Could Disney finally give us the remastered, unedited Star Wars we want?

Disney is doing all kinds of things with the Star Wars universe now that it has purchased the franchise away from George Lucas. In addition to the three sequel films, there will be “at least three” spin-off movies, which will likely be origin stories for some of the supporting cast of Star Wars characters. The House of Mouse is pouring a tremendous 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 unedited, non-special-edition original trilogy.

Unadulterated, “pure” versions of the original Star Wars films are difficult to come by. Except for one sad, low-resolution release on DVD in 2006 (which we’ll discuss in a moment), the films have only been available in their modified “Special Edition” forms since 1997, when George Lucas re-released the films to theaters with a series of changes. Some of those changes aren’t bad at all—the fancy new attack on the Death Star in Episode IV is perfectly cromulent—but others are absolutely terrible. In Return of the Jedi, Jabba’s palace gains an asinine CGI-filled song-and-dance interlude. Dialogue is butchered in Empire Strikes Back. And in the first movie, perhaps most famously, Han no longer shoots first.

Each subsequent release has piled on more and more changes, culminating in the Star Wars Blu-ray release, which now has Return of the Jedi climaxing with Darth Vader howling “NOOOOOOOO!” as he flings the Emperor into the shaft (spoiler alert from 1983, I guess). For every round of changes, the fan outcry for an unedited original release has grown. And now that Disney has its hands wrapped firmly around the Star Wars steering wheel, the company seems to be in the perfect position to give the fans what they want.

But assuming Disney wanted to invest the time and effort into such a release, is it actually possible? Do the original Episodes IV-VI exist in a restorable state, or is the oft-repeated story that they were “destroyed” during the editing of the 1997 Special Edition re-releases actually true? And even if a restoration is actually possible, would Disney be able to do the work and release the movies under the terms of its 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 going down a number of different rabbit holes. Strap in, because we’re about to make the jump to light speed.

Making Han shoot first again

The last time George Lucas had anything definitive to say about the original original trilogy appears to have been in an interview with The Today Show, 10 years ago:

The special edition, that’s the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anybody wants it. … I’m not going to spend the—we’re talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it.

Further, Lucasfilm issued a statement in 2006 that seemed to put to rest any rumors that the original versions of the film exist:

As you may know, an enormous amount of effort was put into digitally restoring the negatives for the Special Editions. In one scene alone, nearly one million pieces of dirt had to be removed, and the Special Editions were created through a frame-by-frame digital restoration. The negatives of the movies were permanently altered for the creation of the Special Editions, and existing prints of the first versions are in poor condition.

Ars alum Ben Kuchera invested some considerable time and effort into debunking those claims back in 2010, enlisting the aid of author and Star Wars expert Michael Kaminski. As Kuchera noted in his 2010 piece (and as many others have noted since), Lucasfilm isn’t exactly lying when it says that the original negatives were permanently altered—but it’s not being wholly truthful, either.

The theatrical releases of the films were last made available to the public as companion features on the DVD special edition releases in 2006. The sources for the DVD transfers were digital videotapes, which, as SaveStarWars.com explains, were created in 1993 via telecine from an interpositive struck from the original negatives back in 1985. The same telecine was later given the THX treatment and used as the source for the 1995 Laserdisc release of the trilogy, which up until the DVD release in 2006 was considered the definitive reference version of Star Wars on a home video format.

This all sounds good, since the DVD release and the previously definitive Laserdisc both come from the same source, but it’s not: the quality of the original edits on DVD was vastly inferior to the quality of the special edition versions. The transfer isn’t anamorphic, and the audio is compressed Dolby 2.0. Further, as SaveStarWars demonstrates, the telecine source used for the DVDs was subject to a high degree of digital noise removal, which erases fine details. Looking at a few still frames side by side, the difference is quite obvious; it’s even more obvious in motion.

Enlarge / The non-anamorphic DVD version of The Empire Strikes Back.
Lucasfilm
Enlarge / The same frame from the anamorphic DVD special edition. Note the sharper details, like on the X-wing’s port engine.
Lucasfilm

Fixing this for a new release would require going back to some kind of analog source, like an interpositive or the original negatives. Lucasfilm claims the negatives themselves were “permanently altered” for the special editions, so that’s a bust—or is it?

