The Force Is Strong with… Star Wars: Episode II’s Digital Effects
Ivan Radford | On 22, Nov 2015
We take a look back at each episode in the Star Wars saga – and where you can watch them online.
Towards the end of Attack of the Clones, a pillar is pushed over so that it will fall on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Instead of running away from it in a straight line, as most movie characters do, he dashes to the side. That is the only good thing in Star Wars: Episode II.
The Phantom Menace sparked a tidal wave of backlash from excited fans, thanks to its irritating young Anakin, even more irritating CGI sidekick Jar Jar Binks and its misguided belief in the entertainment value of intergalactic trade disputes. But all that paled in comparison to what followed, as Lucas replaced Jake Lloyd with Hayden Christensen as teenage Anakin, ramped up the CGI and swapped trade disputes for political factions and separatist movements.
The result was part-Jedi detective mystery and part-forbidden romance, as Anakin and Padme swooned over each other in secret and Obi-Wan tracked down rebel leader Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). If that sounds good in theory, in practice it was dreadful, thanks to sloppy plotting, uneven pacing and, worst of all, poor dialogue, which made it impossible to take any of it seriously – it’s no coincidence that Hayden’s strongest, most believably conflicted moment was when he slaughtered a bunch of Sand People, something that took place in silence. Anakin and Kenobi’s playful banter (“Obi-Wan is gonna kill me…”) was almost as awkward as him seducing Natalie Portman’s princess – the word “sand” has never been less appealing. Not even the great Christopher Lee could make his Dooku a bad guy worth booing, while Ian McDiarmid’s wonderfully hammy villain, Senator Palpatine, saw his machinations sadly muddled by the unclear narrative.
But while Attack of the Clones is undoubtedly the weakest of the Star Wars trilogy, it’s also one of the most important – not only as benchmark for the saga’s unfortunate low-point, but as a landmark in cinema technology.
Attack of the Clones was the first major film to be shot entirely on digital rather than celluloid. That might sound like a trivial point, but it’s part of what made the series special to begin with. Star Wars has always been synonymous with technical wizardry, something that is driven by George Lucas’ determination to break new ground.
In 1976, Episode IV: A New Hope proved to be a similar milestone, as George Lucas pioneered new techniques to realise his ambitious fantasy vision. The project gave birth to the effects house Industrial Light & Magic, a team that has been at the forefront of visual trickery for decades. Cameras were developed that could be controlled by computer, thus giving still models the appearance of movement: a perfect synthesis of programming and practical innovation. Small models? Not a problem. The cameras could just move slower to make them seem bigger.
The technique was developed by John Dykstra, who has continued to design visual effects on films such as 2014’s Godzilla and the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse. You can even spy Joe Johnston, eventual director of Captain America, in the behind-the-scenes pictures from Episode IV as a member of the team.
Perhaps inevitably, that leap forwards caused a step backwards elsewhere: Episode IV’s budget went over its estimate by a couple of million dollars. Hell, ILM blew half of its funds on just a handful of hundreds of effects shots. As a result, the release date was pushed back a year.
25 years later, Attack of the Clones saw Lucasfilm continuing to do the same thing. After the team invented SoundDroid and EditDroid, the first computerised non-linear sound and picture editing systems, they pushed boundaries in the digital realm even further: as far back as 1996, producer Rick McCallum signed a deal with Sony to develop a 24-frame HD camera, as well as a post-production system to go with it. Panavision, meanwhile, were hired to craft a similarly revolutionary lens to enable digital cinematography.
True to form, that technology was only just completed in time, with the final camera arriving one week before principal photography began.
“We started shooting without any film backup whatsoever. We just went for it,” says McCallum in the movie’s production notes.
That reckless derring-do is the stuff that industry-changing history is made of. DoP David Tattersall says Lucas was interested in digital photography even in the early 1990s, when they both worked on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
The result was a completely different production to Star War’s beginnings: if A New Hope fell behind schedule, Attack of the Clones could race ahead, with scenes able to be edited as soon as they were cut. Production and post-production stepped closer together – the kind of seamless integration that has since enabled people like David Fincher to deliver some of their best work.
