Thursday, May 4, 2023

Star Wars Day: Cutting the Myth Out of Star Wars

The following article I wrote as a spec piece. Indeed, I sent it to several newspapers shortly after Star Wars creator George Lucas made it known that he had no intention of releasing the original Star Wars film, Star Wars, on home video... DVD or Blu-ray. (He eventually capitulated and authorized its release as a low-grade bonus disc, bundled with the real version of Star Wars - A New Hope. The 1997 re-release model.)

My piece was rejected by the few publications I submitted it to, including the Los Angeles Times, but after I watched The People vs. George Lucas recently, I felt I should just pop "Cutting the Myth - What George Lucas Won't Admit" up onto this blog.

Here is my story:

George Lucas will not be releasing the original, original Star Wars ― the old and undesirable version, not the 1997 “Special Edition” ― to Blu-ray. He claims, the immense costs involved would make doing so prohibitive.

While Mr. Lucas is known for his sleight-of-hand cinematic tricks, I must give the man credit for his persuasive sleight-of-mouth. The media repeats the Space Lord’s decrees with nary a micron of questioning.

Someone, if not a passive press, owes the fans an explanation ― at least one devoid of George Lucas’ mythologizing. He should keep some myths up on the screen.

Mr. Lucas seems bent on burying the movie so deep that even his own intrepid archeologist Indiana Jones creation could not find it.

In the time of Star Wars' original production, this is how movies were assembled: The film that physically ran through the camera, once exposed, is taken to a lab to be processed. Prints are then immediately struck so the picture editor may start to assemble a show. The picture image on this particular print is a positive one. That is it looks normal. It is not a negative image.

The company responsible for producing visual effects (Industrial Light & Magic, in the case of the original Star Wars), generates original footage (like TIE-fighters doing their tricks) and any ’overlays’ (such as blaster and light-saber beams), and is given the necessary section of film where the effect is to be popped-in.

Then, the optical house produces a final negative roll of the effect. This short piece of film ― there will be many more ― is called an “optical negative”. As this bit of film was re-photographed, it appears on the big screen to have more contrast and grain when compared to the general live-action footage.

Once the editor and producers and director decide that enough is enough, “this is our movie”, the cutting copy, or workprint, is presented as the final cut ― the picture is what is termed “locked”. On this workprint are markings made with grease pencil indicating to the optical house where fades and dissolves, and in Star Wars’ case, a lot of wipes are to be created.

Again, the necessary sections of negative (which ran through the camera) are sent to the optical house. As before, they re-photograph these film elements in order to make these standard film effects.

These completed optical negative sections are delivered, as are the camera negative rolls and visual effects rolls, to the negative cutter, who assembles ― very carefully! ― the final movie, one shot after another while using the workprint as his or her guide.

These assembled reels comprise the finished movie.

When the negative of Star Wars was pulled out of circulation in 1995 in order to initiate work on the Special Edition it was discovered that the space classic was in bad shape. In the case of Star Wars, and a lot of movies made back in the same era, there is another nagging problem: In the many years since the actual film stock was manufactured, exposed, and processed, the colour layers have faded to varying degrees.

The restoration of Star Wars is beyond the scope of this article so we will just say that through some meticulous work, the final negative was reconstructed and refurbished where necessary. In effect, a new negative was built so work on the Special Edition could be started in earnest. In order to replace the old visual effects shots with the new ones, they were removed from the restored print and filed away.

What can be done to allow for a new film-to-tape transfer of the original version would be to pull out the discarded sections from storage, and then transfer those bits and pieces to HD. Next it would be a matter of transferring the rest of the film.

There is some work involved in this reassembly, but it is nothing compared to what was required on Vertigo (1958) ― a major reconstruction and archival effort and one which certainly did not have the financial payoffs that Star Wars would bring.

This new ‘file’ can now be run through from first frame to last in order to dust-bust, or whatever else needs to be executed as part of a final polish. Star Wars can now be released on Blu-ray to a video store near you.

If the above is not accurate, George Lucas can offer his personal “Technicolor” print. The word is it's in fabulous condition, with intact colours, plus it was struck from the original version. While a “release” or “projection” print is optimized for a film projector's Xenon lamp, a Technicolor one would still make a lovely transfer.

At this point, with all the built-in controversies attached, I think most Star Wars fans, and people like me, would be very happy with a solid, if not picture perfect, rendition on Blu-ray.

It must be said ― and I’ve really got to get this point off my chest ― that the modern myth that is Star Wars was created from prints which ran through film projectors back in 1977... Not 1997! (Or afterward.) The creator himself ― the Lucas Unit ― has forgotten this little piece of interstellar trivia.

Of course, my opinion on the restoration of the real Star Wars means nothing if George Lucas did something as devious as leaving the movie's original negative rolls lying un-spooled in the California sunshine. For heaven's sake, let's not give the man any ideas.

1 comment:

Simon St. Laurent said...

Before I submitted my spec piece I made sure to have it peer-reviewed. While I did work in 'opticals' and film & video post production, and therefore was able to generate the piece off the cuff, technical accuracy is important in such matters... hence my passing along my article to two experienced former coworkers of mine, one of whom worked in 'visual effects' on one of the Star Trek movies (and more).

Final note: I greatly admire George Lucas. Any ribbing is done in fun... even if it would be nice to see a high-quality copy of Star Wars.