Yoda could have been preaching to the camera crew on Star Wars: Episode II when he declared to Count Dooku at the movie’s close, "Much to learn, you still have." To realize the speed and standard of image quality expected on Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Lucasfilm HD Supervisor Fred Meyers was well aware that the learning curve would need to start at the camera’s lens.
The decision to record the last Star Wars "film" to Sony’s HDCAM SR format had implications for everyone from focus-pullers to match-movers. (The production used a customized Sony HDC-F950 camera, the portable SRW-1 and the SRW-5000 VTR.) "Once we were in that color space and bit depth we could see more from the lenses," says Meyers, "and the prime lenses that we had been using were not going to hold up." There was no longer any mistaking lens problems for compression artifacts.
"In the process of completing Episode II," says Meyers, "we learned a lot about HD lens and camera issues- consistency between lenses, data from the lens and lens control." Back then the production was using six different lenses: HD Primos from Panavision and first-generation primes and compact zooms from Fujinon.
For the third episode, Meyers was looking for an improvement in both the glass and the electronics. Lucasfilm had been through three generations of primes, he estimates, and had used Fujinon zooms for green-screen work on Episode II. If Lucasfilm could get a better wide angle and a lighter long zoom, it would be possible to standardize principal photography on just two lenses. When they found them in Fujinon’s new E-series digital-cinema-style lenses, the HAe3x5 (5-15mm) and the HAe 10×10 (10-100mm), the production used them exclusively, dropping primes except for a small amount of Steadicam work.
"There was a requirement to work fast," he says. "The primes worked fine for some applications but we wanted zooms that were as good as primes and that’s what we got."The transition from primes to zooms multiplied the number of set-ups that could be done in a day, as there was minimal changing of lenses and moving cameras for each scene or set-up. "In principal photography, we’d start at 7:30 and by 8:10 we were rolling," says Meyers. "We’d gotten through 50 set-ups by the end of the day.
"There were things that were manual during Episode II that we needed to automate for Episode III," Meyers says. These included calibration, collimation and back focus. To facilitate this, Fujinon migrated some SD accessories to HD, including remote iris control, lens data output, digitally assisted rehearsal mark management, and flange focus set.
"At the beginning of Episode II we were still pulling focus with the tape measure," Meyers says. "By the end of the first week on Episode III, we were using wireless control and looking at a monitor rather than walking to the side of the lens."
Automation on the picture was brought to a new level by recording lens and camera metadata in the HDCAM SR signal. Very specific information on focal length, lens stop, focus position, gain, RGB level and camera positioning was laid down for use throughout the workflow.
"The unintended consequence," says Meyers, is that " George [Lucas] ended up liking to sit in front of plasma monitors looking at multiple cameras."