‘Side by Side’ Director Chris Kenneally On the Evolution of Digital Cinema

“It’s just a great combination of so many different art forms: there’s writing and storytelling, there’s the acting and performance, there’s visual art and creation and lighting, there’s also movement and choreography, and music and sound design,” says Chris Kenneally, director of the documentary Side by Side, when asked what it is he loves so much about movies. “It’s something people have a chance to watch together or by themselves. It relates to you on so many different levels.” Since films were first projected and screened, the standard format for cinema has been celluloid. However, as digital technology continues to advance and change the cinematic convention, the debate rages on about which form holds more value in today’s world. In 2009, Slumdog Millionare won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, the first to receive the award for a film almost entirely shot on digital, illuminating digital cinema and making it more widely accepted alternative to film.

After working on the film Henry’s Crime together, Kenneally and Keanu Reeves decided to go on their own journey to explore the debate further, showing how digital is changing the future of cinema—with the help of such acclaimed icons as David Lynch, Lars von Trier, and Martin Scorsese, brilliant cinematographers like Anthony Dod Mantle, and legendary editors like Walter Merch. Incredibly composed and thought provoking, Side by Side is essential viewing whether you’re a cinephile who worships the art of film or a just looking for a peek into the world behind the silver screen. We chatted with Kenneally to gain insight into his experience shooting the doc, the desire to shed light on the unrecognized, and where he believes digital cinema is taking us.

Did you have a list of people you knew you wanted to speak with?
Yeah, we slowly formed what was called The Hitlist, and we had all the names of people we really wanted to talk to and started figuring out how to connect them. Also, the more people we spoke to, they would lead us in different directions and give us new names, and no one was at a loss. So we ended up interviewing about 140 people; I think 70 of which made it into the final cut of the doc.

Did having Keanu Reeves attached to the project make it easier to steal time with certain people?
Oh, of course. It would have been a much different call if it had been, like, “Hi, Martin Scorsese, this is Chris Kenneally.” It probably wouldn’t have happened, but having Keanu definitely made a difference, especially with people like the Wachowskis who haven’t done an interview in about ten years. And I’m sure, no doubt, that’s because of their friendship and respect for Keanu. Christopher Nolan was really difficult to reach just because he was so busy; he definitely had a strong opinion and wanted to express it but didn’t have the time, so Keanu actually wrote him a letter and mailed it snail mail to him, and I guess he was impressed by that and agreed to do an interview.

Were you surprised by speaking to anyone and what they had to say, or did your perception of their own work change?
Definitely. Again, the Wachowskis came from a point of view that was different from everybody else’s. Some people were on this side or that side or understood both, but some of the things that Lana, especially, said, made a lot of sense and [were things] I haven’t heard before. In the beginning, I was more surprised because I thought the older, more experienced cinematographers would be very pro-film and the younger people would be more accepting of digital, but it actually didn’t work out that way at all. It didn’t break down across age or experience or gender or anything. It was just more the individual people’s personalities and how they live life. Like Walter Merch always likes to be on the cutting edge of technology, and Joel Schumacher is someone who, just because of things that have happened in his life, doesn’t look back and is always looking to the new thing.

It was interesting to see someone like David Fincher or Robert Rodriguez, who are so adamant about pushing things forward and keeping things fresh, and then someone like Scorsese who is open to things but has been around long enough to understand why it’s so important to keep film alive.
The whole thing was just an amazing experience. We traveled all over the world and got to sit down and take time and hear thoughts from people who have been my heroes for a long time. Same with Keanu. I remember we were about to go in and interview David Lynch and we were standing outside his place and I was like, “Holy crap, this is crazy! What’s going to happen?” And I look over at Keanu and he turns to me and is like, “Holy crap! This is crazy!” He was nervous, too, which made me feel better.

I liked how a lot of the older editors, who you’d think would want to hold onto the old methods because it was such a process and a labor of love—like how Anne V. Coates said she didn’t really even know what a computer was before and she thought a mouse was something that ran across the floor—but they enjoy this new way of doing things because it does make their jobs easier.
It’s so inspiring meeting someone like her who has edited Lawrence of Arabia but is also cutting Steven Soderbergh movies. She’s a creative person, a creative storyteller. The true artists, I think, are really going to be able to take whatever tool is there and make something interesting with it.

Did you want the film to sort of shed light on people that had gone unnoticed, like the cinematographers or the colorists?
Definitely. Keanu and I discussed that, too. We had great, famous people that have been interviewed before, but we didn’t want to just make it this parade of celebrities; we wanted to shine a light on the other people that actually are involved with creating the image that we see in the theaters who don’t get the recognition from audiences.

It also helps you grasp why this discussion is so important, because it’s not only important to the director. It makes such a difference to those people, if not more so.
A lot of people don’t know about that part of the process necessarily, so hopefully that’s interesting for them and shines a light on these people.

I liked hearing the DPs talk about how, with film, they were so in control of everything because they were the ones who could see what was shot through the lens and everyone would have to wait for dailies the next day. Now they’ve lost some of that power.
That’s one of the big impacts. Something that I found really interesting was who controls the look of the image now; that role is no longer the exclusive territory of the DP. It’s kind of getting encroached upon by a lot of other people just because digital material is so easy to manipulate and is available for everybody to see and put their fingerprint on it. But the DPs definitely try to see that whole image process through to the end, and I think it’s important that they do.

You talk a lot about the importance of Dogme 95 in terms of digital filmmaking.
Sony made these cameras and then people like Anthony Dod Mantle used them to create cinema, and it was unusual because you had no other way of showing a movie except on 35mm at the time, so they had to figure out all these ways to get digital material over to film at the end. In small movies like Chuck and Buck, it didn’t look great, and it didn’t until they came up with the digital cameras that could shoot at the same frame-rate as the film was projected. And that was Anthony Dod Mantle and Danny Boyle used on 28 Days Later, so that was a big moment. But now, they’re projecting digitally and it’s not so difficult.

In the beginning, a lot of people were using digital because it was all they could afford, but now it’s became just the conventional way of doing things.
There are kind of two paths into it, and one of them was the indie path because it was inexpensive and easy to use. Then there was also the kind of visual effects path that George Lucas and those guys used because they were already getting into the digital world in post-production to create visual effects and make spaceships and all that kind of thing. It made sense for them to just capture digitally as well and be right in that world right off that bat.

With digital it’s easier for people to make films, so there’s so much more work turning out. But with all that work, there’s still a ton of good and a ton of bad.
I have strong feelings about it. There’s more opportunity for people; you don’t have to live in New York or L.A., you don’t have to have gone to film school, or have to have a lot of money; all you have to have is a digital camera and a computer to make something and share it with the world. And the argument that there’s so much stuff out there that’s it’s impossible to filter through—I don’t really buy that. There’s more ways to communicate over the internet and figure out what you really like and listen to other people and find things you wouldn’t have known about in the past. In the past there were only a hand-full of critics, and if your tastes didn’t line up with that person’s, then you were out of luck. Now you can find these little subcultures and things online and can point you in the direction of things that you probably will enjoy or may not have heard of.

What did you take away from the whole process of doing this?
I guess the biggest thing is that I know that there are people out there—DPs and other people in the industry—that care so much about how images and the movies look. No one’s just phoning it in saying, “This is the new technology, we’re just going to use this and not care about it.” They spend so much time and have so many discussions amongst themselves about how to make sure this new tool represents the art that they want to create and look the way they imagined when they hit theaters. I found that really inspiring. All the effort and talent these guys put into it is not going away just because the technology is changing.

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