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Saving Star Wars: The Special Edition Restoration Process and its Changing Physicality

Many are aware that Star Wars was restored for its 1997 theatrical re-release, as video featurettes and television specials from the time often touted that the original negative was in poor condition and couldn't be shown as was. Somehow, as if by magic, the film ended up playing in theatres in January 1997 looking like it had when it was first shown twenty years earlier, arguably looking better than it had when it was first shown twenty years earlier. Featurette's talk about "washing the film" and "digitally re-compositing" the bluescreen elements, but these blur the line between restoration and enhancement, for the digital processing and elements added are outside of the restoration process itself. Fans and even many experts don't seem to have been able to trace exactly what was enacted to preserve the film; there are a couple articles and factoids floating around the internet and in books, but there's never been an exhaustive synthesis of all of this data, for it lurks in piecemeal form (the best sources are ILM: Into the Digital Realm, and the February 1997 issue of American Cinematographer). I am hoping that this article will amend this, and also inform people on the history of Star Wars as a physical medium, as the way in which we view and engage with it.

The restoration of Star Wars was a complicated and costly endeavor. Firstly, it should be noted, is the great irony that the restoration of Star Wars was used only as a means to revise the film, in effect, not only not restoring it, but making great changes that had no part in the original. The prevalent motivation for changes as somehow constituting a rectification of things that were always "meant to be", that the digital alterations are bringing the film closer to the way "it was intended to be" and hence constituting a metaphoric restoration of sorts, further obscures this fact. While some changes were enacted to re-introduce portions originally (and intentionally) left out of the film--like the Jabba scene, which was never intended to feature an alien Jabba anyway--the bulk of them were enacted for pure revisionism, as Lucas and the effects wizards admitted at the time (though not so much today). It was "an experiment in learning new technology," as Lucas said at the time, [1] research for ILM that Fox was paying for, and most new shots and altered shots were the product of ILMers Tom Kennedy and Denis Muren, and art director TyRuben Ellingson, rather than Lucas. [2]

from Star Wars, The Magic and Mystery

I will not dwell on this point other than highlighting the fact that advertised "restorations" are not always the same as preservations, and while preservation of the film as it was is ideally and normally the goal of a restoration, such is not the case for Star Wars, whose final product is not a "restored version" but an enhanced version that uses restored elements. Lawrence of Arabia, for example, is often touted as having been restored in 1991, but in fact many scenes were not part of any version seen until then--the difference here is that these scenes were meant to be included in the original release of Lawrence of Arabia, hence it is restoring footage originally forced out in addition to repairing the physical negative to its original state; Star Wars' released "restoration," on the other hand, does not contain any items originally cut out or originally intended for inclusion--only two new bits are from the original shoot: the Jabba scene which has a central digital special effect never part of the original scene (and, as far as I can tell, was never intended to be, despite what Lucas says), and a short moment between Luke and Biggs (even here there is a new special effect--a digital foreground character wipes by to hide a cut to the scene where Luke's non-Darth-Vader father is discussed). Both of these were excised by Lucas deliberately, as he had final cut in 1977. There is some debate about whether David Lean is engaging in revisionism himself, but, even if he is, the scenes included constitute an acceptable director's cut that would have been possible when the film was made, rather than Lucas' case, where he admits he is being fanciful. I will say no more on this other than motion picture marketing has long used the term restoration as a conflation for revision, and in the case of Star Wars there has been more revision than any other example.

Although this article will explain about how the Special Edition(s) were created, this is not to be the focus of the article--instead we will look mainly at the physical, and non-physical, process by which the original negative of the film was created and repaired. This is normally the point of a restoration, and though I just a moment ago spoke of this not being the case for Star Wars, the other great irony is that it, at one point, was--before Lucas and ILM could enact the enhancement and alteration of the original content, the film was restored to its original state, the original negative meticulously and painstakingly repaired. This restoration was then used as the basis for digital additions, in effect making the restoration lost.

Background

The path to the restoration and the Special Edition begins in 1993. [3] With a renaissance of Star Wars merchandising and general interest, Fox and Lucasfilm representatives met to discuss how to celebrate the 20th anniversary in four years time. [4] An elaborate convention had been had in 1987 to celebrate the film's first decade, and this was suggested as a viable option for 1997 as well. Lucas, however, had just adopted his third child and first son, who was still an infant; as he had yet to show him the Star Wars movies on video, Lucas felt that a theatrical re-release would give him, and everyone else, the experience that the film was meant to be viewed under, on a massive scale outside the home and with hundreds of other people. [5] Fox evidently was enthusiastic about the idea, and when Lucas realised how much work this would entail, he felt that he could deal with a sore point that had always bothered him about the film: the Mos Eisley sequence. His main concern was that the spaceport was not capable of being portrayed of as a bustling hub of activity the way he wanted, and he had a deleted scene of Jabba the Hutt as well. [6] The last point was especially interesting--since Lucas brought the character back in a very prominent role in Return of the Jedi, his scene in the original film was relevant again. This might have occurred to him as far back as that third film--sketches exist showing how an early version of Jabba could have been matted into the existing footage, probably with the 1981 re-release in mind (that release also had a brand new title crawl to further link the films). [7]

"The initial scope of it involved two dozen shots," ILMer Tom Kennedy says. [8] Denis Muren at ILM also drew up a list of shots that had always bothered him, mainly in spaceship motion, which Lucas was open to using, and Tom Kennedy and others then contributed ideas for new additions [9] --since Fox was paying for it all, it was looked at as free R&D for ILM to use for the prequels Lucas was also planning. [10]

Rick McCallum was serving as producer for the re-release, which was now becoming more and more elaborate. It soon became apparent how elaborate it would be. Existing Interpositive prints (IPs) and Internegatives (INs) were not ideal to make new prints from for the re-release, since they were aging and partly damaged from use. It would make sense to go to the highest quality source as a base anyway--the original negative (O-neg).

