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Friday 31 March 2002

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones — Digital Format

Directed by George Lucas
Written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales
Starring Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen

Assessed by John Shirley

Having now seen the digital-projection version of Episode II, after first seeing the film on celluloid, I begin to understand George Lucas's evident frustration. This is a different movie in digital format. It's just plain better.

Lucas has been pounding the pavement and pounding tables to get digital theaters up and running — originally he'd announced only digital theaters would get his movie. Digital projection makes a digitally-created film come alive on screen. There are practical advantages also: the digital format doesn't decay the way celluloid does, you won't have those irritating dust motes and human hairs on the screen after the film has been out for a week or two, and with digital there are none of those stupid black ellipses up in the corner to cue reel changing. And distribution to theaters would be expedited — you simply transmit the film digitally.

But the transition from celluloid to digital is costly and problematic. There isn't yet enough product, and the delivery infrastructure isn't all there — it's a gamble for the theater business.

It must be maddening for a film maker, George Lucas in particular; Episode II looks just about twice as good, to me, with digital projection. Reviewers (including me, in my review of the celluloid version) said that the computer animated characters weren't working. They don't work in the conventional-film version — but they do work, for the most part, in the digital version.

I could see no trade-off with digital. It didn't seem "colder" or less intense than the celluloid version. If anything there was a greater intensity because of a greater access to visual detail and color separation. Doubtless film experts would see some likable quality of celluloid projection missing in digital. But I can't see it and I don't think most viewers will notice anything lacking.

In Episode II, celluloid, Yoda looked animated — well-animated, but against the backdrop of real physical objects, it stood out. If he'd been in a purely computer-animated film like Final Fantasy he would not have looked artificial; he'd have blended in naturally. In the digital version of Episode II, however, Yoda seems fully-fleshed. Even Dex, the fat four-armed alien in the cafe, seems more real, more solid. In the celluloid version he was ghostly, unbelievable.

I just viewed Episode I again on DVD. Here's Yoda — a puppet. After the digital version of Episode II his puppetness seems wincingly pronounced. What had been acceptable before now seems embarrassing, clunky. Digital animation trumps prosthetics here — having learned some lessons from it, doubtless. Thus one technology eats another.

On second viewing, the story in Episode II flowed better for me. This is partly because I didn't have to process all of the way-too-much-information that Lucas is throwing at me, having processed much of it already on the first viewing, but it's also because I wasn't distracted by the disparities between the celluloid look and digital characters.

Certain images I'd assumed to be poor digital artifacts — like Anakin crash landing that speeder in his pursuit of the assassin — turn out to be a poor use of miniatures after all. Now and then Lucas inserts a miniature, a prop, as connective tissue — and not very well.

But the purely digital animation flows beautifully in the digital-projection version. The real delights of this movie are in its details: the urban backdrops, the advertising holograms, the amusing alien-caricatures in the background, the embellishment of event.

The cities, the alien worlds, all seem more three-dimensional digitally. Their intricacies jump out at you: everything seems more realistic and more solid. The attacking brutes in the arena scene are a good example; in the celluloid film, it appeared as if the prisoners were being attacked by vicious cartoons.

Lucas has gone slightly mad with Cecil B DeMille-scale events, in Episodes I and II, contriving complex scenes that are impossible to take in at one viewing — yet they somehow work. The digital detailing and art design is what makes it work. The visual stylings are internally logical.

It should be said that the real artists here are not so much Lucas as his set designers, his character designers, and his artists. (Though I could swear the ruminant creatures on Naboo seem borrowed from the game Unreal — and that giant killer crustacean thing in the arena seems awfully like a creature in the game Half Life — but even if this is so the movie is so verdant with science fiction imagination a few unconscious borrowings can be forgiven.) Also, Lucas and his staff owe a debt to the science fiction illustrators of their youth — to "Emsh" and Kelly and Powers and others. And perhaps an honorarium should be paid to the estate of the poster artist Maxfield Parrish — several scenes on Naboo are most definitely borrowed from Parrish.

So let's face it: the age of digital cinema has come. The big money boys may as well start financing the conversion of theaters. The medium works, works better, and twenty or thirty years from now, celluloid will be pure nostalgia and nothing more.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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