Here are the problems ”Star Wars: Episode II” could lead to
It sounds so cool: ”Digital filmmaking.” The term suddenly makes Hollywood seem hip and relevant again after years of swimming against the tide of dot-com chic. The idea of making a film without actually using film seems to reclaim the maverick sensibility and cutting-edge spirit that’s always characterized the movie business, particularly since the digital concept’s being bandied about by none other than George Lucas.
But when the Star Wars creator announced recently that he’ll use ”progressive” (cool!) ”high-definition” (wow!) ”camcorders” (hey!) to shoot much of ”Star Wars: Episode II,” it made the old Luddite in me worry what might happen if the new technology gets in the wrong hands.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll line up with the rest of you to see what Lucas whips up with his futuristic new equipment. He claims the new cameras, still being tested by Lucasfilm and Sony, will let him go places he’s never gone before. ”Whatever I can imagine, I can put on screen now,” he said at a press conference announcing the decision. ”It used to be very restrictive.” Okay, so maybe Lucas felt hemmed-in by old-fashioned 35 MM. Maybe that’s what forced him to go with Jar-Jar Binks in ”Episode I,” who knows? I still have big concerns about digital.
For one thing, the results coming out of the digital realm so far haven’t exactly been lighting up the screen. Mike Figgis’ bold new venture, ”Time Code,” which is hitting theaters in major markets this weekend, was shot with digital technology as part of a daring concept that made front page headlines around the world. Figgis’ ”day in the life of crazy L.A.” saga, which unfolds in real time on a quadruple-split screen, was shot with four synchronized Sony DSR-500 camcorders that kept rolling until their 93-minute ”time codes” were spent.
Sounds intriguing, but frankly, the finished product, which stars Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Kyle MacLachlan, and 25 other actors, is a digital mess. Without a script, the film quickly devolves into a quadraphonic morass of Hollywood clichés and half-baked plot devices (there are several major earthquakes, but everybody just goes back to work afterwards). The digital edge also gives ”Time Code” a flat, seamy picture quality that makes many of the shots look like they were swiped off a video monitor in the window of a Sunset Strip camera shop. And the split-screen conceit just turns out to be distracting, as the eye tries to figure out which movie to watch.
Figgis and Lucas have every reason in the world to experiment with new means of expression, but their lead is bound to have an impact. First, digital cameras are cheaper to buy, cleaner to operate, and easier on editing than traditional film cameras. And, as Figgis showed, you don’t need lighting rigs, sound crews — or anything else, really — to get a film up and running; digital technology is pretty self-sufficient.
What that means, of course, is that what happened on the increasingly cluttered Internet is about to happen to Hollywood. Soon enough, anyone with a concept and a couple of photogenic friends — or maybe neither — will be able to make their own cineplex-ready masterpiece; and the world will quickly be flooded with even more media detritus to sift through — some good, much very very bad.
Several critics have even bigger concerns about digital’s negative impact on Hollywood. Roger Ebert has been telling people that film and digital images play to different parts of the brain — stay with me — and that the ”flicker” of film sparks a more emotional and intense reaction among viewers, while the constant feed of digital and electronic images, TV for instance, induces a kind of drone-like state; the same mass hypnosis that prompts people to boob out in front of the tube for hours on a Saturday night.
I’ll let the physicists determine whether all that’s true, and in the meantime, I’ll just cross my fingers and hope that Lucas and the dozens of other digital filmmakers booting up their cameras will remember that new technology in Hollywood means nothing if it stands in the way of old-fashioned ingredients like good plots, great acting and as few shots of Jar Jar Binks as possible.