‘Side by Side’ explore switch from film to digital

You’d think that the biggest change in movie art since the coming of sound in the 1920s would inspire a little more scrutiny. But the revolution that’s occurring right at this moment is barely being noticed, let alone examined.

The revolution is the shift from film itself — that is, photochemical film, the strip of celluloid that actually runs through a camera or a projector — to digital. It all happened really quickly.

Ten years ago, people harrumphed when George Lucas announced he would shoot the second “Star Wars” chapter completely on digital. By 2013, most movies won’t be shot on film and the vast majority of theaters will be projecting digital data rather than movie prints.

Here is a much-needed documentary that gets all the information out. “Side by Side” is rather remarkable for its even-handed treatment of this changeover, and for its nongeeky explanation of how all this stuff works.

All right, maybe slightly geeky. Some useful animation shows us how there’s a fundamental difference between the photo technology, where light passes through a lens onto emulsion-covered film and agitates itself into an image reproduction, and the digital system, in which light goes through a lens and puts a bunch of picture elements (aka pixels) in a rigid order.

Also usefully animated is Keanu Reeves, our host and narrator. Reeves is actually very good at putting questions to his interviewees, who represent no less than the creme de la creme of Hollywood’s (and Denmark’s, oddly enough) directors and cinematographers.

There are some fascinating arguments made. David Fincher (“The Social Network”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Contagion”) are very high on the digital process for making movies. It’s cheaper and faster and you can let the camera roll during multiple takes, reducing the amount of down time on a movie set.

For control freaks like Fincher and James Cameron, being able to instantly watch the results of a scene removes their reliance on the director of photography — and they clearly love it.

This is noted by the great cinematographer Michael Chapman, who talks about how his job has changed.

In the past, he says, people in Hollywood imagined they knew everything about acting, writing and directing, but at least they’d keep their nose out of the cinematographer’s job — that was a kind of secret knowledge. Not anymore.

The image isn’t the only issue. Digital also changes how films are edited. The ease of editing might have contributed to the breakneck pace of so many movies today.

Keanu Reeves and director Christopher Keneally have also gotten Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle, George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez and dozens of others to chime in.

They’ve gotten plenty of dissenting opinions, too, notably from “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister. Nolan is thoughtful, Pfister (who seems like a lot of fun) less diplomatic in his disdain for the digital image.

Anybody who cares about movies should see this one. (It was, of course, shot digitally, something alluded to only in passing.) Everything about the way we see movies has quietly but fundamentally changed, and “Side by Side” is a good primer on the switchover.

“Side by Side”

A thorough and even-handed look at how digital technology and fundamentally and permanently changed the way we make and watch movies, a revolution barely noticed by most filmgoers. Host Keanu Reeves gets an array of Hollywood talent (Scorsese, Lucas, Fincher, Soderbergh and dozens more) to sound off on the pros and cons of the loss of actual photochemical film in the business and the tech stuff is accessible even to the nongeeky.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for language.

Showing: Grand Illusion.

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