Episode II is often criticised for being too heavy on its CGI, but Star Wars has always placed importance on the need for physical objects too: the opening title crawl for Episode IV, after all, was literally filmed on a camera.
There were 68 sets made for the sequel, including a faithful recreation of Owen and Beru’s kitchen from Episode IV: A New Hope by production designer Gavin Bocquet.
Models also remained at the heart of the sci-fi – models that editor Ben Burtt spliced together with blue-screen shots of actors and locations, but still added a tangible element to this sci-fi universe. One of the biggest was the arena for the Geonosis climax (the setting of that marvellous pillar moment), which was 10 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter.
The models were shot on digital too: Pat Sweeney, Marty Rosenberg and Carl Miller used Sony HDC-F950 cameras and Fujinon lenses to record the miniatures, a process that – as with Episode IV – was as much trial-and-error as it was imagination.
“We could see an effects shot immediately at full resolution on the big, high-res monitors that were kept inside a black tent on stage,” he says. “That allowed us to more accurately assess whether our shots were working, so we didn’t have to keep tweaking them to death. Also, rather than pulling out a light meter and reading values of exposure, you can actually look at the model you’re shooting digitally and build the shot until it feels right. Unlike film, where we have to calculate the exposure and trust our intuition, with HD we can actually open or close the lens, then look at and ‘feel’ the image, so we can now be much more aesthetic about it,” Miller told American Cinematographer at the time.
“When going from stage monitors to the DLP projector in the dailies theater, certain colors shifted slightly,” Rosenberg explains of their learning curve. “We attempted to calibrate the digital cameras and monitors to a certain standard, but we learned that every color responds differently, just like with film. I photographed elements of the ‘droid factory sequence, which had a lot of red, and red is a color that ‘pops’ a little too much in digital, just like it does with certain film stocks. I had to be very careful to step on it a little bit, otherwise I’d get images that were too red – not just redder than I wanted, but redder than it actually was. But we quickly learned the nuances of the medium and adjusted to them.”
Digital’s clarity also meant that the franchise’s model work had to step up a gear, as the HD footage showed more of the objects – without the grain, more detail was needed to make them look real rather than fake.
That’s the kind of discovery that has consequences for every SFX production in a digital age. Lucas’ predilection for putting background CGI left many of the “Special Edition” versions of the original trilogy looking the worse for interference, but the evolution of technology has had positive ripples outside of Star Wars. ILM may have been overtaken by Weta, but the Lord of the Rings wouldn’t have succeeded without Lucas’ franchise laying the groundwork.
The end product marked a huge jump from A New Hope: Episode II’s Coruscant chase sequence alone had 300 effects shots, the same number as the whole of Episode IV.
But, once again, that cost came at a price elsewhere. So much effort was going into the visuals that the page was seemingly forgotten about: the script, co-written by Lucas with Jonathan Hales, was still being re-worked as the costumes and sets were being made. The most vital physical object of all, the script, was only finished three days before shooting started, leaving an already virtual project up in the air.
“We had to build these sets to a script that didn’t exist,” reveals McCallum.
“There are no rules when you work for George. He creates this incredible space for you to work in. The four words George never wants to hear are, ‘It can’t be done.'”
It’s ironic that the love scenes between Anakin and Padme shot at Villa Balbianello on Lake Como feel like some of the most fake parts of the film – but they’re also some of its few genuine moments, after a storm left an actual rainbow in the sky during filming. Tell that to most people now and they probably wouldn’t believe you.
Attack of the Clones may not be a great entry in the Star Wars canon, but it’s an important one. Episode II is a testimony to Star Wars’ ability to bring ideas to life by any means necessary – and a cautionary reminder that sometimes, that ability should be stopped.
Episode II production notes via Cinema.com
Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription. It is also available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.
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