Industrial Light & Magic retools
its technologies to finish
Star Wars: Episode II.

An ASC Web-Exclusive Article

When George Lucas decided to shoot Star Wars-Episode II: Attack of the Clones with nascent digital technology, among the immediate concerns were how to configure the digital crew that would be headed by director of photography David Tattersall, BSC, and how to streamline a high-definition (HD) postproduction pipeline that would ultimately yield both digital and film versions of the show. A key collaborator in both endeavors was Industrial Light & Magic’s HD engineer Fred Meyers.

Meyers' role on Episode II represents perhaps the first significant addition to the camera crew since the Technicolor color consultant. Expanding on his postproduction contributions to Star Wars-Episode I: The Phantom Menace (see AC Sept. ’99), Meyers was brought onto Episode II to ensure that film artists would make a fairly smooth transition to the digital realm. He was also the primary troubleshooter on the technical complexities presented by this new world. In order to channel the crew’s creativity as effectively as possible, Lucas and Meyers agreed that it was best not to change a perfectly good system simply because the cameras were rolling tape instead of film. Issues such as whether to employ members of a traditional film crew were settled quickly. "Our strategy was, don't reinvent the process based on technology," Meyers says. "We wanted to put in a system that was going to run faster and more smoothly, so we set everything up [to be] exactly the same [as a film shoot], only there were digital cameras and cabling. We were fortunate to get camera accessories from Panavision that allowed the focus puller and camera assistants to work the way they normally would. Because of that, we didn't stumble out of the gate; everyone on the crew knew he’d be doing what he knew how to do. The interplay among the crew members just fell into place on the set. That enabled some of the advantages of shooting digitally to percolate up as we went along." (For Tattersall’s take on the production, see AC Sept. ’01.)

Meyers acknowledges that an all-digital shoot necessitated a significant level of technical support. "With all of the advantages and advances you get with digital, there's a lot more to attend to regarding all of the camera systems used in principal photography," he says. "It makes sense to have an engineer responsible for the digital cameras as part of the crew. You need somebody to man the HD cameras and the support systems, including the digital recording and monitoring equipment on set. You also need a person in the camera department to work with the camera operators, assistants and the director of photography, and then take it through editorial and visual effects to a digital intermediate and color timing. I worked through the entire pipeline, melding all of that into the workflow. It was a great experience because I was able to work from the front of the project all the way through to the back."

Meyers’ key concern during production was to create an environment that wouldn't give Tattersall and his crew "culture shock." He offers, "I didn't want people walking onto the set and thinking, ‘Whoa, this doesn't look like a normal shoot,’ so I hid all of the ‘back end’ – the recording, the camera control, the electronics – off set. That way, it didn't look like a broadcast shoot."

Advantages to shooting on HD included being able to review shots moments after they were captured, and the elimination of downtime for breaking out a new mag and reloading. "Even if you're aggressively shooting on hi-def, you're only reloading once a day, which ends up being a really big deal," Meyers notes. "Also, you get immediate feedback on focus and exposure, so you can see exactly what you shot and know you've got it. And later, there's no laborious film scanning required to get into editorial or the CG environment."

Meyers says Tattersall and his crew "started out doing things the way they knew how, but as they became more familiar with the digital cameras they gradually expanded from there. What grew out of the technology were ideas for lining up new shots, and the ability to see on set exactly how a couple of elements might marry together. They could actually see [original footage of] a scene and match the lighting on a new element with much more accuracy than watching through a videotap or on a telecine in editorial. They didn't have to go by that proxy to do something as detailed as lighting or setting focus."

Hi-def video’s extreme depth of field led the filmmakers to alter their blocking methods, as well as their approach to focusing on multiple actors in a shot. "We knew going in that our cameras had a greater depth of field, 2 to 2 1/2 times greater than 35mm film," Meyers says. "We shot much of the principal material around T2 or T2.8, and that looked flat from your fingertips to infinity. But there are certain focus pulls in three-shots or two-shots that viewers have come to expect aesthetically, particularly in anamorphic shows. So even though you can have a two-shot or an over-the-shoulder in HD where you can hold both actors in focus, we sometimes found ourselves cheating focus on the set to sell the scenes the way audiences might expect them to traditionally play. Whereas the approach to that would be clear and simple with film – go for the person who’s talking, go for the eyes, that sort of thing – we fought a little bit more about how to deal with those splits."

Separating actors out from the background sometimes called for some tricky focus pulling that wouldn’t be necessary with film. "If somebody's about 15 feet away from the background and you're fairly close on them, you would expect a certain amount of fall-off so the background would go soft," Meyers offers. "But we were faced with cameras that could keep someone as sharp as the background, even when that background was a good distance away. We handled that by cheating focus toward the camera to throw the aesthetic away from the background so the foreground might separate more, [helping the image] appear film-like."

Lighting for HD also required a different way of thinking. "We were lighting more for highlights, and that's a shift from film," Meyers admits. "We were a bit more concerned about how we set the cameras up to handle highlights and shadows. We monitored all of the settings with software we wrote, which was a lot more sophisticated than the remotes used for broadcast or other video applications, so I felt pretty comfortable with the controls over the cameras."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.