A word about this may be necessary for the non-technical. The original negative is the master celluloid from which all other copies are made from. It is made out of the original pieces of film which went through the camera itself on the set. This makes it very precious--any damage done to the negative means that the damage will be permanent and undoable, so it is handled as little as possible, and under carefully controlled lab conditions. From this raw footage, a copy is made for the editor to work with, so that the original camera negatives are not handled. The editor then makes his edit using this copy (the workprint). When he or she is done, the workprint is passed on to the lab. The editor's copy is made out of different shots put together (with tape, literally), and now this must be replicated precisely using the high-quality originals. This is accomplished by use of edge-coding--each frame of film has a code printed on it that the laboratory can reference. A person called a negative cutter then takes the original negatives--the original camera negatives--and carefully cuts portions out that correspond to the cuts on the workprint; by using the edge-coding, he or she can make sure that this replica is made of exactly the same shots and frames as the editor has indicated. These portions of the camera negatives are then glued together into an edit of the film that matches the editor's. Any mistake here can be disastrous, as the process of glueing the pieces of film together destroys the next frame, which makes it irretrievably lost since these are the originals. When done, we have what is called the original negative, which is the original camera pieces conformed to an edit of the film.

The process of bringing this to theatres is even more complicated though. In order to avoid handling the original negative, a copy is made. This is called an Interpositive (IP), and is the second-highest-quality source of the film. Copying this will give us another negative image, however, so it cannot be used to make theatrical prints (the colors will be reversed). So it is copied, resulting in an Internegative (IN), which theatrical prints can then be made from (copies of a copy of a copy of the original negative). Star Wars was a popular film, and over the years so many theatrical prints were made that the IPs/INs got worn out, and new ones had to be made. The last one made was in 1985, intended to be a master copy for home video releases. [11] Because each copy degrades the image, when the anniversary re-release came up the original negative naturally was sought as the highest quality source to make a new version from.

Lucas had screened some prints in 1994 but none of them were presentable. "By the summer of '94 George said, 'I'm worried about the negative because every print we get is bad,'" Rick McCallum remembers. "That's when we got really scared about the presentation of this film." [12]

What they found when they opened up the cans of film in late 1994 [13] was horrifying--the original negatives had been severely deteriorated. Because film is photo-chemical it is prone to aging and the colors will fade like a newspaper; usually the yellow layer goes first, resulting in blue-tinted images and purple skin tones. This is what happened with Star Wars, where much of the film's existing prints had also faded to red. This aging process is expected, but the film was less than twenty years old and had looked fine less than a decade earlier when the last IP was made--the film should not have been as deteriorated as it was. In some places the image was so degraded that it was unusable, plus there was the normal wear from handling damage and shrinking/swelling that occurs in the celluloid aging process.

Lab technicians began wondering how it was that the film could have deteriorated so much. Fox stored its negatives far away from Earthquake-prone L.A., hundreds of feet underground in Kansas, at optimal temperatures of 50-53 degrees. [14] As it turns out, the disease was not unique to Star Wars--films from the same era had the same affliction. The reason was because of the chemical composition of the film stock in use at the time. Prior to 1983, all negative film stocks were what archivists now call "quick fade"; Kodak was among the worst, and their negatives had to be corrected every five years to compensate for fading (often the cyan went first), and their release prints even poorer, beginning to fade to red after only five or six years. Due to pressure from filmmakers and experts (among them, Martin Scorsese), companies started developing more stable stocks in the early 80s, and by 1982 Kodak had developed its "low-fade" negative and print stocks. As a result, color negative films from 1952-1982 are in states of serious disrepair. Star Wars faced additional challenges in that one of its negative stocks, Color Reversal Intermediate (CRI) 5249, was so prone to fading that Kodak stopped making it in 1987--but 62 shots in Star Wars were on the stock, none of them usable. [15] Being an intermediate stock, used for making dupes directly from the negative, this was probably what many optical composites were printed on, including the many wipes, dissolves and transitions; this was not commonly used for feature films (usually television), and may have been a cost-saving measure. "If George had wanted to do something even more creative to an optical shot, like flop it or add an overriding zoom, and there wasn't a lot of time, they used CRI as an intermediate reversal stock to alter those few effects shots after the fact," Tom Kennedy reported. [16]

Ted Gagliano remembers, "When I had first seen the print at DeLuxe, I was shocked. I was a Marin [County] high school student when I first saw Star Wars and it had been so spectacular--it was the reason I ultimately went into the movie business. But after seeing the dirt and the problem of fading it didn't have the same feeling. It looked like an old movie. At the ILM screening I had prepared everybody for what they were going to see, and afterward Lucas said to me: 'Well, the speech was worse than the viewing.' I think he was disappointed but slightly relieved. He could tell it was fixable. The challenge was to integrate the new [special edition] footage into a good negative." [17]

Leon Briggs, a former veteran of Disney Lab who was brought in to restore Star Wars, says that 10-15% of the original color had faded, [18] but judging by some of the examples shown it was at least double that in some cases. In addition, the negative was discovered to have been in a state of disrepair for other reasons--the popularity of the film meant that the negative was handled and printed many times over the previous two decades, and it was marked with dirt and scratches, more than is normal, with some theatrical prints struck directly from it; with the last wide theatrical showing in 1981 the negative had been okay back then, but by the mid-90s the damage that was acceptable in subsequent home video versions would not hold up when projected on a theatrical screen. "They made far too many release prints off the original neg," Kennedy says. "After 20th Century Fox reprinted Star Wars from the negative, we saw all the various levels of quality we could get out of the original cut, and we discovered some interesting and frightening things." [19]

The Restoration Begins

The restoration of Star Wars  began in 1995 and took the combined efforts of three companies, [20] under the payroll of Twentieth Century Fox: Pacific Titles, who handled optical printing, Lucasfilm, who organized the restoration and brought in ILM, and YCM Labs, who were responsible for color timing (arguably the most important of the three, since the faded colors were the biggest concern), as well as the supervision of film restoration consultant Leon Briggs and Fox's head of post-production Ted Gagliano. To start, Briggs had the negative cleaned, removing dirt and grime that had accumulated in its many years of use, by running it through a 104-degree sulfur bath solution and then hand-wiping it [21]. Star Wars' negative contained four separate types of film stocks [22] (Kodak 5243, an intermediate, probably for composites, 5247, a fine grain 100 EI tungsten stock that the live action must have been shot on, and 5253, an intermediate used as a separation stock that all visual effects elements were shot on [see note], plus the CRI stock [23]), however, and two of them could not be subjected to the solution and needed to be addressed on their own [24]. Each stock had to be washed separately anyway, unlike conventional restoration where the negative would have been washed in one piece and then wiped by hand [25], and so the negative was carefully disassembled.

