Chris Kenneally, Chris Cassidy, Justin Szlasa and Keanu Reeves on the set of ‘Side by Side.’
About halfway into David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” there is a wonderfully self-aware scene in which the audience gets a look at Brad Pitt’s job as a movie theater projectionist. The film calls attention to a phenomenon known as “cigarette burns,” small dots in the upper corner of the screen which are used by projectionists to signal that a reel change is upcoming.
Since the beginning of modern filmmaking, these marks could be found on every reel of film. However, eagle-eyed moviegoers might have noticed that in the past couple years, these marks have slowly but surely started to disappear. Soon they may be gone entirely.
This is all part of a major shift that is happening in both filmmaking and film projection: a transition from the use of film and celluloid to exclusively digital cameras and projectors. Most moviegoers might not even be aware that it’s happening, yet it is perhaps the most significant change since color beat out black and white.
This shift is painstakingly explored in the fascinating new documentary “Side by Side,” which is available for rental in the iTunes store. In this film, producer/star Keanu Reeves interviews some of the most important names in the business – David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher – about the pros and cons of this important moment in film history.
There are two main differences between film and digital. The first is the economic one. Filming digitally is much cheaper, and when filming a particular scene takes longer than expected, the only thing being wasted is time. With film, there is the constant issue of money going through the camera. Each frame costs something. With digital, these pressures are pretty much nonexistent.
The other issue, and the one that is the biggest sticking point with filmmakers, is the visual difference between film and digital. For the longest time, shooting something digitally almost assured a visual inferiority to movies shot with film. It would often look like someone’s crude home movies being shown on a large screen. Digital is quickly catching up in that department – for proof, look no further than Fincher’s last few films – but there’s little arguing that film still has the advantage.
This is why filmmakers like Nolan say they will stick with old-fashioned film until he is no longer given the choice. (Other directors claim that they might stop making movies altogether if film goes down, but that seems dramatic). Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy was greatly improved by the use of film, particularly in all the night scenes that required a visual beauty that digital just doesn’t have yet.
The problem is that film’s proponents don’t really have a say in the matter. Film cameras are going to be extinct in the next few years, and that means everything is inevitably going to be shot and projected digitally. Even Scorsese has admitted this, and he is shooting his next movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” in digital. Despite what some might claim, this is not a wholly negative development. Digital gives filmmakers more control over their product, and it allows more people to get into the filmmaking game if they so choose.
Flaws and all, there’s no escaping the fact that digital seems to have won the battle. A new era of filmmaking has begun, and eventually even the Luddites will have to join in or be cast aside.