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Will the ''Star Wars'' digital gamble pay off?

Will the ”Star Wars” digital gamble pay off? Ty Burr explains what visionary director George Lucas is hoping to do — and what stands in his way

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George Lucas
George Lucas: © Lucasfilm Ltd.& TM All Rights Reserved. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Will the ”Star Wars” digital gamble pay off?

It was just about a year ago that I interviewed George Lucas on the subject of digital projection. He had recently finished filming what would become known as ”Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” — except that ”filming” is the wrong word here, because Lucas recorded the whole megillah in pixel format, using a ripsnorting digital camera that he flexed his muscle to get Sony/Panavision to create in the first place. Without any actual film in the can, the director could send his scene ”files” straight to the editing suite for the patented Star Wars digital F/X monkeyworks.

Sounds pretty techno, but it’s really just a high-end version of what a zillion young digi-directors are doing with their Canon XL1s and money from Dad. What Lucas envisioned on the theatrical end, however, was more radical: He devoutly wished to skip celluloid altogether and ship ”Clones” to multiplexes in digital form, to be played on the new digital movie projectors that were starting to be installed in upscale venues. Problem was, there were only 18 theaters in the entire country equipped with digital projectors when we spoke.

Not a problem for Lucas. ”We’re hoping by 2002 there’ll be at least a couple of hundred, and a couple of thousand by the time the third film is out [in 2005],” he said. So here it is a year later, and there are… 19 screens equipped with digital projectors. Why the slo-mo rollout? Simple: Money. Each of those Texas Instruments digi-projectors runs at least $150,000, and theater-owners are downright angry at the idea of paying for a makeover in which they don’t reap any immediate benefits.

Well, then, why is Lucas so hot on digital projection? He’ll talk a lot about a flutter-free image and a print that looks as good on the 982nd showing as it did on the first. And these are important things. But, again, a primary consideration is money. Consider that the film studios spend $800 million a year making prints of the films they send to theaters (that figure doesn’t even count shipping costs). Consider that ”Attack of the Clones” will be showing in over 3,000 theaters when it opens May 16th, and that Lucas himself has estimated worldwide printing and shipping costs at around $20 million. Consider that in the future-world that furiously and optimistically whirls within his cranium, LucasFilms doesn’t have to pay a penny for converting his baby to film, because it’s being shunted instead in immaculate digi-form straight to theaters worldwide.

Consider George Lucas’ frustration, in other words, in fashioning a technical marvel — a film that hasn’t yet actually been ON film — and then having to pay to dump it onto a medium that he considers ”still a 19th century idea.” While he knew he was going to have to compromise with ”Episode II,” the available theaters for digital projection are far fewer than he had hoped. And, despite initiatives by the studios to help bankroll the changeover, the situation is unlikely to greatly improve by the time ”Episode III” comes around.

Should this matter to you? If you’ve seen a digitally-created movie like ”Ice Age” or ”Monsters Inc.” in a digital-projection theater — without it being rerouted to film, in other words — you’ll know how detailed and clean it can look. A digitally projected digital movie is a shiny marvel of a beast, and while it may not be the warmest way to see, say, a Miramax period film, it should fit the dented chrome of the Star Wars universe just fine. Unfortunately, while audiences are doubtless ready for the latest installment of George Lucas’ future, the same can’t be said for the movie-theater industry.

But, hey, maybe you don’t care how you see the damn thing. Do you?