"That made everybody suck in their breath," recalls Tom Kennedy, effects producer on the release. "Thankfully, Robert Hart, the neg cutter on the second and third films, came in to put the negative back together." [26] When this process was over, much of the dirt that had plagued previous releases (which, when projected, is often mistaken for grain) was gone and a clear image was had.

It would have been far too cost prohibitive to scan and digitally restore the entire film at that time, so only the shots that were going to be enhanced with digital effects ended up in the computer. "After selectively cleansing the negative they'd remove and send us those piece sections of the original negative for which we were doing the special edition work," reports Tom Kennedy. [27] This was to the viewer's benefit--though perhaps better than optical compositing, scanning technology back then was only as advanced as 2K resolution, not much more than standard HD (which also means all the SE enhancements are at this res), so it was better that only portions ended up in this downgrade. "After doing various tests, we found out right away that nothing beats scanning original negative. Star Wars was an A-B neg cut, which meant that they could actually lift and slug original negative and send it back to ILM whenever we were enhancing a live-action shot. I think this is the first time someone has tried to bring a Seventies effects film back to the big screen." [28] For parts of the negative that were damaged, ILM preferred to use a scan from an IP instead, says Kennedy in ILM: Into the Digital Realm. [29]

While ILM worked on digital upgrades, the degrading CRI shots needed to be addressed. Because some were made from different composites on an optical printer, even in the best of conditions there would be heavy dupe grain and extra dirt that was printed on the image itself and couldn't be removed. One can see this in the scene where Luke activates the lightsaber in Ben's hovel--the moment the special effect enters the shot, the level of dirt and grain jumps noticeably (this was also shot on normal 35mm cameras, rather than the higher quality Vistavision, because the saber effects were originally to be in-camera). What was worse was that this didn't just plague special effects shots but shots with wipes or dissolves, and the generation loss was there whether they were printed on CRI or regular Kodak Eastman stock. The solution, then, was to go back to the original pieces and make new composites. For instance, in a scene with a wipe transition, the original two shots blended with the wipe were still in storage somewhere, with the O-neg piece being a second-generation duplicate of them combined together.

Ironically, just as ILM was retiring optical printers and moving into the digital realm, the technology was resurrected again. Pacific Titles had eleven state of the art, modern optical printers with new lenses, which, when combined with Kodak's finest film stock, gave "a boost in resolution and color saturation," according to company vice-president Phillip Feiner. [30] They re-composited all wipes and transitions (the "bread and butter" opticals, as Feiner calls them). These new negatives were then cut into the O-neg, replacing the originals (which, I must presume, were put in storage). One caveat of this is that each time the negative has a new portion of film cut into it, a frame on either side of it is lost in the process of cementing the new film piece into the reel; if one compares closely the SE to the previous releases, one finds that any new shot is missing a few frames at the head and tail, though the difference is imperceptible when in motion.

The visual effects shots were faced with the same problems as the conventional opticals: a deteriorated film stock (in CRI instances; in others, milder color fading), and dupe grain and dirt. The shots also contained matte lines, which were beginning to become a thing of the past as films began to utilize digital compositing. Footage from documentaries on the SE reveals that ILM had gone back to the original special effects elements, which had been meticulously saved, and then scanned and digitally recomposited them (in some instances, their placement is slightly different than the original, even though the principle was to match them as closely as possible--for instance, the seeker ball in the scene of Luke's Millennium Falcon training is positioned not quite the same as the original composite, though the difference is basically imperceptible while in motion). In American Cinematographer, it is never stated that this re-compositing process was enacted for every visual effect, but it seems that at the very least most of them were. [31] When these were finished, they were printed back onto film and cut into the O-neg, again replacing the originals. The O-neg was slowly being subsumed by new material.

But meanwhile, the rest of the film needed to be tackled. Most of the negative could be addressed by simply color-timing the image to get rid of the blue and pink shift that had occurred, but some parts were in more serious need of repair. What the policy was here is unclear--were the portions that were ripped and damaged, or normal live-action printed on CRI (i.e. if it had been flipped optically), replaced with new negatives culled from IPs? There have been unofficial sources that have suggested as much, and this was certainly the case with the ILM scans, but it's not always clear if the O-neg itself gained new physical pieces made from second-generation prints. ILM: Into the Digital Realm states that the IP was used to restore the negative, but later it is said that this was done on occassion by ILM for their work (i.e. re-compositing effects, adding CG). ILM: Into the Digital Realm does, however, imply that there was new negative pieces made from the original separation masters. Separation masters are black and white prints (on color film, that is) of each color spectrum of the negative--yellow, cyan and magenta. Each of these color fields are preserved on special metallic silver compositions, which never fade, and which, when re-combined, give a perfect re-construction of the original negative. Ted Gagliano states: "You know the original negative will fade, so you can turn to the separation masters; it's the record of what it'll look like and it'll last forever. So the negative you make off your YCMs should be just as good as the original negative." [32] The negative was being cannibalized by other pieces.

