Lesley Vanderwalt, the Episode II makeup artist, has said that sometimes the hi-def images were so clear that smudges and brushstrokes were visible in the actors' makeup. What strategies did you employ for makeup, costuming, props and sets to work with hi-def as opposed to film?
Lucas: We used filters to soften the image and make it a little less sharp so we could get away with more, but you do have to be very careful [because] you can't get away with as much fudging as you used to. The sets, costumes and makeup have to be more finished. It's going to require refinement in all the crafts because the digital image is so much sharper. It's easy to degrade the image. You can hide all the little seams and imperfections that inevitably show up on props and sets and costumes simply by putting a filter on the camera so that the image is a little smudged, or you can have everybody come up a notch so you can do a really sharp close-up on somebody's face without seeing the brush marks on the makeup.
Were there any other restrictions you had to address when working with hi-def?
Lucas: There are certain issues with action perpendicular to the lens, when you're panning with the [actors], which created effects that we weren't completely happy with, but part of that is because I shoot in pieces. I'll shoot a person running across the screen, and then we'll put the background in, and it's really only when you get all the elements pulled together that you finally get to see what you've created. So there are certain [shots where] I wouldn't pan with people running completely perpendicular to the camera because it strobed. We also had little problems with softness on certain lenses, because these are all Beta cameras and Beta lenses, but that's been fixed.
We've heard reports that the cameras were less efficient on location than they were in the studio, particularly during the shooting of multiple-camera exterior sequences. Is hi-def practical for extensive location work or for extremely mobile camera setups?
Lucas: We never had a problem with the cameras, ever. We shot in very difficult locations and in 135-degree heat; we were shooting in and around the water and in the rain, and we had no breakdowns or problems at all. We were running cables because this is Beta, so everything was backed up six ways from Sunday; on location, we were running cables farther or over difficult terrain. But we were just as fast and efficient on the locations in the middle of Tunisia [as] we were in the studio.
Did all of the cables limit the kinds of shots you wanted to achieve?
Lucas: Not really. You can go a long way with those cameras. Obviously, if we were on location and we wanted to go a quarter mile up the road, we just unhooked the umbilical cord because we didn't need it. The cameras have recorders built in, exactly like TV cameras. But because these were the first seven cameras that were built, everybody was very nervous I think Panavision and Sony were more nervous than we were so we were double-backing up our recorders with two recorders. We did shoot some material without backing it up. The second unit didn't want to bother, and it worked fine.
We now own other cameras that don't have recorders in them, and we use them at ILM, where they want the cameras to be very small. They're about the size of a small book, and we do umbilical them because [the effects cinematographers] prefer to use them that way for motion-control or [to get into] very small [places].
Why did you opt to use hi-def instead of VistaVision for miniature effects photography? We understand that this choice created some problems.
Lucas: The only problem it created was that we had to reinvent the system. We had to get new cameras and build the system rather than just use the system we had. But I wanted Episode II to be consistently digital; I didn't want to have to use film. Film ultimately is very cumbersome. It's like working with the lights out you can't see the work until the next day. Being able to look at what you're doing while you're doing it, without having to run to the lab or [hurrying] because you want to break down the setup and all that, makes hi-def a much more efficient way of shooting visual effects.
But the visual-effects cinematographers on Episode II said it was a struggle to get the proper depth of field on miniatures because the cameras can only capture at 24 frames per second, so they couldn't do 1-fps exposures. They said the model sets were sometimes melting because of all the light required.
Lucas: To be honest, I never heard of a set melting. They didn't have to pump all that light in there. You can shoot at extremely low footcandles and make hi-def look excellent. And you can actually maintain the same depth of field with hi-def that you can with film. You still have a higher range than you do on film, so if you have to light it up for digital, you have to light it up twice as much for film. But regardless of whether we had to do several passes at ILM, we saved millions and millions of dollars shooting digitally.
Was any portion of Episode II shot on motion-picture film?
Lucas: Yes. We took a scene in the Jedi temple out of Phantom Menace, which was shot on film, and we erased all the characters and put in a new background and new actors, so it's an actual photographic set with digital characters and digital backgrounds outside the window. So in a way, we had a filmed set, but that's the only film in the movie.
Given that you now have the ability to endlessly tweak and repurpose shots like the one you just described, is there such a thing as having too much control over your images?
Lucas: I don't know, you should ask a painter. Having lots of options means you have to have a lot more discipline, but it's the same kind of discipline that a painter, a novelist or a composer would have. In a way, working in [digital] is much less frustrating than working in film, but it's not as though it's limitless no matter how you go. The artist will always push the art form until he bumps up against the technology that's the nature of the artist. Because cinema is such a technological medium, there's a lot of technology to bump into, and I think as more people use digital they're going to find [it has] a lot more limitations. Some of those limitations will be [equivalent to] the limitations they had with film, and some of those limitations will just be because they've gone so far that they finally bumped into the technological ceiling.