The filmmakers behind a new documentary about the evolution of filmmaking speak to SBS about its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and working with co-producer Keanu Reeves.
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30 Apr 2012 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 30 Apr 2012 - 4:09 PM

When Chris Kenneally met Keanu Reeves on the set of the feature film Henry's Crime, the two talked for hours about the future of filmmaking. It was a topic they were both passionate about, a fact that becomes evident in Side by Side, the pair's documentary about 'the science, art and impact of digital cinema'.

“We felt we were at an important time in the history of moving images,” says Kenneally. “For about 100 years it was photo chemical. There was really one way of making a film. Digital technology, although it came out in the late '90s, is only now getting to the point that it's accepted, side-by-side, with film. It's going to continue to grow and change the way movies are made.”

It was Reeves (Side By Side's co-producer and presenter) who originally suggested the pair make a documentary about the changing formats of moving image capture in the digital age. Once the bones of the film's concept were conceived, production began immediately.

“Chris and I put together a wish list of people who we thought were shaping this debate and who were major players in the industry,” says co-producer Justin Szlasa. “The question was how to get to these people. A key milestone for us was one of our first trips to a film festival that focuses on cinematography, Plus Camerimage Festival, in Poland. We got there in November with our director of photography, Chris Cassidy; Chris Kennelly, Keanu and I and set up shop. One after the other, we got some of the best cinematographers of all time who happened to be in this little town in Poland during a blizzard. We interviewed Vittorio Storaro [Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor], Wally Pfister [Inception], Dion Beebe [Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha], Dick Pope [The Illusionist] and Vilmos Zsigmond [Close Encounters of the Third Kind].”

However, it's not only cinematographers who offer impassioned and informed opinions on the question of digital capture and celluloid. The Side by Side team also managed to secure interviews with some of the leading directors working in Hollywood today, including James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, and the Wachowski siblings. These directors offer invaluable insights about their own experiences in switching between camps. The film also interviews several editors, including the formidable Anne V. Coates [Lawrence of Arabia] and Walter Murch [Apocalypse Now, The English Patient].

“You get the feeling you're in the same room with these great visual artists, technicians and directors. Keanu really puts them at ease. These are super intelligent, artistic, talented people and they're allowed to have a relaxed conversation with their guard down,” says Kenneally. “That was the unique thing that Keanu was able to bring to the project,” adds Szlasa, “the credibility of having worked in the industry for so long. Keanu opened a lot of doors for us. He's had personal relationships with a lot of the people we interviewed.”

Side by Side illustrates its points by transposing clips from movies shot on film with those acquired digitally. “We approached the subject through journalism,” Szlasa explains. “The clips were critical. George Lucas talks about something he worked on and we need to illustrate his point. We tried to use the minimum amount of footage from movies like Avatar and Attack of the Clones to advance the story.”

Yet despite its A-list cast and content, at its heart, Side by Side remains an independent endeavour, made with minimal crew and budget. As Kenneally insists, “This really was a 'down and dirty' indie movie. During production it was a crew of maximum five people. It was as indie as you can get, with Keanu climbing up and covering windows, carrying equipment. To me, that's what's fun about making movies: to be able to do all the different aspects ourselves.”

Independent or not, the task of the film for Kenneally is clear. “If the documentary is working the way we hope, it will illuminate the [entire] process of moviemaking in a way that's really entertaining.” Adds Szala, “We have different opinions that conflict; ideas that butt up against each other. We treat all the arguments with respect and integrity but it's exciting to see people who are masters have different takes on the same thing.” At the same time, Szala concedes, “Even the most ardent supporters of one format or the other would say it really depends on what serves the story best. All of our subjects, all of our technicians, all of our engineers, say that everything is to serve that purpose.”