Much of the "corrected" version of the O-neg was accomplished by the work of YCM Labs, who combated the color fading by re-timing the image to bring back its lustre. "Darth Vader isn't black anymore," says Pete Comandini, engineer at the company, "he starts out coming up to a navy blue and then getting brighter and brighter as the film continues to deteriorate." [33] To guide them in how the film should look, they used dye-transfer Technicolor prints. Technicolor was still making dye-transfer prints in the late 70s in the United Kingdom, though they would soon phase them out. Rather than using chemicals to make release prints, like Kodak or DeLuxe, which had bad contrast, poor color reproduction and heavy grain, but are inexpensive and easy to make, these prints were made of three strips of dyed film, which gave the prints a vibrant image with a very fine grain structure. More importantly, because they are not chemical but dye-based, they never fade. George Lucas loaned YCM Labs his very own personal Technicolor print, which still looked the same as it had when he put it in storage some twenty years earlier. "George had a private [Technicolor] print in the basement of his home," Gagliano notes. "For the color timing he told us to go for that look: 'That's the Star Wars I made,' he told us." [34]

(from Star Wars, The Magic and Mystery--the shots may be slightly more green-shifted, rather than blue-shifted, due to capture)

Since much of the restoration was color-timing accomplished by YCM Labs, this begs the conclusion--since the negs themselves can't be physically altered, the restoration's final product must have been a new IP with correct coloring. Whenever films are color-timed, it is the Interpositives from which theatrical prints work from--original negatives do not contain any color-timing information, so whenever a release goes back to the original negatives, all the color-timing is lost and the film must be re-timed from scratch all over again. It is doubtful that an entirely new negative was struck from the corrected IP for Star Wars, which might explain why Lucas enacted a second color-timing effort in 2004 when he returned to the original negatives.

Had the film remained like this, we would have a restored version of Star Wars, perfectly matching the original release but with pristine quality, even to the point where it was better than what could have been possible back then (as with the higher quality optical transitions). However, this was only part of the process of making what was eventually called "The Special Edition." ILM was working on many dozens of new shots, and an even larger amount of enhanced shots, using digital effects to re-do, expand, re-edit and otherwise alter many scenes in the film. When these were completed, they apparently were printed onto film and re-cut into the negative, replacing the original negs, which were undoubtedly put back into storage. As a result, the negative for Star Wars is filled with CGI-laden modern alterations. When Lucas says that the original version physically does not exist, this is what he really means--the negative is conformed to the Special Edition. Of course, it would be very easy to simply put the original pieces back and conform it to the original version, or use the separation masters and IPs, or simply scan the old pieces for a digital restoration, but I digress.

The Special Edition of Star Wars was frequently reported in the media as costing as much as $20 million to enhance and restore, though some sources claimed as low as $10 million. [35] In any case, the film's restoration and enhancement cost more than the original production itself--all of it being paid for by Twentieth Century Fox. At the time, spending upwards of $20 million on a decades-old film that, back then, was only to be a limited release, was a very big gamble. Many speculated that they did so in order to win Lucas' favor and get a chance at distributing the Star Wars prequels that went to camera a few months later. As the Special Edition drew greater and greater interest, it was decided to do a full-scale release, rather than a limited one. On January 31st, 1997, the Special Edition of Star Wars opened in theatres. The film became the biggest January opener in history, and earned $138 million, making the twenty-year-old film one of the top money makers of that year. It was released on VHS and Laserdisk in August--unfortunately, in the telecine the film received a pink tint, making the color referencing and restoration that YCM Labs did lost (you can tell this pink tint is from the telecine and not the negatives because it's on the CG shots as well). It was released again in 2000--this time removing the titling of "Special Edition." Because this was supposed to supplant the original, all prints in circulation of the original were recalled (studios control all rented prints--none are sold privately, though a black market exists), and possibly destroyed (studio print masters are, of course, kept). Today, Fox/Lucasfilm--Lucasfilm gained the rights in 1998 or 1999--only loans out prints of the Special Edition (no theatrical prints were ever made of the 2004 SE).

Further Changes and into the Digital Realm

The changing state of Star Wars didn't end there, of course. In 2004, a second round of alterations was released for the DVD debut of the trilogy. The process of creating this was markedly different from the Special Edition of 1997, however. Perhaps reflecting the computer advances that had been made since, this version was created entirely in the digital realm.

The film needed to be digitized to release it on DVD in the first place, and when Lucas decided to make further changes to the film, the highest quality source was sought for scanning--the negatives. This would create a new master digital negative that would serve as a base for Lucas' definitive version of the film. There are a number of caveats that resulted from this, however.

One was that the negative was scanned only in HD resolution of 1080p, in 10-bit RGB. [36] This was a state worse than the primitive 2K scans ILM had done for the SE. By contrast, when Blade Runner was restored and enhanced in 2007, the live-action was scanned at 4K, the normal standard, and the visual effect shots at 8K. Godfather's 2008 restoration was scanned at 4K for the entire film, while Wizard of Oz's 2009 release was done at 8K. Why Lucas chose to source his master from a paltry 1080 HD scan is hard to fathom, especially when 4K was long in place as the standard, with 6K and 8K looming on the horizon as a viable replacement since data storage was becoming cheaper. One reason may be because Lucas was shooting the two prequels--Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith--on the Sony CineAlta, which itself was 1080 (being the first generation of HD feature-film cameras). This is another undoable element of the prequels--filmed on 1080p HD, they have, at the most, less than half the resolution of the 35mm original trilogy, with some arguing that 35mm resolves 5000 lines, meaning they have just under 1/5 the resolution (Phantom Menace was shot in 35mm, but then scanned in 2K--which is still an improvement over the following two films). With the new 2004 SE existing partly to link the six films, this was indeed the case as the original trilogy was lowered in resolution to that of the first three episodes. Ironically, as Lucas moved into more "high tech" digital arenas, the quality of the image slowly declined, going from a 35mm original, to a partly-2K 1997 SE and then a fully-1080p 2004 SE. According to Videography, the negs were scanned on a Cintel C-Reality telecine, at 1920x1080 resolution, in 4:4:4 RGB, recorded to Sony SR tape. [37]

The second caveat that resulted from scanning the O-neg is one that was irrespective of the output resolution, and this was that they were once again working from a copy of the film without color-correction, since the meticulous work YCM Labs did existed only on the SE's Interpositive (again, the O-neg can't have its physical image corrected, it has to be produced on a copy). Perhaps because of the fact that Lucas had lost all of his color-work, he embarked on a new principle--instead of faithfully reproducing the look of the original release and photography, as had been the case on the previous re-release, it could be digitally manipulated to have a slicker look that matched the high-saturation, high-contrast look of the three prequels.

