Christopher Kenneally’s “Side By Side” is a debate about cinema featuring its most vocal practitioners

“I am not going to trade my oil paints for a set of crayons.” Sounds like a stubborn child with an arbitrary preference, but it’s Christopher Nolan justifying shooting film, as opposed to digital. The debate is probably the most crucial one in film culture today and is the subject of a documentary called “Side By Side”.

Directed by Christopher Kenneally, the documentary looks at the “history, process and workflow of both digital and photochemical film creation.” It brings together an enviable cast of well-known Hollywood directors, including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, David Fincher and Danny Boyle, but also pays close attention to what the other cogs in filmmaking machinery — editors, colourists and cinematographers in particular — have to say. The interviews are conducted by an informed Keanu Reaves, who is also the producer of the film.

“So I was working with Keanu in ‘Henry’s Crime’ where he was an actor and producer and I was the post-production supervisor. He was very enthusiastic about how everything worked and we started discussing post-production and filmmaking. He had also seen my other films, and so one day he said we should make a movie,” says Kenneally. This was in the fall of 2010; the film released last year.

The ramifications of digital filmmaking — from the smoothening of the editing process and spurt in independent filmmaking it has fuelled, to the diminishing of the agency of the director of photography — are discussed in adequate detail. But did the technical nature of the discussion make the director wary of losing a general audience?

“At the time of its making, we were worried that a general audience might not be able to appreciate all the details. But after screenings at several festivals, where all kinds of people have seen and enjoyed the film, we realised that anyone who is a fan of movies will be able to enjoy it,” says Kenneally. “Keanu is able to put his subjects at ease, and there’s a few laughs in the film, believe it or not.”

For instance, in a discussion about how the advent of the digital camera has affected actors and acting styles, David Fincher talks about how during the making of “Zodiac”, his protagonist Robert Downey Jr. protested against what he saw as the intrusion of his privacy. The fact that a scene would never be ‘cut’, even while he was in his trailer, pushed a defiant Downey into filling all the mason jars on the set with his urine.

In another instance, it is observed that the relatively less expensive digital process has taken away from acting somewhat and made actors more self-conscious. “On the film camera, you could hear the money running, and you would bring your A game,” remarks Greta Gerwig, who acted in “To Rome With Love”.

The voices in the film are prone to extremities — with Nolan emerging the staunchest opponent of digital filmmaking, and George Lucas, predictably, its strongest proponent.

But Kenneally takes a balanced view of the matter. “Shooting the same documentary on film would have been impossible, but I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. It varies from situation to situation.”

But he also informs that the film industry is undergoing a tremendous change, and, like most change, it is probably irrevocable.

(“Side By Side” will be screened this Friday at the Digital Film Festival, India Habitat Centre in New Delhi.)