Here, it turns out, is where Lucasfilm was twisting the truth. Quoting SaveStarWars.com:

The negative is conformed to the Special Edition edit, because there can only be one original negative. So, technically speaking, the negative assembly of the originals does not exist. But it would be very easy to simply put the original pieces back in and conform it to the original versions. Actually, in a theoretical modern restoration, they would just scan the original pieces and make a digital edit, especially since disassembling the negative puts a lot of wear on it. There are also secondary sources, such as separation masters and interpositives, both of which were used to make duplicate pieces to repair parts of the original negative for the 1997 release. So, basically, the official Lucasfilm stance is a lot of crap, designed to confuse people who don’t have a thorough knowledge of how post-production works.

Sounds simple—all Disney would theoretically have to do is grab all the original negatives, scan them in 4k or 8k resolution (which is standard procedure for remastering a film these days), and boom, Star Wars! Right?

Enlarge / Another frame from the non-anamorphic DVD release of The Empire Strikes Back.
Lucasfilm
Enlarge / The same frame from the special edition DVD version. Finer details are available on clothes, hair, and the set itself.
Lucasfilm

Things are never that simple. It turns out that the “original” negative is actually in pretty terrible shape. Kaminski’s detailed recounting of the restoration process at The Secret History of Star Wars is the definitive one. To summarize, when Lucasfilm employees pulled the original negatives from their storage cans in 1994 to start restoration work for the special editions, they found the film stock had drastically faded colors and exhibited a tremendous amount of damage. A number of different specialist companies were employed by Lucasfilm to carefully clean, re-color, and reconstruct the negatives. There were a number of different film stocks edited together, and so the process included a physical disassembly of the negative into its component stocks before hand-cleaning each section of negative using different stock-appropriate methods.

It was a detailed and complex procedure, and not everything that was done to the negative was fully documented. Kaminski notes that for some of the segments featuring visual effects, Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic went back to original VFX components and re-composited them from scratch, effectively creating new negatives for those sections, and “[w]hen these were finished, they were printed back onto film and cut into the O-neg [the original negative], again replacing the originals. The O-neg was slowly being subsumed by new material.”

Those sequences’ negatives are waiting in film cans.

The new alterations also included the updated special edition VFX sequences, though. The sections of negative those VFX sequences replaced—like huge swaths of the Death Star attack at the end of Episode IV, for example—were almost certainly put back into storage.

The broad consensus across numerous expert sources, including Kaminski, is that all except a few minutes’ run-time of all three original Star Wars films were painstakingly restored to pristine quality in one way or another. Those segments that weren’t fully restored—like Han shooting Greedo first, or the non-CGI dancer sequence at Jabba’s palace—were likely at least partially restored, and even if not, those sequences’ negatives are waiting in film cans.

Stated simply: the vast majority of the restoration work to release a beautiful HD version of the original trilogy has already been completed.

Worst case scenario

However—and this is a pretty big however—without someone empowered to actually go to the vaults and assess the state of the negatives, we can’t know for sure what does and doesn’t exist. It is possible—unlikely, but possible—that the original bits that were cut for the special edition really were tossed into a fire or something, and the new special edition-conformed negatives may really be all that exists after the restorations.

Even if that’s the case—and, again, that case appears unlikely—a fully restored HD original trilogy isn’t at all out of the question. Enough original sources are available besides the singular “original negative” to perform a full digital reconstruction in 4k or 8k resolution. Quoting Kaminski again:

Perhaps the easiest option would be to simply follow the 1997 restoration pattern but in the digital realm: scan the negative in 8K, then scan the stored pre-SE shots or re-comp them, and fill in any damaged areas with IPs or separation masters, reconstructing the original cut, then digitally remove dirt and damage, and finally use a Technicolor print as a color reference for the Digital Intermediate created. Such a product would be theatrically viable, as pristine as when it had been shot, and 100 percent faithful in image and color to the original release….With fine-grain masters, IPs, and Separation masters available, the negative need not be the only source for a new master.

The “Technicolor print” mentioned by Kaminski refers to perhaps the rarest of treasures in the Star Wars collectible world: privately owned theatrical versions of the movie on actual film, suitable for projection. There are a small number of these beautifully preserved, high quality theatrical prints of the original movies left; SaveStarWars has a description of a screening of one such print. The particular example they watched is a 35 mm Technicolor imbibition dye-transfer print (abbreviated as “IB Technicolor”), which has maintained its clarity and color almost perfectly. The site also has a great explanation of exactly what the terms “interpositive” and a “separation master” mean and how they’re used to reconstruct film.