The 2004 SE (it has never been marketed as a Special Edition, though there really is no other label to describe it) had its color correction guided and supervised by George Lucas himself. [38] Screening the film at Skywalker Ranch, Lucas went through the film with members from ILM, who would be color-timing the digitized film themselves at Lucas' approval. [39]

This is one of the most controversial aspects of the release. While the revised film obviously is meant to have a deliberate look, what was released is a sloppy mess, in technical terms; blacks are crushed, colors bleed and pop distractingly, video noise is visible because of the oversaturation, skin tones are inconsistent and often very pink, scenes have weird casts to them (i.e. the Millennium Falcon scenes look very green), everything is much too dull and dim, contrast is not nominal, and many of the lightsaber effects are the wrong color (pink for Vader, green for Luke). The coloring is not even consistent with the prequels in some instances, whereas the originals were--for instance, the original blockade runner scene was meant to be Kubrick-esque bright white, while on the 2004 release it is a dull blue, yet strangely in Revenge of the Sith it is the bright white it is supposed to be. Lowry is often mistakenly pointed at as the culprits of these highly noticeable flaws, but in fact it is Lucas himself. The final DVD product has been screened for Lucas multiple times since, such as at Celebration III.

Videography magazine describes the re-coloring of the original film as done by postproduction engineer Rick Dean [40]; Empire and Jedi were done by ILM, but Star Wars' troublesome negative needed a professional hand. He did the work at Burbank's IVC, which, as it happened, was located downstairs from John Lowry's offices. Dean used IVC's da Vinci color corrector in 4:4:4 mode, with a CRT monitor that accepted 4:4:4. [41] One of the bigger issues was smoothing out the film densities, an issue Lowry would struggle with as well. "The sands of Tatooine showed multiple colors in the same shot, really just due to film handling and aging," Dean says. "On any particular shot in the film, you can color correct one frame, and two frames up, the sand's a different color. We counted on Lowry's unique technology to even out those types of fluctuations and then go back and do a final color tweak." [42] Videography writes: "The film was provided to Dean on SR tape one reel at a time. Dean's corrected versions would be sent back to ILM in Northern California, where Lucas himself would view the footage on a DLP cinema projector, sometimes offering comments for further color adjustments." [43]

From here, John Lowry and his company stepped in. "We'd done a lot of work on the films prior to going to John," says Lucasfilm's VP Jim Ward, "re-mastering them in high-def, down-converting them into standard def, and re-color timing them. We actually took a cleaning pass through Industrial Light and Magic, as well, but then ultimately took them down to John to make them pristine." [44]

"We sent one of our 6-terabyte servers up to Skywalker Ranch in San Rafael, California, where they loaded it with full RGB [red, green, and blue] data without having to go through the component output that tape masters would demand," John Lowry said. "We processed those images, cleaned them up, and sent them back in little packages of discs. The net result was that we never lost a bit in the process of moving all the data back and forth." [45]

Photo-chemical restoration, as the 1997 release mainly was, had become a thing of the past by 2004, and digital technology offered a treasure trove of tools to offer repairs never before available, such as digitally painting out scratches and dirt. Lowry Digital Images, headed by founder John Lowry, had become one of the leading companies specializing in digitally cleaning film, using a unique computer program that was able to mathematically paint out dirt. Its early efforts were controversial--the first release was the 2001 DVD of Citizen Kane, and it looked as clear as a mirror. Which was not the way it should have looked. Grain is a part of the film image--it literally is the image, just as pixels are what a digital image is composed of--and is part of any film's aesthetic; the computer algorithm could not distinguish between dirt and dupe grain, and the actual emulsion grain, and as a result the final product looked like it was shot on video.

Lowry refined its technology in the years since then, having shown improvement in their handling of Lucasfilm DVD releases of THX-1138 (another Lucas special edition) and the Indiana Jones trilogy, both released in 2003, and when they were hired to do the Star Wars trilogy in early 2004 [46] they were confident they could deliver. Lucas might not have minded if they weren't--he was looking to go beyond simply getting the film back to its prestine state. This is evident in the hiring of Lowry in the first place--the negative had been thoroughly cleaned in 1995 by professional film restorationists. Though one can still see plenty of emulsion grain on the 2004 release if you look closely, the image is indeed much cleaner than it should be, and Lucas had them artificially sharpen both the entire image and select portions (i.e. composites where certain elements might have been photographed soft--such as a long shot of C-3P0 and R2-D2 walking on Tatooine in Return of the Jedi) [47]. Digital technology also allowed Lowry to paint out by hand many instances of film damage that it wasn't possible to address in the photo-chemical days of the first Special Edition.

Lowry spent a hasty three months working on the entire trilogy. The Star Wars.com website reported: "At the Lowry Digital Images facility, over 600 Macintosh dual-processor G5 computers utilizing over 2400 gigabytes of RAM and 478 terabytes (over 478 million megabytes) of hard drive space processed each of the classic Star Wars films for over 30 break-neck days to create the stunning new versions fans will see in the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set." [48] Star Wars, in particular, was problematic and required some specially modified software to handle the dirt issue. "We had to do some special work on these, actually build some different algorithms to try to deal with the incredible dirt levels and scratches," John Lowry stated. "It was somewhat overwhelming." [49]

Lowry reports that they discovered thousands of grains of sand embedded in the image in the Tunisian scenes, which initially gave their computer algorithms trouble. Though as a camera assistant I have a hard time believing that sand could have gotten lodged in the microscopic spaces between the film layers considering the rigorously clean conditions camera assistants subject film to while loading and changing; probably, these are dust blowing in the photographed atmosphere or perhaps even trapped in the body of the camera. In an interview with Sound and Vision, Lowry says: "In the first movie, you have C-3P0 and R2-D2 walking across the desert, and I think half of that desert sand ended up in the camera. It was unbelievable. One technique we use is where you look at the frame before and the frame after to determine what is dirt on the frame in between. When you have as much dirt as this, though, the before and after frames have the same damn dirt--and more. It's really hard for the program to separate what's dirt and what's image. It led to a lot of extra work--run it again, check it again, multiple passes, a lot of hand work at the end." [50] Most surface dirt would have been washed away in the 104-degree sulphur bath the negative was wrung through in 1995, but still, the frequent handling of the film left enough dirt, dust and damage that couldn't be washed out that John Lowry called it the worst example of dirt in a film that he had seen.

