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Digital Media FX Review of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
by Noell Wolfgram Evans, feature writer for Digital Media FX Magazine

It's been three-years since the last Star Wars installment played across the silver screen. This summer we discover that it's been worth the wait. 'Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones' is a great Saturday matinee adventure film. It's loaded from one side of the screen to the other with everything a movie could hope to have: action, intrigue, adventure, suspense, romance and fun. From start to finish it's an enthralling ride filled with enthusiasm and surprises through images never before seen. There is a wonderment at the base of this film, an engagement at the story being told and an amazement at the way that it unfolds before our eyes and ears. George Lucas, the Star Wars creator, loves these worlds and characters and this love shows. With it's effects and inventive staging, 'Attack of the Clones' raises the bar not just for the Star Wars series, but for all digital effect films that follow.

'Attack of the Clones' picks up the Star Wars story ten years after the events of 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace' (1999). There is unrest in the Republic with a civil war seeming to be an unstoppable conclusion. Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) is no longer the Queen of Naboo, but now a respected Senator from that planet who travels to Coruscant (the 'capital' planet of the Republic) to debate in a key governmental issue. After an attempt is made on her life, her old Jedi friends Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are assigned to protect her.

At this point, the plot must be starting to sound like an episode of 'Spenser for Hire' as if thought up by a producer on C-Span but the script, by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, keeps things lean and mean. We are given as much information as is needed to assure that the actions of the characters make logical sense but we're not beaten over the head with exposition. And we don't need to be; this is after all 'Star Wars' and not 'All The President's Men' (this is not to say that these movies are not smart, but rather of a different ilk).

A nighttime attack on Padme's life is followed by a riveting chase through the sky streets of Coruscant. It's during this chase that we really come to understand the dynamic of Anakin and Obi-Wan. We've seen them together before but as they zip through the city, their student/teacher relationship comes to life.

This chase not only opens up what may be the main relationship in this prequel trilogy, it also serves as an announcement of what the film hopes to accomplish effects wise. To say that this chase is the first real use of digital effects in 'Attack of the Clones' would be a lie as the movie doesn't have a scene without some sort of digital touch. The chase though is the first time that Lucas opens the bag and lets everything out. The Visual Effects team at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) uses this scene to make a statement, and it's a powerful one. As Anakin and Obi-Wan fly through the city you can't help but wonder at the effects in the scene but that wonder is soon taken over by the excitement of the action. This is the true magic and power of the effects in the film, they serve the story as completely as possible. Although there are over 2,100 effects shots in the film, each is used to forward the action of the story; there are no 'effects for effects sake'. Everything that's in this film (and there is a lot of 'everything') is there to serve the story. This is because scenes were meticulously plotted out and planned by Lucas along with Erik Tiemens and Ryan Church, the Concept Design Supervisors. They put together hundreds of key-frame production illustrations that served as detailed blueprints for the film's artists and technicians. This process worked because the film is in fact not a film at all but a digital production.

Lucas has long pronounced a desire to be able to put onto the screen the exact images that are in his mind and then have those images look exactly the same to every filmgoer. Through digital filmmaking, this desire can become a reality. 'Attack of the Clones' is not the first film to be shot digitally, but it is certainly the largest. In using Sony 24p progressive scan digital cameras (with specifically made Panavision lenses), Lucas gave himself an incredible amount of freedom to create and manipulate the action within the movie. Shooting digitally gave Lucas the power of a painter, able to go into a scene and touch up or add to or subtract from it items that may not be completely working. It also allowed Lucas the ability to not only shoot longer (a digital film cartridge can hold 50 minutes worth of 'film' while a standard 35mm cartridge can hold only 10) but he also had the ability to see immediately what had been shot. He could watch a playback and know with certainty if what he was trying to attempt in the scene worked.

Playback was a key factor on this film in particular because of the number of effects that were used in the film. 'Attack of the Clones' was shot on location and soundstages in Sydney, Australia where the most prominent object on each soundstage (regardless of the scene) was the bluescreen. Action was shot against these bluescreens which were used to create mattes into which all of the effects were placed. A number of these 'effects' were actually parts of or entire sets. While some scenes occurred in complete digitally created environments, some scenes still required sets that needed to be built. Those that were built though were only partially done so; no set was built higher than the tallest actor in the film, Christopher Lee who stands 6' 3". This extensive use of bluescreens allowed the filmmakers to grow and expand scenes with all numbers of environments, objects and inhabitants. Among these were the important all-digital characters of Dexter Jettster, Watto and Jar-Jar Binks. While the film was populated with digital creations, these three had to play key roles with important pieces of screen time and interaction with human actors and they do it with incredible clarity and realism. Jettster especially stood out as he seemed to inhabit his ill-fitting clothes, not just be created in them. His actions were fluid and his mannerisms reminded you of your Uncle Joe, particularly as his mustache bristled as he thought. In his all-to-brief scene he was a wonder to watch. All of these characters were created by ILM with a particular nod to Animation Director Rob Coleman. It should be mentioned that they were created though with heavy assistance from the voice actors. Dressed in partial costume, the voice actor would actually act out their place within a scene, often with tracking markers on them to monitor their movements. The animators and effects artists then reference these shots to ensure that the interaction between the human actor and their digital counterpart is as realistic as possible.

