Aug. 28--Sometimes the downside of focusing on the inside story is that you may miss the bigger picture, and that's what keeps a new PBS documentary on digital cinema from reaching its full potential.
"Side by Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cinema," featuring Keanu Reeves as narrator and on-camera interlocutor, is magnificently detailed in how it traces the evolution -- one might say "revolution"- from photochemical filmmaking to digital. The hour-long documentary, airing Friday on PBS, includes a pantheon of major directors -- James Cameron, David Fincher, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese among them -- as well as gifted cinematographers on both "sides" of the issue of the pros and cons of digital filmmaking.
You'll learn how light causes the reactions in the chemicals in film that create an image and how photochemical filmmaking was the only way movies were made for decades.
Digital filmmaking began with technological advances back in the '70s, but it wasn't until much later that commercial movies were shot on digital cameras. Denmark's Dogma 95 filmmakers -- Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier and others -- found photochemical film too restrictive for the stories they wanted to tell. Film allows shooting in mere 10-minute increments before the film magazine must be changed in the camera. With digital, you can shoot forever, much to the occasional displeasure of actors: Robert Downey Jr. apparently filled several mason jars with urine and left them on the set in a tongue-in-cheek protest against filming without a break.
The earliest digital cameras offered increased flexibility, but the images were often static and grainy because of the number of pixels the cameras were able to capture. Standard definition cameras created 720-pixel imagery. The creation of HD digital enabled the creation of 1920-pixel images, and soon, the Red digital camera was able to double that number. The higher the number of pixels in a frame, the greater the image's clarity, definition and detail. Recently, the Red Epic camera has given filmmakers the ability to create 5,000-pixel images.
But just as the transition from vinyl to compact disc and now digital music has prompted debates about what is gained and what is lost with new technology, "Side by Side" looks at a similar discussion in filmmaking.
And this is where "Side by Side" becomes the documentary equivalent of a tennis match. We get people like Cameron, Lucas and Robert Rodriguez saying digital rules. We get others like cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmondand film editor Anne Coates defending the warmth of the imagery in traditional photochemical filmmaking. The film goes back and forth between talking heads and concludes with the observation that digital filmmaking is here to stay.
Yet it falls short in considering how that conclusion affects the viewer beyond the obvious: "Avatar" couldn't be made on old-fashioned film stock. The documentary would have been that much better with a more explicit focus on why the average filmgoer should care.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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