It’s My Movie, I’ll Destroy it if I Want To

It should have been the decision that finally let George Lucas rebuild his relationship with his fans. For years he had said that he would never release the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy on DVD (or in any format, for that matter). The versions he released in 2004, which included two rounds of digital interventions and alterations (one from the theatrical re-release in 1997, and then another for the DVD release), would be the only ones we’d ever see. This has been the source of much angst among fandom, and has kept a cottage industry of bootleg DVDs operating for years. And yet, at the start of May, he relented. Lucasfilm announced that in September, we will indeed get the original original Star Wars trilogy on DVD. The press release even used the unpopularity of Lucas’ alterations as a selling point:

See the title crawl to Star Wars before it was known as Episode IV; see the pioneering, if dated, motion control model work on the attack on the Death Star; groove to Lapti Nek or the Ewok Celebration song like you did when you were a kid; and yes, see Han Solo shoot first.

So far, so good. Of course, some were disgruntled that we’d have to pay a premium to pay for the 2004 versions again, as the new disks would be two disk sets that included the originals as an “extra feature.” This just reinforced the perception that this was a blatant grab for cash. After all, many had bought the 2004 versions based on the explicit advice from Lucasfilm that no other version would be forthcoming, and the clamour from fans was just intense back then. But generally, fans were just happy that the real versions of the films they loved would be released at all. Finally, George Lucas had listened to them. Some of the earliest pieces for this site were about why the 1997 version of Star Wars was a mistake, and I know I looked forward to the time I could just let this issue go.

And then Lucas once again returned himself to the role of villain.

As The Digital Bits has reported at some length (here, here, and here), these new DVDs will not be anamorphic (aka “16×9 enhanced”) transfers. Essentially, the new DVDs will be direct copies of laser disc transfers prepared in the mid 1990s. At first, this might not seem a big deal. You might argue that the whole point of these DVDs is to preserve the films as they were before they got all revamped and rejigged, so a lesser picture quality could be part of that. Certainly I’m not crazy about the video and sound restoration done for the 2004 DVDs: superficially they look great, but the remastering has also done damage to the original films. The computerised image clean-up, for example, took the glow off some laser bolts, while the remixing of the sound track at times buried John Williams’ score. It’s a pet hate of mine when showing off home theater equipment with the biggest and best 5.1 sound remix overtakes the more important imperative of simply preserving the movie as originally exhibited. So in that sense, I don’t mind the return to the laser disk source.

However, to present the film as a non-anamorphic transfer is inexcusable on two fronts. The first is just that it is a shamelessly lazy job: basically, it is reducing a major studio release to the level used by DVD bootleggers, who have been ripping non-anamorphic copies of the 1993 Japanese laser disk release (still the best release of the pre-1997 cuts available) for years. The problem with a non-anamorphic transfer is that in a way, it means that the picture resolution of the film is actually significantly less than a traditional television broadcast.

(Start sort-of-technical bit)

The reason for this is that when you play a widescreen DVD on a non-widescreen television, a lot of the image is taken up by big black bars. On a non-anamorphic transfer, the black bars are actually encoded into the image: so in a traditional standard definition video signal, which is about 570 lines high, you might have up to a third of the lines devoted to blackness. On a non-widescreen TV, there’s no getting around this without cutting the edges of the image off (which is what they used to do in the VHS days), but there’s no need to do that on a widescreen TV, where the screen is the right shape and the black bars are either small or non-existent (depending on the original aspect ratio). The overwhelming majority of commercial DVDs allow for this through anamorphic transfers, where the 570 lines of the video signal is devoted to storing the image, rather than the black bars around it. So if you have a widescreen TV, your image fills (or nearly fills) the screen, at the same vertical resolution you’re used to. With a non-anamorphic image, however, you might have only around 400 lines of actual image to play with, because a lot of the video signal is used to display black bars. You can zoom the image in, but then you’re just stretching your 400 lines of useful information out over a larger area. So the shape is right, but the vertical resolution is approaching a third less than a usual standard definition broadcast. (There’s an excellent visual demonstration of what’s going on in anamorphic versus non-anamorphic transfers here.)

(End sort-of-technical bit)

We are now approaching the point where the widescreen TV is well and truly the standard choice: over the next few years, the switch to digital TV (which is broadcast in a widescreen format) will see old-style non-widescreen TVs pretty much bite the dust. So while you may have a standard TV right now, your next one will be widescreen. And non-anamorphic DVDs viewed on that TV will not look too flash. Anamorphic presentation of DVDs is therefore now well and truly the industry standard: it is very rare, these days, for a major studio release not to be anamorphic. Over the next few years, we will start to move towards high-definition displays and players that have much higher vertical resolutions than the 576 lines of standard PAL video, so a DVD release that is substantially less than that is particularly shabby. For Lucas – the man who initiated the THX certification program, and who has constantly pushed for improved standards of film presentation – to preside over a non-anamorphic DVD release in 2006 is terrible.

But the bigger problem is what the release says about Lucas’ approach to his legacy, and in particular, the availability of the source material for these DVDs. Going back to The Digital Bits commentary:

It’s been reported previously that when Lucas went back to the original negatives of the Star Wars films in the mid 1990s, they were found to be in bad shape. Such bad shape, in fact, that had they not been restored immediately, the films could have been lost forever. So restoration is exactly what Lucas had done. Except that when he was creating the new 1997 Special Edition versions of the films… he cut the original negatives. So the original negatives of the theatrical versions no longer exist.

Let’s stop and reflect on that for a moment. Whatever you think about them, the Star Wars movies are amongst the most influential movies of the last fifty years: quite apart from their artistic or entertainment value, they are incalculably important as historical works. And for no better reason than the insertion of some ill-judged effects gimmickry, Lucas has destroyed the master copy. The original negatives no longer exist. (In case you think this is internet paranoia, Lucas has himself stated numerous times on the record that the originals have been destroyed.)

Movies aren’t lost just because the negative is destroyed: there are a lot of movies, including many major classics, for which the negative no longer exists. But Lucas hasn’t stopped there. Back to the Bits:

…at the same time as he was preparing the 1997 versions, Lucas apparently went on a little tear and recalled every release print of the theatrical versions that he could get his hands on, and he had them all destroyed. Which means that when Lucas said back in 1997 that the original theatrical versions of the Star Wars films no longer existed, he was serious. He apparently tried hard to make sure of it.

As the Bits folk point out, this cannot be used as an excuse, and it doesn’t mean the 1977 Star Wars is lost forever. There are plenty of other sources that could be used for a restoration. They even got film archivist Robert A Harris to provide a statement outlining how he could go about doing such a thing, if Lucas wanted him to.

The point is, though, all this shows that Lucas isn’t interested in preserving his bit of film history. For those of us who, like me, fell in love with Star Wars as a kid, know it by heart, and simply can’t enjoy the new versions without the jarring effect of hearing a wrong note in a familiar song… well, tough luck. We don’t get our films. There’s a bounty on the movie we love, and Lucas is going to hunt it down and have it destroyed.

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