When George Lucas created the original Star Wars trilogy, he was young, fit, and energetic. Making the first film was an uphill battle. He had to fight the studio system the whole way in order to achieve his vision. He knew the story he wanted to tell, and he was motivated by adversity to excel. He ran around the set, making sure everything was perfect, finding interesting angles to shoot from.
But by the time Lucas made the prequel trilogy, he had got old and rich, and his beard served to disguise his double chin. He could do whatever he wanted, and he did. He knew the story he wanted to tell, and he told it --- through exposition exclusively. Not facing adversity, he directed from a lawn chair in a tent, watching the set through the eyes of “A Camera” and “B Camera”. Behind-the scenes footage of Lucas shows a man full of wry humour who never really laughs, lacking the energy.
Lucas’s philosophy when making the prequels was “I went to film school and I learned some techniques, so by Jove I’m gonna use em!” Gone was the guerrilla-style filmmaking of the originals. He forgot how to be subtle, thinking that exposition is the only way to convey information or feelings to the audience.
In ESB, there is a scene where Admiral Piett comes to report to Darth Vader in his hyperbaric chamber. It is a good scene to compare with the prequel trilogy. Piett has accidentally intruded on Vader in a moment of privacy. We see the scars on the back of Vader’s head before he quickly replaces his helmet and turns to face the admiral. Piett is nervous but stays on topic. The shot is low, from Vader’s vantage point, and Piett’s face is partially obscured by the lid of Vader’s hyperbaric chamber---taking the viewer “into the world” of the movie.
A lot of information is conveyed through non-expositional means, and the characters are inhabiting their world, not just existing in it. Piett is embarrassed to have intruded; Vader is annoyed; but they don’t say so. The dark lord is actually doing something in his hyperbaric chamber, perhaps tending to his medical needs. The movement of the camera itself is used to convey emotion.
There is no “Excuse me Lord Vader, I see I’ve intruded on your privacy!” “Yes, you have. Give me your report.” In fact, pretty much everything about Vader and Piett's relationship is subtle.
The prequel trilogy, however, consists largely of characters walking and talking, or sitting and talking. They are hardly ever actually doing anything like looking over paperwork or getting their hair done, things you would expect politicians like Padme or Palpatine to do. Palpatine is just sitting in his office with an attendant, doing nothing, when Yoda confronts him after Order 66. Everything the characters are thinking and feeling is explained through dialogue. There are numerous scenes where two or three characters walk and talk--- stop walking at some emphatic point in the dialogue---they look out a window---and then they walk off again. Most of the dialogue is filmed over-the-shoulder style with very few innovative camera angles taking advantage of the environment. Everything is perfectly framed and in focus.
When Anakin is mad, he says so. “It’s unfair!” he exclaims when the Council refuses to give him the rank of Master despite his many accomplishments and his place of prestige next to Chancellor Palpatine. When he murders the Sand People, he tells Padme all about it, despite the fact that it should be obvious what he’s done (unless he had time to go to the laundromat on his way back from murdering an entire village.) When he’s in love, he says, “I’m so in love in you!”
The whole prequel trilogy is like this. There is no subtlety to the story-telling.
In comparing the original to the prequel trilogy, some general film-making principles can be derived, I think.
-Don’t rely too heavily on formulas like over-the-shoulder or walk-and-talk-stop-and-go.
-Try innovating. You don’t have to go full Sam Raimi, but his spirit should sit on your shoulder saying, “Put the camera somewhere it’s not supposed to be! Make the camera move in a strange way!”
-Don’t direct from inside a tent. Run around the set. Don’t try to plan everything out beforehand.
-Don’t forget that information and emotion does not have to be conveyed through exposition. Subtlety is your friend.
Credit to Mr. Plinkett: