George Lucas began his career as an editor and a cinematographer (he was one of several cameramen on the Rolling Stones concert film Gimme Shelter), but his frustration with the tools of his trade, coupled with his desire to tell stories that were galactic in scope, drove him to seek new ways to make films. Today it can be said that few have impacted the craft of filmmaking more than he has. The ultimate noodler who enjoys seeing his films come together in editing, Lucas has transformed the medium into a postproduction fantasia.
Cinema was the art form that helped define the 20th century, and Lucas is passionate in his conviction that its expression in the 21st century will be digital. The latest installment in the Star Wars saga, Episode II-Attack of the Clones, was the first major Hollywood feature to be captured digitally, on 24p high-definition video cameras. But in his determination to push the medium of cinema with new technologies and techniques, Lucas has encountered both support and skepticism. Episode II's extremely high profile situated him at the center of a raging debate over the merits and drawbacks of digital technology, which is seen by some as a viable alternative to traditional film-based methods, and by others as a concept that still requires a great deal of refinement.
Lucas recently discussed his impressions of the evolving technology with Ron Magid, American Cinematographer's visual-effects editor.
American Cinematographer: If there indeed is going to be a digital revolution, what will it look like?
George Lucas: I've always [said], "This is like the film industry in 1902," so the advances are going to be huge, because what we did on Episode II, we did in essence by ourselves. We had to talk Sony into it, [but] they built the cameras and they tried really hard to make this work; we also had to talk Panavision into committing a lot of money to build those lenses. Both companies really went out on a limb. This was a giant experiment for everybody, and nobody knew if it was going to work or if they were pouring money down a rat hole.
Now that the whole medium is opening up, there are lots of lens manufacturers out there building lenses and lots of other camera people building cameras, so you've got competition. And once you've got competition, you're going to get a lot of people making vast improvements on the system. They've already got a 10-million-pixel camera, and that's just happened in the last year, so [the potential has] gone from 2 million to 10 million and that's much, much higher quality than film. Any other issues out there will eventually be addressed, because a lot of cameramen are going to use the technology [and] say, I want it to do this or that.'
There is so much misinformation being put out there by people who have interests other than the quality of film. They're determined to slow this down or stop it, but they can't. It just won't happen. It was the same with digital editing for the seven years that we had Editdroid [almost] nobody would use it, and even after we sold the company to Avid another two or three years passed before they got anybody to use it. All [digital technology] does is give you more to work with. It's a much more malleable medium than film, by far; you can make it do whatever you want it to do, and you can design the technology to do whatever you want to do. This whole field is really going to ramp up in the next 10 or 20 years.
Many filmmakers have a wait-and-see attitude, which is to be expected. Some early filmmakers resented sound, and Orson Welles insisted till his dying day that a good color movie had never been made.
Lucas: And those criticisms are valid. There is the very real issue that you are going from a photographic medium to a painterly medium, and for those who are really wedded to the photographic process, that's going to be a tough thing to get around. It's very much like going from frescoes to oils one is very rigid, very disciplined, very definite about the way it works, and the other is much more open, offers you more options and enables you to manipulate the pictures more, and I think that bothers people. But audiences can't tell the difference. We knew that right from the beginning because we shot [parts of] Phantom Menace digitally, and nobody could tell which shots were digital and which weren't.
As Episode II unfolds, it seems as though a new style of filmmaking is evolving, particularly in terms of the stunt and effects sequences, which felt more believable because there was less cutting around to hide the tricks. Have digital tools allowed you to develop a different style?
Lucas: The reality of how you're shooting and the limitations of what you have to work with sometimes determine how you shoot a scene, and now that's less of a factor with stunts. I don't know if it's a different style, but it's a very different process now. I've refined the process of working more visually; I shoot for a period of time, about 60 days or so, and then I stop and work on the film for a while. Then I come back and shoot for another 10 days or so, and then I stop and go back and work on the film, rewrite and change things, and then I come back and shoot for another week. I do it in pieces rather than in one long shoot. That way I can actually look at what I'm doing, cut it and study it. The previsualization process [allows me to] put scenes together without having to shoot them, see how they fit in the movie and then, if they work, I can cut them in and actually go out and shoot them. There's a lot of freedom and malleability that didn't exist before. It's easy to move things around in the frame, to change various visual aspects of the film, which just wasn't possible before. It's the same kind of thing that you find in still photography if you use Photoshop.