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Interview: Chris Kenneally, director of 'Side by Side'

Side by Side (2012), the excellent documentary from Christopher Kenneally, arrives at a crucial time for the ever-evolving medium of cinema. Featuring stellar interviews with some of the most important directors working today, including Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle and Chris Nolan, the film charts the history and processes of celluloid filmmaking and the rapid rise of digital as a cheaper alternative. It's an intelligently level-headed film which manages to be both hugely informative and thoroughly entertaining. CineVue's Craig Williams spoke with the director Kenneally, and delved into some of the issues raised in the film, and about the future of cinema as a whole.

Craig Williams: How did the film come about? Were all the directors and cinematographers happy to talk about the subject?

Christopher Kenneally: Almost everyone we reached out to in order to try and set up an interview were excited to talk about it and wanted to be involved. I think it was a topic a lot of them had given thought to anyway and maybe hadn't had a chance yet to talk about it and give their opinion on it. Having Keanu [Reeves] involved in the project definitely helped in reaching out to the bigger names. It also snowballed; once you had a few names in the can, other people could tell it was a legitimate project which they would be happy to be involved with.

CW: Did your opinions change at all during production?

CK: Part of the reason Keanu and I wanted to make this was to talk to these guys and find out what was going on from their points of view. I was swaying back and forth [with my opinion] depending on who we spoke to last. These guys are masters, so whatever Christopher Nolan says to me, I'm going to be like "Yeah, this guy obviously knows what he's doing" but then the next day you talk to James Cameron or Steven Soderbergh who say the opposite. We tried to put the opinions out there and let the audience sift through it and think about it for themselves.

CW: Do you agree that, irrespective of technological developments, the most important thing is that the future of filmmaking is safe as long as we trust the artist?

CK: Absolutely, that's a nice way to put it. You've touched on something that actually inspired me and made me feel good while we were making the movie; how much these guys care and are true artists who want to make something brave. They're not just chucking it out there and using any old equipment blindly without thinking about it. They're giving a lot of thought into creating good stories and what's right for individual movies. It's really inspiring to see that there is such a level of passion about it.

CW: It would seem that Side by Side is one of the first films to show why certain filmmakers prefer digital filmmaking. Do you agree?

CK: Yes, that's one of the reasons we made it. Up until around 2010, if you were shooting on digital, the connotations were that you were making something low budget and that you were a maverick who wanted to do things differently, or it was some kind of special effects extravaganza which called for digital the whole way through. But it never seemed like a real movie and that a real DoP wouldn't choose to shoot on digital because, until then, it was inferior to film in quality. We seem to be at a point now where it's arguable as to whether film is better looking any more. And it changes a lot once you've crossed that line.

CW: Do you think budgetary restraints are partly responsible for the growth of digital or is it purely technology-driven?

CK: I think it's driven by the technology and by the artists. Sony made the Sony 900 camera because George Lucas asked them to make it. He told them what he wanted and why he wanted it. They came up with the technology, but it was an artist that was the creative force asking for that particular tool. It's the same thing with Soderbergh and Fincher. They tell a couple of stories about how they were told by their DoPs what was needed in a camera. Also, a camera can be built for a certain reason but then someone can come along and use it for a completely different purpose and then the camera will subsequently change. It's an interesting back-and-forth between the science and the art.

CW: Do you think that the concern over the loss of film stems more from the pace of the change rather than purely aesthetic considerations?

CK: Yes. There are a lot of different concerns [with digital]; it changes the work flow, it shakes up the types of crew you can use and the relationship with the lab and colourists is going away. Maybe new jobs are being developed as well, but the traditional way is disappearing. The pace of the change is crazy. Every year there's a new camera and new files [used in the cameras] dictate new work flows. There's an issue of obsolescence too; you need to find a way of keeping the things you've shot working on the new technology.

CW: Do you think it's reductive that some commentators are focusing purely on these aesthetic aspects of digital?

CK: Every aspect of cinema is changing. I think it's amazing that film was the choice for over a hundred years. The technology and the basic mechanics of it didn't change at all. To me, that's almost mind-blowing because these days you expect the phone that you have to be out of date in six months or the operating system on your computer to be updated all the time. So to have something that lasted a hundred years which everybody loved is pretty amazing. You think, "Well, they must have done something right".

CW: Side by Side shows how digital filmmaking helped democratise film. As it continues to grow, do you think it will be a threat to the studios in the long run?

CK: Yes. The studios are trying to figure this out just like everybody else. The thing is, you can make a movie now, put it up, people watch it and money is being made. Some of the quality of the films on the internet is not that great, but hopefully the great things rise to the top and, while there's more bad movies now, there's also more good. What the studios have that I think the average person who goes and makes movies doesn't, is a marketing and promotional budget. It takes a huge amount to get people to actually notice your movie; to hear about it, talk about it and want to go and see it. If you don't have that, you could have the greatest movie in the world, but it's going to be difficult to get a good number of people to see it.

CW: What do you think the effect of digital projection is having on the independent arthouse cinemas who can't afford the technology?

CK: Some of those theatres are going to be hurt by the technological change but, in the long run, digital allows you to see more movies and different types of movies, whether at the cinema or at home. Where I grew up, there wasn't an art cinema nearby. There was one far away which would only play two different movies a month and they weren't necessarily what I wanted to see. I had to hope that something I wanted came there. Whereas these days, it's fairly easy to see almost anything you want that was ever made in one way or another. 2K projectors are expensive, but there are Blu-ray projectors which, in a small theatre, look pretty good. Better than not seeing something anyway.

Side by Side is out now on DVD, courtesy of Axiom Films. To win a copy of the film, simply follow this link.

Craig Williams
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