15 Years of AOTC: Digital Cinema


AOTC wasn’t THE first film shot digitally to be released; some Friday the 13th movie beat it out by a couple of months.  But it was the first one shot and the first major release.

This was a controversial idea back then and it remains somewhat controversial even now.  It’s kind of like the division between people who LOVE old school vinyl vs.  those who prefer downloading tracks off of iTunes or Amazon, or people who read electronically vs. those who insist on still buying physical books.  Film critics and filmmakers took sides, with many of them favoring film.  If you ask me, I think a big part of it was people not wanting to change their craft.  The American entertainment industry has been that way a long time; the Japanese were using high quality audio tapes and CDs while the U.S. recording industry resisted them.   It went after Napster, taking a long time to figure out the best way to fight illegal downloading was to offer legal downloading.  Hollywood fought tooth and nail against Betamax and VHS.  New tech scares them.  Star Wars films made more than a decade after the last one Lucas directed are shot using 20th century technology because reasons.

But other filmmakers have taken up digital cameras.  James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez won’t use anything else.  And digital presentation is a given now, even with films shot traditionally.  When AOTC came out, there was a handful of theaters in the entire Washington, D.C. metro area showing it in digital.  When ROTS came out, there were dozens showing it in DLP throughout Southern California.  When TFA came out, I don’t think there was a single theater in my area that didn’t have a digital presentation.  Moviegoers used to watching pristine pictures on DVD, Blu-Ray, or digital on their own devices don’t want fading, scratches, dust, etc..

I saw the difference right away with my second viewing of AOTC, which was the first time I saw it in DLP.  It was like watching a DVD on the big screen.  The picture was incredibly clear and the sound was better.  When I saw it in digital again in July, it looked  just as good.  Usually movies that had been playing that long started to look worn out.  To me it was a no-brainer.

George Lucas had tried to drop kick the movies into the future just as he had done before with the pioneering effects created for ANH.   Even while there is still resistance to what he tried to do, a lot is now taken for granted today.



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8 Responses to “15 Years of AOTC: Digital Cinema”

  1. joe Says:

    i believe that film was jason x

  2. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    I cannot help but wonder if the first major movie release to use digital film had not been a Prequel movie, would there have been this continuing resistance.

  3. Pedro Felipe Says:

    George, as always, ahead of the curve and pushing the envelope. The camera companies and the others around them basically made the first feature quality 24p digital cameras at George’s request for Star Wars. The Sony FDW-900F, used in Attack of The Clones and in productions up to Mike and Molly tv series in 2016 (!!!!), was even nicknamed “The Star Wars Camera”. As I said before, and I am posting it again because I believe it to be extremely relevant to this post:

    “Even the way they (those who made the force awakens) handled the 35mm was just dirty. It has tons of horrible grain and the colors are just so supersaturated. It’s gonna look much worse when it is (inevitably) transfered to HDR because of all the loss of detail, particularly in the dark areas. Compare it with the sweet gradation of dark shades from the poisonous creatures in Padmé’s room from Attack of The Clones. the force awakens looks worse than A New Hope from 1977, because, you know, George knew how to operated a film camera and painstankinly restored the negatives from the best sources he could find using state of the art technology because he cares about his films and the haters keep bashing him for that. They also bash him for using the CineAlta HDW F900 which IS superior to 35mm film in both effective resolution and Dynamic Range (which means an HDR remaster of the prequels would be sweet) and has been used since in many other more recent movies even though the haters classify it as “crap” , basically single handedly kickstarting the Digital Cinema age. This “crap” of a camera, that was literally designed at George Lucas request for The Prequels (he didn’t get it in time for The Phantom Menace, but only did some shots of that movie as a test), is still in use today (yes, today) and goes by about $80,000 in B&H. It’s been used in Dexter series (2013), Ripple Effect movie (2007) and the recent Mike and Molly series (2016), among many others.”

