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The Star Wars Trilogy

A Digital Star Wars Scrapbook.

24. March 2015 07:32
by jedi1

139 Frames

24. March 2015 07:32 by jedi1 | 0 Comments

description139 Frames (or approximately 5 seconds) is how long it takes Luke's Land Speeder to zip across the screen into Mos Eisley, right after Obi-Wan Kenobi does his Jedi mind trick on the stormtroopers ("These are not the droids you're looking for..."), and just before they enter the Cantina.

In the original film, the quality of this shot is considerably lower than that of the shots on either side of it. The reason for this is that it required multiple passes through an optical printer to achieve the shadow effect beneath the speeder. This led to multiple levels of grain, and extra dirt and dust on the film. Some very low tech tricks were used to hide the wheels on the Speeder, from mirrored skirts to a smudge of vasaline on the camera, and what is probably a hand painted shadow. Due to limitations in the technology of the 1970s, and limited time and money, this sequence never looked as good as the rest of the film and there have been multiple attempts to improve it with each subsequent re-release of the film and we will explore them in detail in a moment, but first let's answer the question, why do these 139 matter?

Honestly, to most people, they really don't matter at all. But to fans of the original film, restoring sequences like this one is very important and extremely challenging. While a lot of fans were a little (or more than a little) upset by the changes to this and other sequences in the 1997 Star Wars Special Editions, I think what upset them most was the fact that the original version of the film that they grew up watching over and over again, was essentially disowned, and we were all supposed to embrace the Special Edition and pretend the film released in 1977 always looked like this:

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Well, the fact is that it did not. It's not how I remember it, and if I were one of the many Academy Award winning Visual Effects pioneers who worked on the original films I'd be rather insulted by this kind of revisionism. These films are a product of their time, a historical record of what was achievable at the time the movies were made and in 1977 this was the cutting edge of technology. Ironically, the original optical effects have aged a lot better than the 1997 CGI inserts. Jabba looked bad in 1997 and looks truly awful today:

While he was greatly improved for the 2004 DVDs with more detailed textures and colors, he still stands out as being very obviously computer generated and inserted into the scene:

Revising Jabba again for a 2015 release with today's technology might finally make him look like he could be part of the original shot, but the scene is still a waste of time and money because the preceding scene with Greedo already tells us everything we need to know about Han's debts to Mr. the Hutt. But I digress.

Let's begin by taking a look at how this scene actually looked in theaters in 1977. There are some bootleg versions of the film, either recorded by a handheld camera in the theater, or perhaps transferred on a telecine machine at some point to VHS, but clearly the quality is too poor to use for any kind of restoration effort, or even to see how it really looked. However, even here we can see that the shot was quite dirty, just look at all those tiny black flashes.

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While not entirely representative of film (due to the broadcast colors, brightened picture and lower resolution), the early home video releases remain one of the best sources of information - particularly the Pre THX VHS and laserdisc versions of the film such as The Japanese Special Collection laserdisc from 1986:

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In 1993, an attempt was made to digitally clean the film, and for the most part they did a pretty good job. On a standard CRT TV of the day, the films looked better than they had ever looked before. The cleaned up sequence looks like this:

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If we look closer though, we can clearly see the artifacts produced by the Temporal filters (The guy walking, bottom right, is missing part of his leg because the digital clean up process checked the frame before and the frame after and found that the black boot was only there on this one frame, therefore, it decided it was dirt...):

and those sorts of problems are not only limited to this shot (How many pairs of eyes should a storm-trooper have?):

When DVD ended the reign of VHS and laserdisc in the late 1990s, a DVD release of Star Wars was probably the formats most highly anticipated title, but it was nowhere to be seen. Unable to wait any longer, fans took matters into their own hands and began transferring their VHS and laserdisc versions to DVD. New AVISynth scripts, filters and techniques - such as averaging multiple captures, and using higher end players and hardware - were constantly being developed and each successive transfer squeezed slightly more information out of the existing sources.

Star Wars finally came out on DVD in late 2004. The picture had never looked sharper or cleaner, but the colors were overly saturated and rather odd looking in most scenes. Worse still, only the Special Edition version was included - and it wasn't even the same Special Edition as in 1997. Besides updating Jabba the Hutt, the Greedo shoots first scene had been tweaked slightly and there were other less obvious tweaks and fixes that would later be revealed by fans scouring the film scene by scene. The problem now was how do we replace all the Special Edition scenes with the original scenes, but make it seamless? One of the first attempts at this that I saw was OCP Movie's Classic Editions, which used laserdisc footage to replace the S.E. changes in the DVD, with a reasonable level of success:

