Crossing the digital divide
On Saturday, my wife and I went to the Siskel Center in Chicago to see the engaging new documentary Side by Side, which focuses on the recent shift toward digital filmmaking and its implications for movies as a whole. Despite some soporific narration by producer and interviewer Keanu Reeves—who is not a man who should ever be allowed to do voiceover—this is a smart, interesting film that treats us to a dazzling range of perspectives, many of them from artists I’ve discussed repeatedly on this blog: David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, George Lucas, Stephen Soderbergh, Lars Von Trier, and the indispensable Walter Murch, not to mention Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Michael Ballhaus, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowskis, and many more. And while the interviewees come down on various sides of the digital issue—Rodriguez is probably the most unapologetic defender, Nolan the greatest skeptic—there’s one clear message: digital filmmaking is here to stay, and movies will never be the same.
If there’s one thread that runs through the entire movie, it’s the tradeoffs that come when you trade an expensive, cumbersome, highly challenging medium for something considerably cheaper and easier. At first glance, the benefits are enormous: you can run the camera for as long as you like for next to nothing, allowing you to capture more material, and the relatively small size of digital cameras lets you bring them places and achieve effects that might have been impossible before. Digital photography allows for greater control over technical details like color correction; makes editing far less difficult, at least on a practical level; and offers access to advanced tools to filmmakers with limited budgets. Yet there are tradeoffs as well. Film is still capable of visual glories that digital can’t match, and it’s curious that a movie that features Nolan and his genius cinematographer Wally Pfister lacks a single mention of IMAX. (Despite the multiplicity of voices here, I would have loved to have heard from Brad Bird, who because famous working in an exclusively digital medium but still chose IMAX to film much of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.)
Still, as the movie demonstrates, resolution and image quality for digital video is advancing at an exponential rate, and within the next ten years or so, it’s possible that we won’t notice the difference between digital photography and even the highest-resolution images available on film. Even then, however, something vital threatens to be lost. As Greta Gerwig, of all people, points out, when there’s real film running through the camera, everyone on set takes the moment very seriously, an intensity that tends to be diminished when video is cheap. The end of constraints comes at the cost of a certain kind of serendipity: as Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia, reveals, the greatest cut in the history of movies was originally meant as a dissolve, but was discovered by accident in the editing room. And as both David Lynch and producer Lorenzo DiBonaventure note, the increased availability of digital filmmaking doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll see a greater number of good movies. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true, as digital technology lowers the barriers to entry for artists who may not be ready to release movies in the first place—the cinematic equivalent of Kindle publishing.
The answer, clearly, is that we need to continue to impose constraints even as we’re liberated by new technology. That sense of intensity that Gerwig mentions is something that directors can still create, but only if they consciously choose to do so. As I’ve argued before, with a nod to Walter Murch, it’s important to find analog moments in a digital world, by intentionally slowing down the process, using pen and paper, and embracing randomness and restriction whenever possible. Most of all, we need to find time to render, to acknowledge that even when digital technology cuts the production schedule in half, there’s still a necessary period in which works of art must be given time to ripen. David Lynch says he’s done with film, and he’s earned the right to make movies in any way he likes. But when I look at Inland Empire, I see an extraordinary movie that could have been far greater—and central to my own life—if, like Blue Velvet, it had been cut from three hours down to two. Digital technology makes it possible to avoid these hard choices. But that doesn’t mean we should.