[Updated: Feb 17, 2016]
I have never seen Star Wars. Most people haven’t. Unless you were alive and aware in 1977, the movie we call Star Wars is not, in fact, the same Star Wars that crowds lined up around city blocks got to see when the lights finally dimmed and the 20th Century Fox fanfare subsided. When the film was re-released into theatres in 1981, the “original” version was already gone. No longer just Star Wars, the film was now Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. A title change was only the beginning. First in 1997 with the Special Edition, and then in 2004 with the DVD release, all the way up to the most recent Blu-ray and digital releases of the film, there have been a nearly endless number of changes, everything from dialogue replacement to fully computer animated effects sequences. And, of course, Han doesn’t shoot first. That original version, the one released to cinemas in 1977, has been practically unavailable for decades. Until now.
In January, a group online calling themselves Team Negative1, consisting of about five anonymous Star Wars fans, released into the wilds of the internet a digitally restored copy of Star Wars, sourced from a 35mm low-fade release print from some time after the film’s initial release. For those who know where to look, the film is available, in full HD, looking extremely close to what audiences at the time must have seen. Team Negative1 have labelled the restoration, quite appropriately, The Silver Screen Edition. Finally, after all these years, the original, unaltered Star Wars is out there for the public to consume.
Much internet blood has been spilled in fights over the so-called “Special Editions” of the original Star Wars trilogy. Those versions, released in 1997, ahead of the prequel trilogy, were the beginning of fan outrage at creator George Lucas. He had gone back to his films and updated them with new and altered scenes, as well as then state-of-the-art computer generated effects. The changes, some say, are an affront to the childhoods of people everywhere. Worse, the unavailability of the unaltered originals, has raised questions of authorial ownership versus the public domain. Mallory Andrews covered all the arguments back in 2014, making a strong case for the importance of preserving the unaltered versions to preserve a piece of history. “George Lucas’ actions have set a dangerous precedent for film preservation,” Andrews wrote, “potentially, authors are able to manipulate their work, and present the altered copy as the “new” original—an effacement of history that Lucas once called the actions of a “barbaric society.”
Rumours of a potential restoration and release of the unaltered original trilogy have been popping up semi-regularly for years, gaining extra traction after Disney bought LucasFilm in 2012. Unfortunately for fans, those rumours have remained just that. If you want to watch Star Wars with any reasonable level of picture quality, you’re stuck with the 2004 DVD, 2011 Blu-ray, or 2015 digital HD release, each with its own unique alterations, as well as an overall darkening of the image and a shift toward pink colour tones. At this point, nearly 20 years after the introduction of the Special Editions, a whole generation have grown up with these altered versions. Most older fans probably don’t remember what the original versions looked like anymore. The more time passes, the more the 1977 Star Wars, with its classic matte paintings and cutting-edge model work, fades into obscurity. For fans like Team Negative1, though, the prospect of losing the original Star Wars is a non-starter. They’ve taken the preservation of Star Wars into their own hands.
Team Negative1’s restoration effort has been a long time in the making, with countless hours spent over a period of more than four years. It started even earlier than that, in 2008 and 2009, when a person wishing to be called Mr. Black acquired 35mm prints of Star Wars. Getting a hold of decent-quality prints may sound like a difficult task, but you’d be amazed what people sell on eBay. “If you’re missing something, or you’re looking for something, that’s where you go to to find stuff,” says Mr. Black. He first purchased a set of reels comprising the film, but the print was severely faded and discoloured. The big find, and the main source for the restoration, was a low-fade print from Spain. As he explains, “a listing came up and it said ‘Star Wars 35mm.’ And it said ‘Spanish.’ And I was like, okay whatever, Spanish, I don’t care. There were no pictures of it, there’s no description of it.” The seller told Mr. Black the print was somewhat faded, but that didn’t stop him. “I ended up spending another $2,000 on this Star Wars print. So now I’ve got two prints of Star Wars sitting next to me.”
The Spanish print had a fair bit of dirt and damage, and the opening crawl was not the original, but the colours were all there and the picture looked reasonably sharp. Acquiring the print was a real coup. As Mr. Black explains, coming by even remotely decent-quality prints of Star Wars is rare. “They all had to be destroyed after they were shown. So the ones that still exist, somebody just dug them out of dumpsters and managed to hang on to them,” he says. “They’re all in very, very poor condition. They’re all very beat up. Even the best one, even the one that was used as a reference for the Special Edition was in terrible shape. The colours are there, but the damage is just insurmountable.”
Getting the print scanned digitally was another added difficulty. “I’d never dealt with film before, I’d never owned a film before, never bought a film, I didn’t have a clue,” says Mr. Black. For a long time, it seemed like the task might be impossible. “For about six months after that I started calling every movie transfer house around the East Coast, trying to figure out how I can get this scanned,” Mr. Black says. “Film prints are by definition illegal, they shouldn’t exist. All these odd reels, they don’t exist,” he explains. Release prints are meant to be sent back to the distributor to be destroyed. For a transfer house, touching a copyrighted commercial release print is a no-go. And so the prints mostly just sat there, collecting dust.
That is, until 2011, Mr. Black says. At that time, he hooked up with a partner called Cinch, through YouTube comments of all places. They also got to take a closer look at the Spanish print Mr. Black had acquired. It was in remarkably good condition. In 2012, they bought an old 35mm projector, and rigged a digital camera to capture the film projecting through it. “You would have the digital camera right up against the lens of the projector,” Mr. Black describes, “and you’d take a picture, and then advance a frame, and then take another picture.” An amateur solution, but an ingenious one. Eventually, they were able to speed up and improve the process, leading to the most recent scans, and the basis for the restoration. “We’ve got 4K scans coming off a 35mm projector, in real time,” he says. “So if a reel is 20 minutes, it takes 20 minutes to capture.”
