- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

"Star Wars" auteur George Lucas shot the saga's latest installment without ever putting film in the camera.
No, the silver-maned lord of the "Star Wars" franchise hasn't turned to the dark side of the Force. He opted to film "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," the second chapter in the "Star Wars" series opening today, using digital technology.
The special cameras, which bypass traditional celluloid, capture images digitally, and that's only the first of a two-part equation. The director wants to see his movies projected as well as filmed digitally some day.
August will introduce the digitally shot "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams." Mike Figgis' 2000 experimental feature "Time Code" also used digital cameras. Mr. Lucas' film, though, marks the first blockbuster picture to embrace zeroes and ones as its mode of communication.
In press materials for the film, Mr. Lucas says: "Just as we went from silent films to sound pictures, from black-and-white to color films, digital cameras are an addition to the tools we use to create movies."
The repercussions could be enormous.
Tom Angell, president of District-based Interface Media Group, says digital filmmaking "will have a tremendous effect on how people look at this medium not just for special effects."
"The whole idea of shooting and editing electronically, having that be relatively economical, is a boon to the person just starting in the field," says Mr. Angell, whose company produces computer imagery for motion pictures and television.
"You can make a small film for not so much money and turn out a very high-quality product," he says.
Howard University film professor Abiyi Ford says digital filmmaking is one of the key issues students discuss.
"The technology has really invaded the art form of filmmaking," Mr. Ford says. If the technology shaves dollars off the filmmaking process, it could open it up to communities that otherwise couldn't compete in the current market.
"It might be the medium that will take hold in the developing world," Mr. Ford says.
The second part of the digital equation showing these films on digital projectors might be a tougher sell.
Mr. Lucas begrudgingly transferred the digital "Clones" onto film, allowing it to be shown nationwide on more than 3,000 screens. Only a couple dozen theaters in the United States possess digital projectors capable of closing the loop on Mr. Lucas' vision.
Those systems would download film over fiber-optic networks and satellite links, saving transportation and storage fees. Today's movies are distributed in bulky cans to theaters nationwide, a process demanding extensive storage and transportation costs. Film also breaks down slightly with each pass through the projector.
A digital film, by comparison, will be as crystal clear on its 1,000th viewing as on its first.
Digital projectors cost upward of $250,000, though, and many cash-strapped theatrical chains aren't eager to pay up.
Will audiences be able to see a difference between digitally shot movies such as "Clones" and their celluloid peers?
Mr. Angell is doubtful.
"If you get the techno geeks like me into the theater," he says, "we can see things."
He predicts less gadget-obsessed audiences will say it "looks like a movie to me."
Some film experts and fans alike have applauded the digital film's visuals, while others, including influential critic Roger Ebert, have carped that the images in "Clones" appear fuzzy.
Jeffrey Hardy, president of Big Horse Inc., a San Francisco entertainment analyst firm, says naysayers prefer the richness of 35 mm stock film. Digital movies, they argue, lack depth-of-field nuances.
The new process, he adds, threatens the creativity of more serious directors.
"When filmmakers design their films, they use old paintings [as a guide]," Mr. Hardy says. "'I wanna achieve a Rembrandt look.' They look at shooting a film like painting a scene."
That said, the move to digital is inevitable, he says, even if "Clones" underwhelms at the box office.
Mr. Hardy predicts that young filmgoers, besotted with the pixalized imagery within "Monsters, Inc." and "Shrek," won't fight the switch.
Mr. Lucas reportedly is insisting that by 2005, when his final "Star Wars" installment hits theaters, only venues with digital projectors will be able to show his film.
"He's taking a risk," Mr. Angell says of the director's digital manifesto. "He's at the bleeding edge of this technology, showing Hollywood and the rest of the world what can be done."


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