But at what cost?

Surely the cost for this kind of effort is high, though—at the very least, the painstaking digital scanning of each frame of film at 4k or 8k resolution would carry a high price. Plus, there’s the physical labor of getting the movies ready to scan. Right?

Here, Kaminski drops a bombshell: “The pricetag of doing a project like this would likely be under a million dollars,” he says.

This is a staggeringly low number. For an entity like Disney, a million dollars isn’t even real money—you’d likely find that much lying on the floor in Disney CEO Bob Iger’s office. Considering that Disney could price the theoretical re-release at Disney-style prices, this seems like an absolute no-brainer: invest less than a million dollars, make back some amount of money that is likely to be a whole hell of a lot more than a million dollars. So what’s stopping them?

Enter 20th Century Fox.

Left rights

When Disney plunked down $4 billion at the end of 2012 for the Star Wars franchise, it didn’t actually get everything, if for no other reason than Lucasfilm didn’t actually have everything to sell. Disney can release whatever new movies it wants, or dress Mickey Mouse up in Jedi robes and have him wave a light saber at guests in the Magic Kingdom, or hand-wave away the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe—it paid for the rights to do all of those things.

Turns out, what it can’t do is sell you new copies of Episodes IV-VI. Or Episodes I-III for that matter. As the Hollywood Reporter puts it, “Fox owns distribution rights to the original Star Wars, No. 4 in the series, in perpetuity in all media worldwide. And as for the five subsequent movies, Fox has theatrical, nontheatrical, and home video rights worldwide through May 2020.”

When George Lucas filmed Star Wars in the late 1970s, he had to turn to 20th Century Fox to both finance and distribute the film; the success of the first film enabled Lucasfilm to finance the other five movies itself (though Lucas did require some additional assistance from Fox in fully funding The Empire Strikes Back’s production). Lucas continued to use Fox as a distributor for all of the six existing Star Wars films—and Fox retains those distribution rights under the Disney sale.

Enlarge / Fox has handled the distribution of the franchise since its beginnings. If you’re like me, this logo is burned into your brain as being heavily associated with Star Wars.

The issue, then, isn’t whether Disney would be able to make any money creating and selling a re-release of the original theatrical versions of Star Wars IV-VI or whether it’s technically possible—it’s whether or not Fox would let the company do it, and whether either vast company would be willing to share the resulting profits from doing so. Drew McWeeny on HitFix notes that cross-studio deals like this aren’t uncommon, but divesting Star Wars from Fox and Fox from Star Wars is a tangled process that can’t be done quickly due to the sheer number of agreements in place (20th Century Fox also owns the distribution rights to the computer-generated Star Wars: Clone Wars movie—but not the animated series, which is distributed by Warner Bros… except for the online streaming version, which is distributed by Disney).

20th Century Fox doesn’t appear to have taken the sale of Star Wars to Disney in a wholly sanguine manner, either. A “Fox insider” reportedly told the Hollywood Reporter that Fox “would have liked a crack” at buying Star Wars lock, stock, and barrel itself—not surprising, given the billions of dollars in revenue generated by Star Wars over the past few decades.

Things get a little simpler in 2020, when the distribution rights to most of the Star Wars movies revert to Disney. However, the original film, Episode IV—the one that purists still refer to simply as “Star Wars,” since it debuted under that title with no “Episode IV” tag—won’t follow them. Under the existing agreement, distribution rights for Episode IV remain firmly in Fox’s hands forever—or at least until Disney can come up with a strategy to separately acquire them. A strategy that will probably involve a whole lot of money.

Bereft of any new hope

At least for now, Disney will be unable to produce a re-release of the original trilogy. However, the good news is that the technical barriers to doing so aren’t the primary things stopping it from happening. Per Kaminski and other film experts, the actual monetary and time cost would be relatively low because the majority of the work was done years ago. Further, the computational and storage resources needed to fill in the blanks that were so difficult and expensive in the late ’90s are almost trivially cheap now.

But as so often happens in Hollywood, the legal wrangling far overshadows the technical issues. Until somebody at one studio gets paid a few dump trucks full of money by another studio, the only way to see a truly pristine copy of the original non-special-edition Star Wars films is by screening some of those rare, privately held theatrical prints.

Speaking of which, if anyone has access to one of those, we’d love a chance to review it.

Thanks to . He wrote this great report

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