In other shots, scratches had resulted in a wet-gate transfer done, where the film is printed in a special fluid that fills in fine scratches, but sometimes can lead to extra dirt accumulating and softening the image. At the same time, however, Lowry sharpened the entire film slightly beyond what had been originally photographed. "We cleaned it up, matched scene to scene, sharpened it end-to-end, reduced the granularity and got rid of the flicker and all the wear-and-tear things," Lowry says. [51]

They further cleaned up the opticals, which had already been improved for the 1997 release. "Opticals are a little soft, and much grainier, because there are two more generations on film, and there's a little more contrast," says Lowry. "We try to match those scenes perfectly so they don't telegraph that something's going to happen, a light saber sequence, for example, by showing a change in picture quality. We removed that extra grain, reduced the contrast, and got the sharpness to match the prior and following scenes." [52]

The final result is strikingly different from the original photography: a totally new color palette, less grain, and a subtly oversharpened image. It is sometimes thought that the Lowry Digital Images restoration has resulted in a better picture than even the original photography had, and while this is true it is not quite as drastic as some may think in most respects. Star Wars is thought to be natively grainy, but in fact it was photographed very cleanly on a fine-grain stock, and most of the "grain" seen throughout its life is either dupe grain or dirt that is foreign to the original negatives; to be sure though, a lot of the original grain was scrubbed off, either deliberately or mistakenly. This photograph is very telling: while it also reveals damage and scratching, plus some shimmering and flickering effects that are the result of photochemical aging, this shot (which has been color-corrected, it should be noted) still displays much more of a grain "look" than the generally clean Lowry result. 

Lowry claims that these desert scenes had thousands of dirt instances in each frame, but it is difficult to distinguish which is grain and which is dirt. A high quality scan would have probably aided making this distinction more accurate, if indeed it needed to be made moreso. An article from Studio Daily had this to say:

"The Lowry Digital way of restoration isn't without its controversy, and both Lowry and [company president] Inchalik acknowledge the rumblings. The crystal-clear imagery turns classic Hollywood films into a brand-new viewing experience. Where's the thin line, for instance, between correcting for the grain introduced by multiple generations of film prints and the excision of so much grain that the image resembles video?

But Inchalik's response makes the Lowry Digital Image position clear. "Is all grain sacred?" he asks. "I appreciate grain, but sometimes it's a limitation. If I'm handed something three generations old, it's silly to preserve that level of grain. We should get back to the quality analogous to the show print seen by the director and cinematographer." But, he notes, the decision to restore the Lowry Digital way is made by clients. Lowry Digital Image is betting that those images will open up a new market for them in DIs. "The images people will see will, pleasantly, cause waves," predicts Lowry." [53]

On the other hand, Director of Photography Gilbert Taylor photographed Star Wars to be gauzy and slightly soft-filtered--this was at the request of Lucas. In certain shots in Tunisia, Lucas insisted on using filters, even pantyhose over the lens, to get an intentionally soft image; Taylor disagreed with this approach, feeling the desert already gave a soft look, but did it anyways. [54] The sharpening to Star Wars that Lucas in 2004 insisted on, especially in the desert scenes, often betrays this deliberate look, especially ironic since it was Lucas who initially insisted on it in 1976. John Lowry said in an interview with Sound and Vision: "On each of these movies, George would look at a scene and ask us to sharpen something a little--almost scene by scene. We can do that beautifully without putting edges on things. It's very different working with the director who created the movie you're restoring. It gives us a whole new sense of the creative objectives and exactly what path to take--how much sharpness, how much grain to leave. All decided by George." [55]

Another flaw that has been speculated to be the result of the Lowry process is the disappearance of the star fields--if one looks at the space star fields, most of them have either been re-done or have had many of the stars erased. This could be a result of the crushed blacks on the color-timing, or because the Lowry software couldn't distinguished between stars and dirt and erased them, resulting in ILM having to create new ones. This could have also been enacted for purely aesthetic reasons, but this seems very unnecessary.

Sound and Vision also questioned John Lowry about the unusual low-resolution of the release, a decision made by Lucasfilm and not his company, but he rather dodged the issue by alleging that the opticals were at less than 4K due to generational loss, but surmised that Lucas might re-do the entire process for an HD release. As it turns out, he hasn't, as the film has been shown many times on HD broadcasts using the HD master, although a re-do for Blu-Ray seems possible but unlikely. The exchange:

"Sound and Vision: So the Star Wars films were processed at high-def, but not at the 4K level --four times high-def resolution--that you've been using for some other films?
John Lowry: At high-def, yes.

SV:Why was that?
JL:The challenge with these films is the amount of special effects in them. Our concern was whether the effects were done to true 4K standards. Whenever anyone lit up a lightsaber, it was done with an optical effect, and all of the opticals at the time were done on film--there were no digital effects. So every time you go to a lightsaber scene, bang, you drop two generations of film. It gets grainier and, as it's going through an optical printer, you have different characteristics in terms of contrast. And those are things we have to match up with the scenes immediately before and after. It took a lot of effort to match precisely the granularity, the contrast, and the sharpness. They flow very nicely now and, frankly, in the original movies, there was a distinct change. We were able to eliminate that change, and to me that's a very strong contribution to the storytelling process--removing something that prevents an audience from being drawn in.