    “And I won’t even get started with the camera George used to Shoot Revenge of The Sith, the Sony HDC-F950, which was used in Avatar…”

    I am kind of a geek in this sort of thing, I do not claim to know everything, but what I am saying is well established and fairly common knowledge in the creative space. The extent to which misinformation on this topic has spread is saddening. Photochemical capture (film) works very differently from digital sensors. Haters, pretending they are experts in filmmaking technology, use a measure called minimum feature size of film to claim something along the lines of “film has higher resolution than 4K, therefore it is superior to the cameras used in the Prequels” (I am in a good mood so I edited their f$&@$k George Lucases out and fixed their grammar). But the minimum feature size isn’t equivalent to a pixel in the digital world, it is the minimum size that MIGHT contain information, not that it certainly has. In fact, the minimum feature size is typically full of film grain. So while a film stock with a minimum feature size equivalent to the size of a pixel pixel in a 4K image requires a 4K scan to preserve all of the detail, the comparable resolution is much lower. This explains why 35mm 4K scans many times look better than their 2K counterparts, even though their quality is below 4K or even 2K. This is also the reason why Episodes IV, V, VI and to a lesser extent I don’t look better than Attack of The Clones. While it is possible to achieve actual 2K with film, it requires great cameras, lenses, lighting and great operation. 4K would be even harder, and though it is theoretically possible, I’ve never seen it done. This should not be controversial, even the haters know the Prequels look better than the “Original Trilogy”. The haters explanation to reconcile the fact that they bash the cameras in the Prequels and yet they look better than IV, V and VI is, naturally, to blame it all on George, even though he made and outstanding and unprecedented restoration of the existing Star Wars Movies : “The Special Editions were horrible”, “he was lazy and didn’t use the best negatives, etc”. Going digital was absolutely amazing, and I didn’t even talk about non-image quality related advantages like much faster revelation of dailies, the benefits were enormous, the tools are made for the artist, not the artist for the tools.

    • Stefan Kraft Says:

      Very interesting, thanks!
      Personally, I (erroneously?) compare this to analogue vs. digital photography. Many photographers prefer analogue, others digital. You may get different effects if you use film (e.g. film grain as a creative option). Some photographers may even just prefer film because they can develop the pictures themselves or touch the negatives (something completely subjective!)
      On the other hand, digital photography is a gamechanger. For instance, the possibility to adapt the white balance if you shoot RAW is amazing!
      Hence, there is probably not the “objectively best” way to take pictures – and therefore dismissing digital as inferior is IMHO not good. The same goes for dismissing GL for using digital cameras and not film in EP II and III.
      (Sure, you can also make the point that JJ should not be criticized for using film in EP VII. Fair enough, but my impression was that JJ’s use of film was praised as “the real deal” or “taking SW back to the roots” although it is not really clear whether it had any real advantage.)

  4. Shaman McLamie Says:

    When I first saw Attack of the Clones it was actually at a special theater that projected the film digitally. The theater actually made a big deal about it so much so they had Storm Troopers and there was an intermission in the middle of the movie where a guy flanked by Storm Troopers came up to celebrate the technology. I will always remember when walking out into the parking lot my dad mentioned how impressed he was with the visual quality of the film. He found it so clean and clear. My dad isn’t a Star Wars fan, but man does he appreciate how much these movies have advanced cinema technologically. That is why it saddens me so much when directors like J.J. Abrams and Collin Trevorrow look to the past and decide to use film instead of digital.

  5. Shaman McLamie Says:

    I would also like to mention something I remember seeing on the making of the Attack of the Clones documentary. One big advantage shooting in digital is you didn’t have to wait for film to develop. So you could shoot a scene pop it out of the camera put it in a video player and see how it turned out instantly. It greatly saved time and ensured quality. You didn’t have to do multiple takes and hope one came out good enough. You could shoot it see how well it turned out and then decide if you want to try it again.

  6. Jonathan vd Sluis (@Natusaurus) Says:

    I think the first digital movie was Vidocq: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-full-length-feature-filmed-in-digital-high-resolutiion

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