The middle chapter of the prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Attack of the Clonesarrived May 16, 2002. To celebrate 20 years of the filmand anniversary, StarWars.com presents Clone at 20, a special series of interviews, editorials, etc.
For a century, cinema technology has remained largely the same. Cameras photographed images onto physical rolls of film (as did microphones for soundtracks). These images and sounds were edited in sequence by physically cutting and joining pieces together. The finished reels were then rolled up in a projector and projected inside a theater. Year after year, project after project, George Lucas pushed Lucasfilm to change this process.
Lucas was driven as much by common sense as by the audacity to innovate. After years of working the traditional way, he was convinced that all aspects of filmmaking could be made easier, from pre-production and principal photography to post-production and distribution. the star wars the films, among other Lucasfilm productions, provided an opportunity to test and experiment with new methods.
By the 1990s, Lucasfilm had helped introduce nonlinear digital editing for picture and sound, computer graphics visual effects, and digital preview. As he returned to star wars With his new prequel trilogy, George Lucas pledged to make a feature film with fully digital tools, both to unleash his own creative abilities and to demonstrate that it could be done at the level of an effects-heavy blockbuster. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) would come a little closer to this objective before Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) finally succeeded. Here are four ways Episode II helped change cinema at the dawn of the 21st century.
1. He used the first digital cinema camera.
To create filmless motion picture film, Lucasfilm needed a camera equipped with digital sensors that captured and stored images on high-definition tape. The resolution of these images had to at least equal – preferably exceed – the quality of standard 35mm film. The ability to digitally capture, transfer, and edit cinematic footage would greatly increase the filmmaker’s efficiency and flexibility, something Lucas was eager to do.
Video camera systems had been commonplace in broadcast media and other fields for years, but faced skepticism from some cinematographers and feature film directors. Lucasfilm first used Sony’s “digi-beta” cameras to film behind-the-scenes material on The Phantom Menace. Parts of this film were then captured using one of the company’s digital cameras and seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film.
For attack of the clones, Lucasfilm convinced Sony to develop film cameras capable of capturing digital footage at 24 frames per second, like traditional film cameras. This fearless effort involved engineers from multiple continents, collaborating with Lucasfilm staff, including high definition supervisor Fred Meyers, technical and post-production supervisor Mike Blanchard, and cinematographer David Tattersall.
The new motion picture cameras were one-of-a-kind prototypes. Lucasfilm had barely a year to finalize its design with Sony, which included custom lenses built by Panavision. The four cameras arrived (serial numbers 00001 to 00004) just days before filming began. The team had to relearn their trade and the set was buried under miles of cables, but they worked. Even in the sunny deserts of Tunisia, they worked.
2. Cast and crew could see instant results live on set.
The use of a digital camera meant that a live feed of the high definition images was available for viewing in the moment from large plasma TVs on set. Where once directors pored over tiny black-and-white screen video monitors, George Lucas and the team of attack of the clones enjoyed a broad and detailed view of their work. This allowed everyone from hairstylists and makeup artists to set dressers to make in-the-moment adjustments and contribute ideas.
The benefits also extended beyond the immediate set, as tapes of high-definition footage was copied and transferred to the editorial department where assistant editors could load, key in and begin cutting footage within hours of the cameras rolling. . On the same day, Lucas and his team were able to review the day’s scenes and determine the success of a shot. A typical film production would have to wait at least a full day for lab processing of film dailies. No more sleepless nights for the cinematographer, and no more doubting whether to hit a plateau lest the day’s footage be unusable.
Like a star wars film, attack of the clones was one of the most expensive independent films ever made, but these advancements allowed Lucasfilm to handle production as efficiently as possible.
3. He allowed memore freedom and flexibility for the visual effects pipeline.
With over 2,000 visual effects shots in attack of the clones, much of the pressure was on Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). It was essential that Lucasfilm’s digitally captured footage was smoothly imbibed by ILM’s workflow and software procedures known as the “pipeline”.
In previous years, much of the ILM process had already adapted to computer tools, from pre-visualization and compositing to character animation and motion capture. Along with such major achievements as the creation of an all-digital Master Yoda and the epic battle that started the Clone Wars, ILM began using Sony digital cameras to capture its elaborate miniature sets. Decades after the original ILM crew on Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) used a hand-built computer to create a motion control rig for their traditional film cameras, now the rig and camera were digitally controlled. (Due to the cameras’ high-definition range, the ILM miniatures were also viewable in greater detail, a fact appreciated by many of the Model Shop team members who masterfully created them.)
Similar to the ability of George Lucas and the production crew during principal photography, the ILM crew was able to view their footage live. They also launched “digital journals” where high-quality visuals were screened for regular reviews, as opposed to the usual scratch-induced heavily used film work prints that sometimes left artists guessing at details. Again, better quality allowed for greater efficiency and allowed artists to be more creative. Additionally, the ILM team would help oversee the film’s digital color synchronization in-house, a process typically reserved for third-party vendors at the end of post-production.
4. Distribution from the hard drive to the cinema screen in a cinema near you.
After years of work, Lucasfilm had a digitally crafted movie on its hands that millions of people were eagerly awaiting. But how do you get it to them with all the benefits of this digitally enhanced quality?
Some theaters would be equipped with new digital projection systems capable of displaying the most authentic version of the film’s images and sound. Other theaters, however, continued to use their traditional movie projectors. For years, Lucasfilm has gained experience in theatrical film distribution through the implementation of its THX Sound System and Theater Alignment program. The harsh realities of theatrical presentation were clear enough: the quality of film prints varied greatly from reel to reel and theater to theater, often resulting in a scaled down version of the film the filmmaker had wanted the public to see.
In order to ensure the highest possible quality of the required film prints, Lucasfilm has devised ways to create reels that exceed the usual quality standards. The typical process of creating many copies of a film involved duplicating negatives over two or three generations, each with successive loss of image quality. Lucasfilm instead ran its prints directly from an original negative created with the digital source material. The result was an ever better presentation on the thousands of screens where the film premiered.
Just three years earlier, The Phantom Menace had been screened digitally in just four theaters nationwide as little more than an exhibition experience. Although Lucasfilm has pulled off quite the feat of dramatically increasing that number to attack of the clonesthe majority of the sites would always present only the novelties star wars film with traditional film projection. Much of the movie industry was still raising collective eyebrows at digital cinema, but in the two decades since, we’ve seen those numbers change as more and more filmmakers and exhibitors learn of the benefits of a digital system.
A new way to do the same thing
All of the digital innovations pioneered at Lucasfilm were tools. Not an end in itself, each was secondary to the central task of telling a story. Lucasfilm’s contributions to the evolution of the art of cinema were not intended to change the fabric of storytelling, but rather to enhance the capabilities of the medium. While improvements abounded during the production of attack of the clonesthe process of telling the story has remained much the same, only with more tools available to those telling it.
“I’m just someone who tries to tell stories,” said George Lucas American cinematographer in 2002, “and to tell the kind of stories I wanted to tell, I had to push the medium. But all the directors and cameramen I know push the medium. They are always trying new things, trying to achieve a different look, or taking something a step further by using a new trick or technology. It’s the nature of business. Everyone does it, but I get more attention for it.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer and historian at Lucasfilm. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley and is a star wars and Indiana Jones fan.
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