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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Untouched is impossible: the story of Star Wars in film

Untouched is impossible: the story of Star Wars in film

Last week saw the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, and along with it came discussions about the best way to watch the film and what we can expect from future re-releases. Michael Kaminski wrote the exhaustively researched and illuminating book The Secret History of Star Wars, so he knows damn near everything there is to know about the film stock used to shoot the film. George Lucas famously said that the original film "doesn't exist" anymore, but is that accurate?

How exactly does Star Wars exist now? What are the challenges and possibilities involved in re-releasing a perfected original cut? How do the bootlegs stack up? Let's find out.

Many prints exist

We asked Kaminksi about the master copy of the original Star Wars. What does it look like now? "The term 'master copy' is slightly vague, because there are various kinds of print masters of different generations," he told Ars. The original negative is conformed to the 1997 Special Edition, meaning the physical copy has been cut and edited with CGI "improvements." With sections of the film being too damaged to work with, parts of that print were taken from other sources. "You never throw away your original negative, so I must assume that any pieces or shots that were removed are in storage somewhere at Lucasfilm or Fox," he explained.

Kaminski points out that a duplication of the original negative—commonly printed for the sake of protection—doesn't seem to exist for Star Wars. Something better was created, though: separation masters. "These are special silver-based copies that do not fade, and in theory should be almost identical in quality to the original negative itself, so even if the negative was destroyed you still have a perfect copy (which is the point of making the separation master)." Duplicates from these prints were used to replace damaged sections of the negative during the restoration before the release of the Special Edition.

That's not all, however. "There are also Interpositives and master prints. Interpositives (and Internegatives) are the color-corrected masters that theatrical prints are duplicated from, and were used in the past to make the home video telecines from 1985-1995." Another common practice is keeping print masters, which are high-quality, fine-grain prints kept in the eventuality that no other higher-quality copies or masters are available.

What this tells us is that Lucas wasn't lying—the original copy of Star Wars is, in fact, gone. What exists in its place is a composite film that has been restored and spliced together with Special Edition scenes and sections from other, later prints. There exist enough film copies and back-ups to re-create the film, however, so nothing is impossible in terms of a more classical high definition re-release.

Why film? Shouldn't this all be digital?

It's unclear how the film exists digitally within Lucasfilm, but Kaminski does know one thing: the scanning done in the past has become obsolete. "The 1997 SE scans were done in 2K and the 2004 Special Edition was done in 1080p, but now the standard is 8K (4 times the 1997 SE and about 7 times the quality of the 2004 SE), and the color reproduction is better too," he says.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, the original film remains important as the most robust way to store this information. Hard drives fail, and data is vulnerable to time. "This may seem silly because everyone always talks about how fragile film is, but film is the most robust, durable image technology we have ever invented. There are reels of film that date back to the 1920s that still look pretty good." He claims that color Eastman Kodak film has a half-life of around 50 to 60 years. Oddly enough, the negative film used in the 1970s to shoot Star Wars is less stable than the film used before or after. We'll get to a point where all we have left are digital copies, but technology has only recently allowed digital copies to rival the original celluloid in quality and detail.

Time to talk bootlegs!

In 2006, an official re-release of the original trilogy was brought to DVD without the annoying CGI updates seen in the Special Editions. The quality was impressive, but the film is shown in non-anamorphic widescreen, a major annoyance for fans of cinema. This is where the fans have stepped up to improve upon Lucas' official releases with high-quality bootlegs.

"Any bootleg made before 2006 is lesser than the 2006 DVD because they were made from the Laserdisc, while the 2006 DVD was made from the master tape that the Laserdisc was derived from and thus is one generation higher in quality," Kaminski tells Ars. "For a 20-year-old analog tape, it does look pretty decent." Bootlegs created after 2006 have used the DVD transfer for better quality video.

"There is a new 2010 bootleg by a guy named Editdroid (who did two previous ones from 1999-2005) that hasn't yet leaked onto the Internet that is quite astounding, and another version called LFL PWNAGE edition; both use the 2006 master," he said. "These bootlegs reduce the amount of grain that came from the use of the duplicate film, smoothed out the aliasing issues, [and] used the original subtitle font from the theatrical release. The aspect ratio has been corrected for true anamorphic widescreen, and the sound mix has likewise been improved."

"Unfortunately, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are not yet available in any of these. Empire is available in a theatrical reconstruction that is mostly accurate and made by the guy who did A New Hope Revisited (it was just released this week) and uses a color-corrected 2004 master with original shots re-composited in to very good effect."

Is there hope for a definitive release of the original films?

Kaminski says that he's fairly sure Lucas is done with large, sweeping changes, but we should expect a CGI Yoda in Episode 1 instead of the physical effect shot on the set. The inevitable Blu-ray copy of the movies will likely be safe from further meddling.

The thing he stresses is that a perfect, uncut version is possible with the film left from the edits, and there is money to be made there. "It's certainly possible to do a new, high-quality transfer from original 35mm material. You could totally restore the original films from their original negatives for a few million dollars, and the 2004 release sold $100 million in a single day, so that pricetag is meaningless."

We're not asking for much, here. "Even films like Revenge of the Nerds have new transfers from 35mm prints. It costs nothing, and there are fine-grain masters and Interpositives that would only require mild clean-up to be presentable, even if the transfers were grainier and a bit damaged."

Kaminski is not convinced that we'll get a classic version of Star Wars on a high definition format, at least not for a while. "I've been trying to organize a letter writing campaign to Lucasfilm and get websites to promote the importance of having the original versions in high quality," he said. "I really don't have any need to pay money for another release of the films unless the originals are restored and available, and I don't want to sound like a disgruntled fanboy. I just don't think the 2004 master is something I would pay money for again; I would rather just watch the bootlegs of the original versions."

What George Lucas does love is money, however, and the hunger and enthusiasm for the non-fussed-over releases is going to be impossible to ignore. "Which is a great—but callous—business practice on their part, because you get people to buy the same thing over and over again."

Why is this important?

The story of Star Wars is the story of film, and of how we keep our past to share with the future. George Lucas does have the legal right to change and adjust his own work any way he'd like, but Star Wars existed in a very specific way for its original theatrical run. Those memories, and those scenes, have a very real value and meaning to fans. This isn't just a science fiction film anymore—it's an important piece of culture.

Star Wars is always going to be an ephemeral thing, changing and shifting as the film adapts to the technology of the time. As the film gets older, digital copies will become more important, but fans are always going to yearn for a version of the film that may exist mostly in their imaginations. Every time George Lucas or a fan takes another crack at the film, it's a new interpretation of the past, and as the film ages and our viewing technology changes, it will continue to look different from how each of us remembers it.

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