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Shooting ‘Star Wars,’ Bit by Bit

May 23, 2002 By ERIC A. TAUB

TELEPHONE calls are still dialed, even though there are hardly any dials left. A car’s glove compartment rarely stores any gloves. And eventually, many in the motion picture industry believe, most of the world’s films will be made without using any film.

Since the early 1990’s, digital technology has been an integral part of film editing and special effects. The 1993 movie “Jurassic Park,” for example, used high-powered graphics workstations to create many of its dinosaurs. Even smaller-scale films are typically edited using computers.

Now the keystone to digital production is in place. Advocates of digital film production say that a feature film shot solely on digital videotape can now match the technical quality of one made with the best film stock.

That is what George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” did with the newly released “Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” The film, which Mr. Lucas directed, was shot using a prototype Sony high-definition video camcorder. Digitally created characters and effects were edited in later to the live-action sequences. Even the sound was captured using a digital recorder.

Film was used only to create negatives and prints for distribution to movie theaters. In the small number of theaters around the country with digital projectors, “Star Wars” went from storyboard to screen without a single frame of film being used.

“I’d never go back to shooting film,” said Rick McCallum, the movie’s producer. “And I know George wouldn’t either. We wouldn’t have risked hundreds of millions of dollars if we didn’t think we could achieve the same or better quality as we could with film.”

Getting the image to look like film was made possible by Sony’s development of a high-definition camcorder that records at 24 frames per second, the same speed used by motion picture cameras. The images are captured in a “progressive” format, with an entire frame created before the next is drawn. That eliminates the horizontal scanning lines seen on a television monitor.

“We can completely emulate the film look with the HD camcorder,” said Laurence Thorpe, Sony’s senior vice president for content creation. To duplicate the contrast and color of a particular film stock, users upload a statistical profile of that stock from a computer into the camera.

Shooting the movie on video saved both time and money, Mr. McCallum said. While the videocassette used in the Sony camera costs $65, a roll of film costs thousands of dollars by the time it has been processed and converted to a digital format for editing, said Mike Blanchard, the film’s technical supervisor. Each Sony cassette has a 50-minute capacity; film cameras usually have to be changed after 10 minutes of filming. With fewer interruptions, some actors find it easier to develop their characters.

Motion picture film must be processed overnight before it can be viewed, but video images can be screened immediately. While shooting, Mr. Lucas simultaneously watched the action on several 50-inch wide-screen plasma monitors near the set. When he decided he had a good take, he gave the order to move on to another shot.

Filming on video cut seven days off what would normally have been a 60-day shoot. “This is filmmaking with the blinders off,” Mr. Blanchard said. “You know immediately if you’ve got the shot; you don’t have to wait until the next morning to find out if there’s a hair in the frame.”

After the video was recorded, an exact digital copy was made. One tape was kept with the crew on location in Sydney, Australia, and the other sent to Skywalker Ranch, Mr. Lucas’s production site in Northern California. A digital standard-definition version was also created that was then transferred to a three-terabyte (three-trillion-byte) hard disk for editing.

While the film was being edited, artists at Industrial Light and Magic, Mr. Lucas’s special effects company, were creating the digital characters. Once Mr. Lucas approved a sequence, it was sent to I.L.M. via a high-speed T-3 line or on portable digital media, and the digital effects were integrated into the live action.

The final edited version of the movie was projected digitally and evaluated through the Pogle color-correction system, a tool that can alter the color in all or part of an image, down to a single pixel. This allowed the filmmakers to change a hue that might have been inaccurately recorded or to make a color better reflect a desired mood.

“Digital production today is the worst it will ever be,” Mr. Blanchard said. “One day we’ll remember how `Star Wars’ helped drag the film industry kicking and screaming into the digital age.”