What does Palme d’Or winner Amour, Sundance Grand Jury winner Winter’s Bone, and The Evil Dead remake all have in common? They might never have been made were it not for the unwavering vision of George Lucas and a little movie called Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones.
Clones was the first major motion picture shot entirely on HD digital cameras. When he announced his plan to shoot the picture this way, many in Hollywood, including some members of his own crew, thought that Lucas had finally lost his mind (an understandable suspicion in the wake of “midi-chlorians,” I grant you). When Lucas decided to shoot Clones digitally, the cameras he would need hadn’t even been invented yet. Only someone of his stature could have persuaded Panasonic and Sony to cooperate to make the groundbreaking HDW-F900 in the first place, and only a financially successful film shot with said cameras could have provided the economic incentive for electronics companies all over the world to invest the enormous amount of capital it took to advance the technology to where it is today.
In the same way that early American filmmakers found a way to industrialize the photochemical camera, thus making it profitable, Lucas paved the way for all the wonderful works of digital art that would follow. The cornerstone of the digital revolution began with Clones. Is his cornerstone filled with plot holes, bad acting, and wooden dialogue? Yes, but The Great Train Robbery isn’t really a Jungian spelunking into the psyche of Hedda Gabler either, is it? The point is: Do all of this film’s many flaws matter when measured against its midwifing of the most democratizing force for movie-making in 100 years? For those whose filmic Xanadu ends with Han Solo getting frozen in carbonite I suppose the answer might be yes. For me, it’s an emphatic no.
When Jean Cocteau said, “Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper,” he was probably overstating things a bit, but the central thrust of his point is valid. The sheer expense and technical expertise it has taken to make a film throughout the lion’s share of the medium’s history has been prohibitive to all but the most privileged and lucky. Since Clones, everything has changed. A Citizen Kane shot on an iPhone is not only now conceivable, but perhaps even inevitable. The RED camera, for example, is a magnificent piece of engineering which which has already begun a revolution in independent and studio films alike, and even cheaper cameras have given cinematic voice to a people which was simply unthinkable only 15 years ago. Whatever dubious ephemera some hand-wringers fear we may lose as photochemical cameras go the way of the daguerreotype, we have gained much, much more.
So three cheers for Attack of the Clones, a terrible movie made in a daring manner which made a metric buttload of cash and in so doing opened a fountainhead of artistic expression which shall flow forever. Or at least until Earth gets Alderaan’d by a Death Star.