SV:But the high-def digital material was fine for the standard-resolution DVD release?
JL: Yes. My guess, knowing George, is that maybe he'll be back when they do the HD-DVD." [56]

One unusual feature of this is the mention of lightsaber opticals losing generation quality--but these shouldn't be optical composites. In creating the 2004 DI, Lucasfilm re-rotoscoped all the lightsabers digitally from the looks of things, which would mean they went back to the raw negatives and not the final composites. Perhaps the negative in these scenes was simply dirtier because it had been run through the optical printer and picked up more wear. Videography says that they weren't actually using the O-neg but rather the 1997 Special Edition negative (the IN, I must presume?) because that was the only one that had the new visual effects work--but the O-neg would have had the new CG shots cut in, and why would they need to color correct it so heavily if it was the YCM Labs-corrected IN? Every other sources, including stills from their workings, and articles published by Lucasfilm (starwars.com) indicate that it was the O-neg, and not the the SE IN.

Perhaps what was meant was that they were working from the SE-conformed O-neg, which is indeed the case. In further discussion of negatives and composites, it is notable that Lowry's talk about extra dirt on composites probably refers mainly to Empire and Jedi. According to American Cinematographer, ILM did their work on Star Wars 's Jabba scene using the interpositive (since the O-neg was lost when a 16mm dupe was made for the 1983 documentary From Star Wars to Jedi), and they learned to digitally reduce the extra grain so successfully that they found it was easier to do all the CG enhancements in the sequels from IPs (except when scenes were digitally composited--in Empire, the entire walker sequence was re-composited, as was at least portions of the asteroid chase judging by footage from SE documentaries).

Videography reports that "Finished footage was shipped to Lucas for review on the 250GB hard drives from Lowry's network," [57] just as John Lowry earlier noted ("disk packs"=hard drives). When the Lucas-approved newly refurbished film and its two sequels were released in September of 2004, they were met with enthusiastic sales and praise for Lowry, but also criticism for being further altered and for the harsh coloring and visual glitches.

Back to the Future

So, then, is this the final state of Star Wars? Judging by the trajectory of technology, it seems inevitable that Star Wars will end up as virtual negative. The question is: will there be further editions, and will Lucasfilm ever go back to the source--to the negatives? The answer to the first question is perhaps, if only to correct the errors of the 2004 edition--not just to picture, but to sound (swapped audio channels), and visual effects (colorless explosions, dull lightsaber cores)--and because it seems inevitable that Lucas will continue to enact minor tweaks (for instance, Episode I has been given a digital Yoda, still unreleased officially though seen on the Episode III DVD). Possibly these may be made for the Blu-Ray release, or the in-progress 3-D release, or possibly not. The second question is a harder one to answer. Lucas seems perfectly fine with the current version, seeing as he's re-released it on video twice, broadcast it all over TV and in HD, and theatrically shown it at numerous screenings. He also approved of the final product himself, of course.

However, even clues in the current master indicate Lucas used poor judgment in 2004 and may re-tweak the image. The blockade runner's cool blue tone stands in stark contrast to Revenge of the Sith, released a year later, which reverts back to the original white tone, indicating a nullification of the 2004 decision. And while Lowry acknowledges that the 2004 master was acceptable only as a standard-def project, Lucas has indicated that that master is to be the "for all time" version. [58] He even stated, when asked why he didn't spend money to refurbish the original, that millions of dollars had been spent to make the Special Edition, and that his work restoring the films was basically done. [59] It would not be surprising if any further tweaks, or the Blu Ray release, used the HD master of the 2004 release as a base. ILM's 2004 visual effects work on the film--such as new shots at the end of Return of the Jedi and a brand new version of Star Wars' Jabba scene--were done using the HD scan, so if the 2004 master is thrown out, so would all the revision work that went with it, which means we may be stuck with it. That Lucas shot his last two prequels in the same resolution indicates he is more than comfortable with a 1080p master of his films.

However, it is also incredibly hard to imagine that Star Wars will never be restored to its original version. Perhaps it will take Lucas' passing to see this enacted--or perhaps not, given that he allowed the original versions to be released on DVD in 2006, even if they were just Laserdisk ports. In any case, I would be willing to bet a good amount of money that in some years in the future efforts were made to somehow save the original version of Star Wars--from Lucas himself, it may seem, as his Special Edition would have to be somehow worked around in gathering original elements. The negative could be re-conformed to its original configuration, using the original, saved pieces, but this is problematic due to handling issues (and losing more frames). When Robert Harris restored Godfather last year, he had to do it entirely digitally, saying that if any pin-registered mechanism were to touch the negative it would crumble. [60] In Star Wars' case, using scans of the separation masters is perfectly viable, and though IPs and Technicolor prints are not ideal for masters they could be usable if cleaned up digitally. Perhaps the easiest option would be to simply follow the 1997 restoration pattern but in the digital realm: scan the negative in 8K, then scan the stored pre-SE shots or re-comp them, and fill in any damaged areas with IPs or separation masters, reconstructing the original cut, then digitally remove dirt and damage, and finally use a Technicolor print as a color reference for the Digital Intermediate created. Such a product would be theatrically viable, as pristine as when it had been shot, and 100% faithful in image and color to the original release.

The pricetag of doing a project like this would likely be under a million dollars. Jim Ward claims that Lucasfilm sold $100 million in DVDs in a single day when the refurbished Star Wars films came out in 2004, [61] and while this figure might not be replicated (though in my opinion it probably would, if given a comparable marketing campaign) clearly there would be worthwhile profit. One day, I predict this process will happen, but that day does not seem to be anywhere in the near future. It will remain to be seen if the negative to Star Wars is in a salvageable state by the time this happens or if it has become a brittle relic, faded to black and white. It wouldn't be the first time the negative of a famous film has been lost--Criterion's restoration of Seven Samurai, for instance, does not work from a negative, nor did the gorgeous 35mm print of Rashomon that toured theatres this year. With fine-grain masters, IPs, and Separation masters available, the negative need not be the only source for a new master.

