THE DEATHHOOP NUMBER STAYS IN THE SHOW.

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Star Wars: A Frolic In Film Terms

In January, it was announced that Star Wars, the original trilogy and the prequels, would be released on Blu-Ray, and I lost my mind. Not only did we have a new house with a new giant tv, but we also had just purchased a Blu-Ray player and it made everything ever filmed awesome in ways you cannot imagine. Even comedies like StepBrothers were better in Blu-Ray. Outback Steakhouse commercials are better in high definition, so Star Wars IV-VI was gonna be amothafrakkinmaze-balls.

Then, on Star Wars Day, Lucasfilm shit in my cereal by announcing the special Blu-Ray box set would not include the original releases of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Wahn-whomp.

To say I Nerd Raged is an understatement. Oh sure, I have the presence of mind to admit that Lucas can do whatever he wants with his own properties. But at the end of the rant, I was still left with the question "Why wouldn't Lucas want to release the originals as they were?" He can't possibly be as embarrassed about whatever technical gaffes he perceived in those films as he is about Howard the Duck. And even Howard the Duck is on Netflix now, so what gives?

Today the box art for the set was released, and there was a lot of kvetching on Fark about it. There was nerd raging, of course, and talk about how "the original negatives being destroyed" was bullshit. Among the comments was this:

Bastard Squad
Actually, the stories of the original prints (camera negatives, really) of A New Hope being badly damaged over time are true. Primarily, everything shot in Tunisia (Tattoine).

Chatted with a Lucasfilm archivist years ago at a film archivist workshop that quietly confirmed that the Tattoine sequences, having a very light, sandy color palette meant that the emulsion layers on the physical film were quite thin for those scenes. Although kept in optimal archival conditions, those emulsion layers were so thin and washed out that Lucasfilm panicked about whether they would really be able to get high quality, high resolution transfers for future DVD / Blu-ray releases.

So yes, original prints / negatives do exist. But apparently those scenes shot in Tunisia looked like garbage.

Okay, so people call bullshit on the damaged negatives because obviously Lucas, having OCD where new technologies are concerned, would want to preserve every scrap of his films as carefully as possible.

Ignoring the "the negatives are too thin" bit -- I may forget a lot of my photography terms, but I will never forget what a too thin negative actually means because it's the reason my grade point average was destroyed -- I could believe that there were problems with the Tunisia scenes, as anyone who has followed the problems restoring Lawrence of Arabia will know. A "thin negative" is one that is underdeveloped because there was not ENOUGH light, not that there was TOO MUCH light (like with a desert scene.) However, a color negative will leech color in a certain order. Usually the yellow layer goes first, resulting in blue-tinted images and purple skin tones. Considering Tatooine could be the Crayola name for any light yellow or tan color you care to pick, it's understandable that these layers would fade first and fuck up the original negative.

In 1994 while they were trying to restore the original and put in their "special" additions, Lucas and his ILM team started to get nervous. Every print they got back from the original negative was bad. Really bad. To the point they didn't even know if they could present any of the original at all. However, FOX was footing the bill for the restoration of the originals for the Special Edition releases. So a time consuming process to fix up the original was employed. It used digital technology, and a complicated cleaning process on the original negative that included breaking it down in to pieces, undoing the editing in order to handle the film better in the wash. (That is normally not done, and as an editor just made me piss myself a little.)

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Still, the question "How could this happen? Star Wars is less than forty years old!" remains. Apparently it stumped Lucas, too. According to the book Into the Digital Realm and The Secret History of Star Wars:

What they found when they opened up the cans of film in late 1994 was horrifying--the original negatives had been severely deteriorated. Much of the film's existing prints had 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 print 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.

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 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 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.

If that doesn't give you a new perspective on your nerd rage, then you are the Hulk of Star Wars geeks, congratulations, logic doesn't apply.

However, the film was restored enough for the animated dance sequences and weird Jabba the Hutt inserts, so why can't it be restored again for Blu-Ray, without the extra bits? The secret may be in this quote he gave The New York Times:

“You have to go through and do a whole restoration on it, and you have to do that digitally,” he added. “It’s a very, very expensive process to do it. So when we did the transfer to digital, we only transferred really the upgraded version.”

Ahhh, okay. So FOX isn't footing the bill any more, and no matter how many thousands of people complain, even if they each bought two copies of the Blu-Ray, it may not actually make up for the cost of restoring the originals. In the end, it should have been obvious. The issue is not compromising Lucas's "artistic vision." The issue is money.

But we can still blame FOX.

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Comments (2)

Honestly, FOX is so awful a company, I don't know why we waste time blaming things on Geoff Johns. Obviously, everything is FOX's fault.

Recently discovered @adywan and the fan edit he did on Star Wars A New Hope Revisited. It's a version of the special edition that solves pretty much all of the problems (Greedo shooting first, rubbish Jabba, overclogged Mos Eisley etc) whilst retaining the high quality image and subtle flashes that truly add to the movie. I can't recommend it enough. Go to fanedit.org and check it out.
I had difficulty playing it initially as I am a techno-twonk but @Adywan himself was kind enough to take me through it. Will happily forward e-mail if anyone gets stuck. May the Force be with you all.