“Side by Side,” a documentary that examines the advent of digital movies and compares them to traditional celluloid films, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Thursday, Oct. 25, and Saturday, Oct. 27. In addition, the Film Center will screen “Stars in Shorts,” a series of seven short films starring a variety of well-known actors, on Friday, Oct. 26, and Saturday, Oct. 27. An additional screening of “Searching for Sugar Man” is planned, along with a family feature and a film classic.
Serious film buffs will find “Side by Side” an absorbing study of how the movie world is transitioning to a new technology in ways that are complex and important. A big question for the movie world is whether or not celluloid filmmaking is dead. The disturbing reality is that no one manufactures celluloid film cameras any longer. Despite this gloomy news, significant differences in quality continue to exist between celluloid and digital filmmaking. Digital cinematography continues to improve, however, while the technology of its celluloid predecessor has peaked.
Led by actor Keanu Reeves, who produced the film, “Side by Side” takes the viewer through the differences step by step, talking with directors like Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle, with cinematographers and other production staff. The most obvious differences lie in how the image is captured by the cameras used in each technology.
In celluloid, which has been around for more than 100 years, light patterns affect a chemical emulsion of silver halide on celluloid strips. Celluloid storytelling is defined to an extent by the 10-minute length of a roll of film. The film must be developed before the production staff knows what was actually captured, leading to day-after “dailies” or “rushes.”
In digital cinematography, light patterns affect electronically charged pixels, and the length of a scene is not determined by the length of a roll of film. The cinematographer knows immediately what has been captured in the camera. The catch is that the digital image produced is fuzzier. Even the fact that digital monitors reproduce a much smaller image makes a difference.
Once digital films started winning prizes at Sundance, however, Hollywood accepted the technology. Today many directors of photography argue that highly malleable digital technology gives them more scope to be creative. Traditionalists counter that celluloid film will always be taken more seriously because of the expense involved.
Many components of filmmaking have already converted to digital technology, including editing, color adjustment, and special effects. The differences between the two technologies reach into a remarkable number of areas, like how a movie looks in a theater, and what the physical relationship between cameraman and camera is. Because digital filmmaking is so much cheaper, the technology opens up filmmaking to everyone, but with that freedom come issues of archiving. Digital filmmaking has already produced 80 different formats. Each new format makes the previous one obsolete and potentially un-archivable.
Thanks to digital filmmaking, the nature of cinematic storytelling is changing. But celluloid film is not about to disappear. Not yet.
In “Stars in Shorts,” look for films from eight to 25 minutes long starring actors such as Lily Tomlin, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Jason Alexander, and Judi Dench.
The family feature, playing Saturday and Sunday afternoons, will be “Azur and Asmar: The Princes’ Quest.” This adventure tells the story of two boys nursed by the same woman and raised like brothers, only to become rivals as adults.
One final screening of “Searching for Sugar Man” will take place Friday, Oct. 26, and the film classic, “Rosemary’s Baby,” will be shown Wednesday, Oct. 31, pending approval by Paramount Pictures.
“Side by Side,” Thursday, Oct. 25, and Saturday, Oct. 27, 7:30 pm.
“Searching for Sugar Man,” Friday, Oct. 26, 4 pm.
“Shorts with Stars,” Friday, Oct. 26, and Sunday, Oct. 28, 7:30 pm.
“Azur and Asman: The Princes’ Quest,” Saturday, Oct. 27, and Sunday, Oct. 28, 4 pm.
M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. $10; $7 for M.V. Film Society members. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.