Backlash has, of course, occurred because of all this drama. The last dedicated release of the original version was a Laserdisk and VHS in 1995 (using the 1985 IP, which was then mastered in THX, according to Into the Digital Realm--the in-progress restoration couldn't be used for this release because it was still in-progress). By 2006, originaltrilogy.com had petitioned over 70,000 signatures to get the original versions released, and while the Laserdisk-port release of that year was at least admission of defeat of Lucas' crusade to erase the originals from existence, it also frustrated fans and experts alike, especially since the release wasn't even anamorphic (as the Laserdisk wasn't). When a letter-writing campaign reached Lucasfilm they responded by saying that the Laserdisk was the best source for the originals [62] --which it would be without having to spend money, that is. Robert Harris, the man who had hand-restored Vertigo and Lawrence of Arabia, and later The Godfather, went on record saying he knew there were pristine 35mm elements available for use, and offered his services to restore the film [63]. Lucasfilm did not respond. The efforts of fans and professionals like these will probably result in the aforementioned restoration at some point, if only for the callousness of making money, but it seems that day is not today.

The story of Star Wars' negative is both the story of advancing technology and the story of Lucas' ego. Showing how fragile negative film can be, how all sorts of old-fashioned tricks and the most advanced of analog technology was used to photo-chemically restore the elements, which were then embellished by select digital pieces in the infant technology, like some kind of emerging cyborg; by 2004, the film had been entirely consumed by digital technology, existing only as a digital negative. At the same time, a crusade of revisionism took over, moving from a project to preserve Star Wars so that future generations could see it, to an enhanced anniversary celebration for the fans that Lucas could use as an excuse to play with emerging digital technology, to finally a consummation of his prequel storyline and a nail in the coffin for the original version that so many had loved and that had given him his empire in the first place, while the quality of the negative itself seemed perpetually sliding downward in resolution.

Note: in the July 1977 issue of American Cinematographer: "It was decided to use black and white three-color separations for all primary images in the composites. The emulsion of 5235 color separation stock has a wide contrast latitude and grain definition which is superior to 5243 color interpositive: it is the best choice for quality." So the raw elements were shot on 5235; although apparently used as a separation shot, Kodak lists it as an intermediate. This statement may also suggest that 5243 was then what the composite of the 5235 elements were printed on.

[1] Hearn, Marcus. The Cinema of George Lucas. 2005. p.183

[2] Vaz, Mark Cotta and Duigan, Patricia Rose. Industrial Light and Magic: Into the Digital Realm. 1997. p.291

[3] Vaz, p.290

[4] Interview by Mr. Showbiz, 2000, http://mrshowbiz.go.com/interviews/299_2.html

[5] Oprah, February 1997

[6] Vaz, pp.290-1

[7] see the note on: http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/jabba.html

[8] Magid, Ron. "An Expanded Universe," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[9] Vaz, p.291

[10] Magid, Ron. "An Expanded Universe," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[11] Vaz, p.288

[12] Vaz, p.288

[13] Vaz, p.287

[14] Vaz, p.287

[15] Vaz, p.288

[16] Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[17] Vaz, p.288

[18] Vaz, p.287

[19] Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[20] Vaz, pp.287-8

[21] Vaz, p.288; Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[22] Vaz, p.288

[23] Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[24] Vaz, p.288

[25] Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[26] Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[27] Vaz, p.288

[28] Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[29] Vaz, p.289

[30] Vaz, p.289

[31] Magid, Ron. "Saving the Star Wars Sequels," American Cinematographer, February 1997.

[32] Vaz, p. 289-90

[33] Star Wars, The Magic and Mystery, 1997

[34] Vaz, p.290

[35] for instance, American Cinematographer, in its February 1997 issue, reports that the trilogy's restoration costs $10 million. Whether this is for all three films, for just the salvaging of the negative, for just the enhancements, or for any combination or variant of the above is not clear.

[36] http://www.starwars.com/episode-iv/feature/20040916/index.html

[37] Hurwitz, Matt. "Restoring Star Wars," Videography, Vol. 29, No.9, 2004.

[38] http://www.starwars.com/episode-iv/feature/20040916/index.html

[39] http://www.starwars.com/episode-iv/feature/20040916/index.html

[40] Hurwitz, Matt. "Restoring Star Wars," Videography, Vol. 29, No.9, 2004.

[41] Hurwitz, Matt. "Restoring Star Wars," Videography, Vol. 29, No.9, 2004.

[42] Hurwitz, Matt. "Restoring Star Wars," Videography, Vol. 29, No.9, 2004.

[43] Hurwitz, Matt. "Restoring Star Wars," Videography, Vol. 29, No.9, 2004.

[44] http://www.apple.com/ca/pro/film/lowry/starwars/index.html

[45] http://www.soundandvisionmag.com/features/671/restorer-of-the-star-wars-trilogy-and-thx-1138-john-lowry.html

[46] Hurwitz, Matt. "Restoring Star Wars," Videography, Vol. 29, No.9, 2004.

[47] http://www.apple.com/ca/pro/film/lowry/starwars/index2.html 

[48] http://www.starwars.com/episode-iv/feature/20040916/index.html

[49] http://www.apple.com/ca/pro/film/lowry/starwars/index2.html

[50] http://www.soundandvisionmag.com/features/671/restorer-of-the-star-wars-trilogy-and-thx-1138-john-lowry.html

[51] http://www.apple.com/ca/pro/film/lowry/starwars/index2.html 

[52] http://www.apple.com/ca/pro/film/lowry/starwars/index2.html 

[53] http://www.studiodaily.com/filmandvideo/tools/otherways/4755.html

[54] Williams, David E. "High Key Highlights: Gilbert Taylor BSC," American Cinematographer, February 2006.

[55] http://www.soundandvisionmag.com/features/671/restorer-of-the-star-wars-trilogy-and-thx-1138-john-lowry-page2.html

[56] http://www.soundandvisionmag.com/features/671/restorer-of-the-star-wars-trilogy-and-thx-1138-john-lowry.html

[57] Hurwitz, Matt. "Restoring Star Wars," Videography, Vol. 29, No.9, 2004 .

[58] see his statements to the Associated Press in September 2004: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6011380/

[59] see above.

[60] Argy, Stephanie, "Post Focus: Paramount Restores The Godfather", American Cinematographer, May 2008

[61] http://www.starwars.com/episode-iv/news/2004/09/news20040922.html 

[62] http://www.originaltrilogy.com/Lucasfilm_PR_response.cfm

[63] see http://digitalbits.com/#mytwocents/ for May 19, 2006.

11/03/09

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