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As you can see, there is a noticeable drop in picture quality when we cut to the laserdisc shot, and this was true for all of the replaced scenes, but at that point there was a choice of watching it all at laserdisc quality, or just those bits...
A 2006 limited edition "bonus" DVD could have been everything fans of the original trilogy were hoping for, but sadly it was based on the 1993 laserdisc master tapes, was letterboxed at the 4:3 aspect ratio which reduces the resolution futher than it needed to be, and, being standard definition, it is no longer really good enough to watch on our 1080p or 4k televisions. However, despite its flaws, the 2006 bonus discs remain the highest quality official release available, and for the first time, fans were able to almost seamlessly integrate pre-Special Edition footage into the DVD. Casual viewers might not even be able to spot the replaced sequences, but the fans can still see the joins. Team Blu did an outstanding job of upscaling the 2006 DVD to 720p and fixing some of the issues, and Harmy was able to use some of it in his Despecialized edition very successfully, but today 4k content is on the horizon and Star Wars fan edits of the original trilogy are still only at the 720p level.

All of that could change soon. With a new scan of a Deran Super 8mm print, Team Negative 1's 35mm print project (and others) well underway, and talk of an official release being worked on by Reliance Media, the possibility that the original 1977 version of the film will finally make the leap to Full 1080p HD (or even 4k) is finally a very real possibility:

Deran Super 8mm:

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35mm LPP Scan:

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As one fan put it "We now have our own scans and with them, the ability to take publicly released material and utilize it in such a way that we can build beautiful restorations that are so exact at a frame by frame level that even the next official release won't get near them when it comes to accuracy of color, audio and overall presentation."

There are, of course, differing opinions on how to handle any kind of restoration, that are not limited to just this scene. Some fans are going to want a version like Harmy's that blends seemlessly with the official Blu-ray footage - all clean and pristine, while others are going to want to see it as it was in theaters in 1977, with all of the film grain and the original flecks of dirt.

Harmy's "Despecialized Edition v2.5":

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While most die hard fans agree that the Special Edition changes need to be undone, there are several schools of thought on the best way to achieve this. The Preservationists want it to look just as it did in 1977, with all the original layers of film grain, original dirt, dust and the smear of vasaline. The restorationists want it to look as good as it could have done, using only original elements, but modern digital clean up techniques to remove some of the layers of grime and reveal a more visually pleasing picture. There are even a number of revisionists hoping for a "semi-specialized" edition in which the original elements are re-composited digitally, so that garbage mattes and other elements that stand out on the home video releases (but which were largely invisible when projected in cinemas) are fixed, but other changes are removed.

Personally, I think it needs to be preserved “as it was in Theaters”, with all the original dirt, grain, garbage mattes, etc. in tact., But I can’t deny the pleasure of watching Harmy’s beautifully restored and cleaned up version, so it is nice to have that choice. And that is really what this is all about. Having that choice.

A release of the original versions in Blu-ray seemed unlikely in 2011, but fans crossed their fingers and hoped for a High definition bonus disc of the original, original trilogy, but were again disappointed.

But if Lucasfilm were to offer a decent restoration of both the original film and all of the Special Edition versions on a multi-disc Bluray set, complete with seamless branching (allowing you, for example, to be able to choose whether or not to include the new rock that hides R2D2 from the Sand People)  would everyone finally be happy? I doubt it. There are just too many variables in play. Some of the changes in the Special Edition were arguably improvements on the original film, but nobody will ever agree on a definitive list of what should stay and what should not. Having seen the pristine, direct from the negative DVD and Blu-ray versions, returning to a grainier, more authentic "as you saw in theaters" look would be just as polarizing. I fear that, at this point in time, it has become impossible for any single release to please everyone.

Even if Disney completes a full frame by frame restoration of the original version, using only the original elements and the original optical effects, there will still be people who will complain that the effects look dated, or that the picture looks too soft, or too grainy for a modern Blu-ray release. If they recomposite shots digitally and scrub out the dirt and grain other people will complain that this is not how it originally looked.

Essentially, the whole state of the 'bring back the original Star Wars' movement, the changes made to the film through the years, and the various schools of thought on what needs to be done to restore it; can all be demonstrated in detail just by examining these 139 frames. It is a microcosm for the whole movement if you will.

The really good news is that, because nobody can actually agree on a definitive version, various groups of fans are creating the versions they want to see themselves.  So for those who like the clean, sharp, dirt and grain free look of a modern blu-ray there is Harmy's Despecialized Edition.

For those who want a more authentic "this is how it looked in theaters" aesthetic there are several 8mm, 16mm and 35mm based projects underway. And new Hybrid projects are constantly being spawned to combine one fans vision with another, taking what are perceived to be the best parts from both, so eventually you will be able to have Star Wars your way. And if you can't find exactly what you want, you can always use these sources to create it yourself.

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What are your thoughts? Clean it up fully or present it as it was?

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