The case film's lingering supporters make is generally one of aesthetic superiority, with Nolan in particular insisting in Side By Side that "[t]here isn't yet a superior or even an equal imaging technology to film." While this certainly may be true in the case of the IMAX film format, which Nolan's own Batman films have ushered into the summer blockbuster season, it's a more difficult case to make with the advent of new digital cameras like the Red Epic.
Side By Side also shows how the impact of the digital revolution extends beyond aesthetic issues. From seasoned veterans like George Lucas and James Cameron, to younger filmmakers like Lena Dunham, many directors describe projects that could simply have not been made at an affordable cost without digital cameras. The massive 3D revolution inspired by Cameron's Avatar, for example, was only made possible through digital cinematography—yet according to Robert Rodriguez, even smaller, experimental films like his own Sin City would never have been attempted prior to the digital revolution.
The ramifications of digital carry through to distribution as well, with new technologies making it possible for movies to reach more people in more ways. As director Chris Kenneally told us, "that's the thing about the iPhones and the iPads: You can watch things anywhere, anytime, when you choose ... you're not limited by time or space." And for those who worry about losing the communal aspect of the movies in these more private forms of experience, Kenneally reiterates Lana Wachowski's comments in Side By Side that "there's another kind of communal experience—where maybe you're not in the same geographical location with somebody, but you're actually able to communicate a little bit more nowadays. People can post comments or instant message each other while they're watching and really [share] their ideas." In short, the movies may be a much more interactive medium today.
This, indeed, seems to be the most persuasive argument made by today's digital revolutionaries, young and old: that the virtue of digital technology has been its ability to make so many new movies possible in the first place—and to allow the public to interact with them in more ways. As George Lucas sums it up in Side By Side, "We are going through a very significant and large transition in cinema. And the digital process democratizes the whole thing."
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Film's advocates continue to lose vital ground. For example, most of the world's camera companies having already stopped production on celluloid-based motion picture cameras altogether. What's more, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit—set for release this December—is poised to abandon not only film, but the traditional film frame rate of 24 frames-per-second. The Hobbit is currently being shot at 48 frames-per-second (see Jackson's official statement about that here), for Jackson's stated purpose of removing the cinema's traditional stroboscopic "flicker" effect and also to ease eye strain sometimes caused by 3D. Jackson's decision has already provoked much controversy.
However, according to Side by Side the advocates of film have one final card up their sleeve, and it's a major one: the challenge of physically preserving digital movies in an era in which digital formats and storage devices are constantly changing. Indeed, the chaos of endlessly proliferating digital formats—an issue that may soon affect the book-publishing industry—represents a potential crisis at the heart of the digital cinema revolution and for those interested in preserving cultural continuity.
As American Society of Cinematographers President Michael Goi points out in Side By Side, there have to date been 80 different video formats on the market—many of which can no longer be played. Indeed, directors like David Fincher are already including media players along with their archived digital footage in order to guarantee that the footage can actually be watched years down the line.
According to Side By Side, it turns out that the most stable preservation medium for digital movies may actually be ... old-fashioned film prints. Ironically enough, the most likely way that today's blockbuster digital epics like The Avengers or Prometheus may be viewed a century from now is if someone unspools an archival 35mm film print of them.
So the task of preserving the cultural legacy of the movies may yet fall to film—with digital technology and film thus living in a hard-won harmony, side by side, for years to come.