George Lucas is the type of filmmaker that most people love and hate in equal measure. The imaginative mind behind Star Wars, he’s been revered by generations of film-fans for creating the franchise, and simultaneously blamed for its downfall.
As well as the much maligned prequels, the director’s obsession with touching up and re-releasing the original trilogy with increasingly distracting effects and alterations has caused frustration and outrage among the fan community over the years.
Now, however, a small group of superfans have banded together to form what could be best described as the Rebel Alliance to Lucas’ Empire. Working under the name of ‘Team Negative1’, they’ve spent years sourcing and working on old Star Wars reels with the one goal of restoring the original film to exactly how it would have looked back in 1977. Released in January this year, it is fittingly titled ‘The Silver Screen Edition’.
We had the opportunity to speak to one of the members, known only to us as R1 – or Rogue 1 if you’re on a first name basis – about what he learnt while restoring Star Wars…
Even rebels need some management
“I was searching for original versions of Star Wars and found a website called Originaltrilogy.com. There were so many projects on there, including some versions of the film that were being developed from Laserdisc, as well as upscales and improvements to the DVD.
“I got in touch with some of the team members because I was interested in which direction they could go with the resources they had. As one of the original team members had left Negative1, it turned out that they needed some assistance. I didn’t have experience with film or restoration, but thought I could offer my help in management and allocating resources.”
Han shot first
“Our version aims to create as authentic an experience to what would have been seen in a theater back in 1977. Modern restorations, such as those on Blu-Ray, are much cleaner and sharper than any film would have looked in the theater back then. This version retains the grain and cleans up most of distracting dirt, noise, and scratches in the film. It retains the 35mm theatrical sound, and also aims to retain the original colour scheme of the film.
“We also have the original 1977 crawl and Han shooting first, amongst other things. Most fans won’t have seen the film look or sound like this version.”
You really can buy almost anything on eBay
“Somebody on the website suggested that if companies are taking 35mm movie prints and digitally restoring them for DVDs and Blu-Ray, why can’t we do it ourselves? From that point, it was just a matter of time and effort to locate prints of the films. At that time, Ebay was the primary source for the original Star Wars prints we used.
“We found separate reels of a faded Star Wars print which were purchased one at a time. Then a Spanish print showed up, which was much better and came from a low fade print stock (LPP). Originally, we approached some transfer houses in the hope they would take the film and convert it to HD. None of them were interested as it would be for a commercial property, so we had to take an alternate approach.
“For the first iteration and testing, we used a homemade digitizer made from a projector and a Canon 8 Megabyte digital camera. The projector would move at 2 frames per second and the digital camera would capture the image at 2k per frame. It was very time consuming, but worked. Much later on, a 35mm projector and 4k camera were used. This meant the film could be scanned in real time at 24 frames per second. It sped up the process greatly, with much better results.
“Distributing the files and scans to people came next. Commercial software was used to digitally clean up each frame which has dust, dirt and scratches. The reels were split up and various members were assigned to work on different parts. Updates and previews were made available to show the progress, and many experiments were done to assist in speeding up the cleanup. Once the basic procedure was found, the team used it to finish the film.”
Perserverence is key
“During the original stages of the project there was little to no progress, so the chances of completing it felt small. As time progressed though, more members joined and we acquired better hardware for the job, so we knew it was just going to be a matter of time.
“During the last year, some members were beginning to experience burnout. I ended up helping in that last phase, during the 6 months before the release. It was a very intensive and time consuming task that was tedious and tiring. However, once the initial results started showing some promise, it became very fulfilling.”
CGI isn’t always a good thing
“I think George Lucas is a genius. Not all his films appeal to me, but he’s contributed greatly to the movie industry as a whole. Working with the constraints he had for Star Wars made it impressive for its time, but with CGI becoming commonplace in cinema, it has become easier to make alterations to films; not only to Star Wars, but films like Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“With Lucas, I think that due to the limited resources he had while working on the films, he felt like he had the time to revisit them and was able to alter the films to represent more of his original vision. I can see why he may have wanted to alter or add to the movies when re-releasing them, it just seems odd that the original prints weren’t paid the same attention and care.”
Star Wars is just the beginning
“The team actually released a ‘Grindhouse’ version of The Empire Strikes Back in January 2015. It’s a partially colour corrected version and it has all the original scratches and marks on the film. Currently, there are 3 full scans of Empire, each with varying quality – the best version is a slightly faded Fuji stock print. There are plans to do a full restoration of the movie, possibly with an even better print.
“The prints for Return of the Jedi are in better condition, printed on better film stock. At some point, these other versions will be released, but there is no current timeframe yet. There’s also interest in preserving other movies such as the Indiana Jones Trilogy and Aliens.”
Film preservation is important
“As with most movies and works of art, it’s important to preserve a record of the past before it’s lost. With many critically acclaimed films, their preservation has been ongoing. However, Star Wars hasn’t been preserved properly due to the original version being altered and changed so many times.
“None of the original, untouched Star Wars films are available in High Definition, and there have been no plans mentioned to preserve or release them in the future. With the advent of 4k technology and video, there is a demand for the original movies and it would be a great loss if LucasFilm didn’t address it. For the time being, it’s up to us preservationists to help fill the gap for fans of the movies.”