Disney is doing all sorts of things to the Star Wars universe now that it has bought the franchise from George Lucas. In addition to the three sequels, there will be “at least three” spin-off movies, which will likely be original stories for some of the supporting cast of Star Wars characters. The House of Mouse is putting a huge amount of time and money into Star Wars, and Disney could be the new arbiter of the Holy Grail of Star Wars requests: a remastered release of the raw, non-special edition original trilogy.
Genuine, “pure” versions of the original Star Wars movies are hard to find. With the exception of a sad, low-resolution DVD release in 2006 (which we’ll discuss in a moment), the films have only been available in their modified “Special Edition” form since 1997, when George Lucas re-released the films to series of changes. Some of those changes aren’t bad at all – the nice new attack on the Death Star in Episode IV is perfectly cromulent, but others are absolutely awful. In Return of the Jedi, Jabba’s palace gets an asinine CGI filled song-and-dance interlude. Dialogue is butchered Empire strikes back. And in the first movie, perhaps the most famous, Han no longer shoots first.
Each subsequent release piled on more and more changes, culminating in the Star Wars Blu-ray release, which is now… Return of the Jedi climax with Darth Vader crying “NOOOOOOOO!” as he throws the emperor down the shaft (spoiler alert from 1983, I think). With each round of changes, fans’ clamor for an unedited original release grew. And now that Disney has got its hands on the Star Wars wheel, the company seems in the perfect position to give fans what they want.
But assuming Disney wanted to invest the time and effort into such a release, is it really? possible? Do the original Episodes IV-VI exist in a recoverable state, or is the oft-repeated story that they were “destroyed” while editing the 1997 Special Edition reissues actually true? And even if a restoration is actually possible, would Disney be able to do the job and release the movies under the terms of the existing Star Wars license?
It turns out that these two questions both have complicated answers. The quick spoiler versions are “almost certainly yes” and “no, at least not for now”, but the long answers require some different rabbit holes. Brace yourself, because we’re about to make the jump to the speed of light.
Let Han shoot first again
The last time George Lucas had anything definite to say about the… original original trilogy seems to have been in an interview with The Today Show10 years ago:
The special edition, that’s the one I wanted there. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anyone wants it. … I’m going to… we’re not talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to fix that up, because to me it doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s like this is the movie I wanted, and I’m sorry you saw a half finished movie and fell in love with it.
Furthermore, Lucasfilm released a statement in 2006 that seemed to dispel any rumors that the original versions of the film exist:
As you may know, a tremendous amount of effort has gone into digitally restoring the negatives for the Special Editions. Nearly a million bits of dirt had to be removed in one scene alone, and the special editions were created through a digital restoration frame by frame. The negatives of the films have been permanently altered for the making of the special editions, and existing prints of the early versions are in poor condition.
Ars alum Ben Kuchera spent considerable time and effort in 2010 debunking those claims, enlisting the help of author and Star Wars expert Michael Kaminski. As Kuchera noted in his 2010 piece (and as many others have since noted), Lucasfilm isn’t exactly to lie when it says the original negatives have been changed permanently, but it’s not entirely true either.
The theatrical releases of the films were last made available to the public as companion features to the special DVD releases in 2006. The sources for the DVD transfers were digital video tapes, which, as SaveStarWars.com explains, were created in 1993 via telecine from an intermediate positive punched from the original negatives in 1985. The same telecine later received the THX treatment and was used as the source for the Laserdisc release of the 1995 trilogy, which – until its DVD release in 2006 – was considered the definitive reference version of Star Wars on a home video format.
This all sounds good, as the DVD release and the previously definitive Laserdisc both come from the same source. But it isn’t: the quality of the original edits on DVD was vastly inferior to the quality of the special edition versions. The transmission is not anamorphic and the audio is Dolby 2.0 compressed. Furthermore, as SaveStarWars demonstrates, the telecine source used for the DVDs was subject to a high degree of digital noise removal, which erased fine details. If we look at a few still images side by side, the difference is quite obvious; it is even more clearly in motion.
To fix this for a new release, you need to go back to some sort of analog source, like an intermediate positive or the original negatives. Lucasfilm claims that the negatives themselves have been “permanently altered” for the special editions, so that’s a failure – isn’t it?
Here Lucasfilm turned out to be twisting the truth. Quote from SaveStarWars.com:
The negative conforms to the Special Edition edit, as there can only be one original negative. So technically, the negative montage of the originals does not exist. But it would be very easy to just put the original pieces back in and match them to the original versions. In fact, in a theoretical modern restoration they would simply scan the original pieces and make a digital edit, especially since disassembling the negative causes a lot of wear and tear. There are also secondary sources, such as separation models and intermediate positives, both of which were used to create duplicate pieces to repair parts of the original negative for the 1997 release. So basically Lucasfilm’s official stance is a bunch of crap designed to confuse people who don’t have a deep understanding of how post production works.
Sounds simple: all Disney should theoretically do is grab all the original negatives, scan them in 4k or 8k resolution (which is standard procedure for remastering a movie these days), and boom, Star Wars! Right?
Things are never that simple. It turns out that the “original” negative is actually in pretty bad shape. Kaminski’s detailed account of the restoration process in The Secret History of Star Wars is the definitive one. In summary, when Lucasfilm employees removed the original negatives from their stock cans in 1994 to begin the restoration of the special editions, they found that the film stock had drastically faded colors and showed a massive amount of damage. Lucasfilm has engaged a number of different specialist companies to carefully clean, recolor and reconstruct the negatives. There were a number of different film stocks mounted together, so the process involved a physical disassembly of the negative into its component parts before cleaning each portion of the negative by hand using a variety of stock-appropriate methods.
It was a detailed and complex procedure, and not everything done with the negative was fully documented. Kaminski notes that, for some of the visual effects segments, Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic went back to the original VFX components and reassembled them from scratch, essentially creating new negatives for those sections, and “[w]when these were done they were pressed back on foil and cut into the O-neg [the original negative], again to replace the originals. The O-neg was slowly being absorbed by new material.”
The negatives of those sequences are waiting in film cans.
However, the new changes also include the updated special edition VFX sequences. The negative sections that replaced those VFX sequences, like huge sections of the Death Star attack at the end of Episode IVfor example – were almost certainly stored again.
The broad consensus among numerous expert sources, including Kaminski, is that all three of the original Star Wars films, except for a few minutes, were painstakingly restored in one way or another to pristine quality. Those segments that weren’t fully restored — like Han who first photographed Greedo, or the non-CGI dance sequence in Jabba’s palace — were probably at least partially restored. Even if not, the negatives of those sequences are waiting in movie cans.
Simply put: the vast majority of the restoration work to release a beautiful HD version of the original trilogy has already been completed.