Side by Side (doc about film vs. digital)

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 25, 2013, 11:22 PM | comments: 0

I saw that the documentary Side by Side was available free for Amazon Prime members online, so I watched that tonight. If you can get beyond Keanu Reeves moderating it, it's a pretty good "film" if you're into the art of filmmaking and technology. It talks about the rise of digital, going back to its origins with ILM and George Lucas, and actually gets into specifics with a number of cameras. It's not afraid to give Red a good bashing for its perpetual beta, either. Good stuff.

What really surprised me is that there are definitely still holdouts for film, most notably Christopher Nolan and his DP. They insist you just can't get the same "look" with digital, which might have been true a few years ago, but I'm convinced those days are behind us.

I made a "movie" in high school that was completely terrible, shot on VHS and edited to 3/4" U-matic tape. I'm sure I have the master somewhere. I never thought much about the process of capturing images back then, beyond making sure I wasn't blowing out highlights. I did spend about the next seven or eight years shooting video professionally though, and even then, digital couldn't come fast enough.

I'm sure I've told this story before...

First there was the editing, with computers. "My" first non-linear system was a Media 100, a less expensive alternative to Avid. Even though I was shooting on S-VHS, not having generational losses from editing tape was a big deal. Not only that, but it was so much faster and flexible. At around the same time, I also got my first digital camera, shooting on DVCPRO. Standard definition video never looked so good.

Then 1999 rolled in, and I left video for the Internet. In 2005, I started to get the itch, missing the toys and the technology. It was intriguing to see the way people were coupling these rigs to relatively inexpensive video cameras to get a "film look," which is to say that they were using SLR camera lenses to achieve short depth of field, and the cameras did hacks to shoot at 24 frames per second.

A year later, in early 2006, I pulled the trigger on the HVX200. It shot 24 fps in high definition, but it had a fixed lens, and required the same hacks to use other lenses. Despite this, the camera did get me back to doing something I loved, shooting video and telling stories with it. Most of the stories were just me shooting roller coasters and stuff happening at amusement parks, but I was always a bit of an ENG rat anyway. I even did some freelance work to help pay for the camera.

In 2009 I got a Canon 7D, an SLR camera that shot video. It was so not a proper video camera, but it sure made beautiful moving pictures. You had to encase the thing in all kinds of gear to make it more like a video camera.

Last year I got the AF100, and it can capture the kinds of images I've wanted to get since I first so those standard definition hacks back in 2005. The compression of the recorded video is a little on the high side, but I feel like I can finally capture something that looks like "film" the way we perceive it.

The technical debate about film and digital is almost over. Even down here in the quasi-affordable world of hobbyists like me, we've solved the problems of resolution and depth of field. Dynamic range is the last problem to fix. My camera can get about 10 stops of dynamic range, whereas film can do something like 14. So if I'm careful, and get a lot of practice, I can still capture some pretty amazing images.

There's a question also about the "art." The film snobs in Side by Side love to touch themselves inappropriately, because they know how to get the most out of film, but is any of that technical ability relevant to the masses? I mean, people watch their TV's with colors saturated, blacks crushed and that annoying interpolation that makes everything look like video. The reason people were getting away with shooting standard def hacks in 2005 is because they were telling stories, and that's what mattered. I think to a degree that's still what matters the most.

Granted, people have other reasons to panic. People watch stuff on cell phones, and worse, shoot video vertically with them. It's still good enough for people to waste time on YouTube. Before everyone starts worrying that viral video will displace Hollywood movies, do keep in mind they just had a record box office year. It seems to me the craft isn't going anywhere.

That the barrier to entry to making art is so low is what's exciting. We haven't entirely figured out the discovery mechanism, these are exciting times. The quality of what you can turn out with less than $10k in equipment is pretty stunning.


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