best with a digital camera. The focus should be on the DPs and Directors. What they feel will best help them get what they want.

      I agree that the “digital workflow” the above comment described isn’t anything new and isn’t exclusive to digital.

      To your point about 3D. Do you seriously think the 3D of today is the same as the 3D of the 50′s? 3D can be done in an artistic way. I think Hugo best showed that. Bob did a masterful job on that.

  • “This point is touched upon by the Ballhaus interview, but not so much in the doc itself, except for the very real fact that an image, in digital workflow, goes through numerous hands (editor, colorist, compositor, VFX artist, etc.) who each tweak the image to their liking until it’s finally declared “done”.”

    This process long predates digital video. It goes back at least to the dawn of color film, when you had to do color timing. Probably even further than that, because even in monochrome you have to match exposures, which you’re unlikely to get perfect in camera. I grant that “fix it in post” is the adage of lazy filmmaking, but it had to be invented before it was a crutch.

    • The doc makes the point that color timing and other post work was once controlled by the DP, and now the extensive range of post-production tools in the digital age require a fleet of additional hands having a much more in-depth effect on the footage than the days of yore.

  • I would say roughly 70% of the DPs and Gaffers I HAVE WORKED WITH would rather shoot film. Film isn’t dead except to producers. Because they think its cheaper. Even though It roughly comes out to being the same. Yes, you think I am crazy for saying that because once you hit certain budget it doesn’t matter if you shoot on film or digital in terms of price. And if your going to shoot on Digital please quite being RED camera fan boys and try to get your hands on Arri Alexa. The Alexa is made by a company that actually understands film and the filmmakers needs. Way better camera and workflow then anything Red puts out.

    This is why film is so important: It teaches discipline for the DP, ACs, ADs, Director, G&E, Actors, everyone on the damn set. Especially on indie sets using film. Your not going to let that film run through the gate until the frame is lit the way it should be Because you might only have one or two or three takes to get what you need. I will still shoot film over digital any day of the week.

  • A painter can work in oil or acrylis or Water color. A sculptor can work in Marble, wood or sand, The art doesn’t change It is only perceived differently. Film lends itself to a particular tpe of story as does video. Let them co-exist. Just tell the story well.

  • I just think it’s amazing that it took someone with the creativity and talent of Keanu Reeves to figure out he could make money by producing a doc on the film v. digital video controversy.

    • You don’t think he made it because he was genuinely interested in the subject? Docs rarely make any money, especially ones about subjects only a select group of people will really care about.

  • The craft of photography is lighting, composition and color. I unfortunately hear too many folks on the digital side talking about the “camera” being the answer for this. Shame. The film side know its all about the skill of the photographer. There’s the divide. Film or digital, it’s still all about the craft.

  • One thought for the digital side: If not for digital, many of us wouldn’t be able to film anything at all. Digital technology puts tools in the hands of artists, and lets them work in a medium that otherwise would be simply impossible by virtue of expenses. I certainly agree that then anyone can access the technology–and thus some really terrible films are made. At the same time, the beauty of the art is that the real art, the real ability, and the real talent will rise to the surface among the greats. This then means that some potential filmmakers will be able to create something that puts them on the map, because they can afford a DSLR, etc. Digital technology is like making making paint affordable for a potential Rembrandt of film. It also means that the walls are going to get painted on by the kids, but isn’t it worth the discovery of more greats?