More often than not though, the actors found themselves alone in a scene. For these times, cast and crew had to carefully pre-visualize the action either through storyboards, paintings or 'scratch tracks'. Editor Ben Burtt explains how this last item could be used to help shape a performance out of literally thin air: "For the "Speeder Chase," we shot some of our crewmembers playing the parts. It was actually shown on a screen to the actors, who then took a lot of their timing from the cut, much in the way you might pre-record music for people to dance to so that the timing is right. They could actually see the context where their acting was going to be, because for many of these sequences the actors are just sitting in front of a bluescreen while the director is saying, 'Turn left, turn right, duck!' This gave the actors something to help them see what it might be like."

As for the humans in the film, while the acting was not superb, it was by no means sub-par. The characters in this series are who they are and each actor ably inhabits them, particularly Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu and Ewan McGregor. Natalie Portman operates a fine balance between action and flirtatious reserve while Christopher Lee seems to be having some enjoyably evil fun as the mysterious Count Dooku.

The story continues as Anakin and Obi-Wan depart on two separate but related tracks. Separate in their missions but related in they way that they develop their characters, particularly in the larger scale of the story. While this film stands well on it's own, it is filled with little intricacies that make your experience that much better if you apply the knowledge you have from the rest of the series.

Anakin returns to Naboo with Padme where they spend their time falling in love. Their scenes together are nervously flirtatious yet subdued as they struggle to balance their desires with their respective responsibilities in the galaxy. While they grow closer, Obi-Wan travels to the water planet of Kamino where he discovers the clones of the title, it's the Michael Keaton film 'Multiplicity' taken to the Nth degree. On Kamino Obi-Wan encounters Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) who he tracks through a thrilling starship battle to the planet Geonosis. This battle, as directed by Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow, is a fast paced, edge of your seat chase. Of course the effects are first rate, but what really ratchets up the intensity is the decision to use only the natural sounds of the fight. Editor and Sound Designer Ben Burtt designed the sounds for this film (and every Star Wars film previous). He has taken the never before seen worlds in 'Attack of the Clones' and filed them with sounds both familiar and exotic. Burtt knows the Star Wars universe from a number of positions, including that of writer, an experience he gained while working on 'Droids'.

It is on Geonosis where the film reaches its climax in a battle between hundreds of Jedi and two opposing armies. One of these battles has become the lightening point of this film, a battle between the diminutive Jedi master Yoda and Count Dooku. Yoda has made appearances in three of the four previous Star Wars films as a puppet operated and voiced by Frank Oz. For this film Lucas wanted to show why Yoda was regarded as a Jedi master but to do this properly he would need to look for a different way to represent the character. To do this he turned to animator Rob Coleman. Coleman spent over a year working with Yoda, trying to develop a 'new' version of the classic and loved character. People had seen Yoda, they understood who he was and more importantly, they knew how he was. Coleman and his team worked not to improve the character but his capabilities. They worked off of what had been done for 'The Phantom Menace' in the way of digital character development and in the end they created a character that even seemed to retain some of the 'rubbericity' of the original puppet.

This 'familiarity' is one of the hallmarks of the Star Wars series, and one of the reasons it has been so successful. The original 'Star Wars' (1977) really gave us for the first time on film, a future world that was not entirely sleek and clean, not all white with sleek starships. This vision of the future as a natural extension of our present life really helped to connect the film to viewers. In 1977, it was easy to create this look because things still had to be created by hand. In 2002 though we have the power to make what we want within the confines of the computer. To often though when this is done, the effects appear to be very slick and clean and this would definitely be out of synch in the Star Wars world. And so the digital artists of ILM had to 'dirty up' all of the effects. It helped to not only keep things within the context of the Star Wars universe but also helped in giving things that familiar feeling.

The best way to see 'Attack of the Clones' is as Lucas intended it to be seen, in a theatre with digital projection. But as there are only about 100 such cinemas in the world right now, most of us will see it after it was been transferred to film using an Arri film laser recorder, which basically 'writes' the digital images of the movie onto 35mm film. In the print that I saw, the transfer did not appear as crisp as I would have liked to have seen but the clarity and effects still shone through

The true joy of 'Attack of the Clones' is in the details. There are the grandiose digitally created shots and characters but there are also the smaller, not always obvious digital touches that really bring the movie to life. It seems that every six months or so a film comes out that makes a new contribution to the world of visual effects. 'Attack of the Clones' not only contributes to this art form but advances it immensely. In putting his faith into a digital world, George Lucas has again raised the bar for moviemakers. And we are happier moviegoers because of it.

On a scale of 1 to 10 I give this digitally groundbreaking film an 8.5.

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