Of course, scanning the print was only the beginning. Every single frame of the film had some degree of damage. Cinch had the tools and know-how to begin restoring scanned data, but the amount of work was daunting. Along with a select few other members of the team, they set to work. Even Mr. Black, who by trade had no expertise in whatsoever in film restoration, got in on the game. “I took it on as more of a personal and technical challenge,” he says, “to see if I could learn this thing.”
The team also had to remain relatively small, Mr. Black says. “I’d seen all these other projects come and go, and then one of them was trying to make a dent, and they took a lot of people’s money. They had a couple of years of work going on, and then poof, it all just vanished. They collapsed.” By keeping a smaller, more tight-knit team, they could ensure the project would be carefully watched and delivered. On top of that, they made the decision not to solicit donations from fans. “There is some funding, but it’s all privately done. In our case it was self-funded,” he says.
After an initial dirt-mapping pass to remove dust, Team Negative1 undertook the massive task of going through the film frame by frame, removing every speck of dirt or damage inherent to the print. “We didn’t want to make the same mistakes that the professional people make. They all take shortcuts,” Mr. Black says. “They all do this auto-cleanup. They all do this digital noise reduction and grain reduction, and every other thing you can think of.” All this automation has adverse effects on the final product. “That’s why the Blu-ray just looks scrubbed,” he explains. “Don’t get me wrong, I think it looks fantastic, I think the detail is great, and there’s so much eye-popping stuff in there, but they also made a whole bunch of mistakes. The colours are off, and the sound is off. It’s such a mishmash.”
Team Negative1’s process was incredibly labour-intensive. Mr. Black describes sitting at his computer for hours cleaning up frames, feeling like he’d managed to get through several minutes of footage, only to realize he’d cleaned up a few seconds at most. On top of that, careful viewing would invariably reveal spots he’d missed. It took passes upon passes to get the film looking right. To make matters more complicated, the team had to coordinate. “If you can imagine five people across the country,” Mr. Black says, “all trying to fix things, trying to transfer these 25gb files back and forth, and trying to communicate in our spare time.”
All that hard work unquestionably came from a place of love. Mr. Black first saw Star Wars when it was first released in 1977. “I was 10 when it first came out, and it changed my life.” That’s not to say his extreme fandom fits the imagine some might expect. “I watched the Special Editions in the theatre,” he says, “and I loved it!” He’s not offended by the prequel trilogy either, as many old-school fans are, and though he’s a fan of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, he far prefers the first film. He also hasn’t seen The Force Awakens, and doesn’t have any immediate plans to, though he says he’ll surely watch it eventually. The first Star Wars, the original, is Mr. Black’s true love. That love is why he’s devoted so much time, money, and effort to the restoration.
Even early on, the results were speaking for themselves. The team started putting out some previews of their work. “It was the colour-corrected stuff, the stuff that was stabilized, and it was like night and day,” Mr. Black recalls. “This came out of our scans? We were very impressed.”
The team worked hard in their spare time, and after about two years, they were finally getting close to something they were happy with. Looking at a film in such detail can become overwhelming, though. “Everybody in this group has watched the movie to death now. And I don’t mean from beginning to end,” Mr. Black says. “Every time I’m looking at it, I’m not looking at what’s going on. I’m like, oh there’s some dirt there, oh god there’s a line there. I’m seeing all this stuff that’s wrong with it.” The group could keep fixing every little flaw from now until eternity, but then the restoration would never get released. Finally, in January 2016, they decided to release what they had, with plans for a higher-quality release with some additional updates and corrections in the near future.
The Silver Screen Edition is hardly the first fan effort to restore Star Wars. Team Negative1 took their inspiration from a person called Puggo, who put out preserved and restored versions sourced from lower quality 16mm prints. There’s also a fascinating and incredible work by a person named Adywan, called Star Wars: Revisited, which is an attempt to improve upon the Special Editions with brand new, fan-created special effects, edits, and color correction.
The most commonly cited fan project has been Petr “Harmy” Harmecek’s Despecialized Edition, which is more like a fan-edit, combining a multitude of sources, everything from the most recent Blu-ray, to transfers of the original versions taken from the 1993 Laserdisc, to still frames. Harmy is open to any and all material that can help him get Star Wars back to its original state. “I’ve used tens of different sources, anything from on-set photos to 4K scans of 35mm prints,” he says. He’s even gone so far as to combine multiple sources into single shots, re-compositing visual effects to get them looking as close to the original version as possible.
Harmy has been working on his Despecialized Editions of the original trilogy since 2010. He is very impressed with Team Negative1’s new 35mm restoration, going so far as to endorse it over his own. “The Silver Screen version is, in my opinion, better than the current version of the Despecialized,” he says, “because it is 100% HD and 100% the original version.” Still, this new version hasn’t rendered Harmy’s work irrelevant by any means. “I can further restore those shots from the Silver Screen Edition, which were altered in any way in the Special Edition and then use them to replace the altered shots in the official release,” Harmy says, “so that the next version of Despecialized can be 100% HD and 100% the original version as well.”
Part of the appeal of the Despecialized Edition is that it uses the official Blu-ray release as its base, which, while problematic in many respects—including its overly darkened image and strange colour tinting—is also the highest quality source available. The Blu-ray is unquestionably sharper and more detailed than Team Negative1’s 35mm print, despite its colour timing issues and altered scenes. “I think my project has always been about getting closer to what an official release should look like,” Harmy explains, “the original version with the original effects but with a proper cleanup and restoration, like the official Blu-ray releases of other classics such as Blade Runner, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia.”
For Mr. Black, getting the movie to look like an “official” release isn’t the goal. Instead of making Star Wars look better than it ever has, Team Negative1 has made an effort to preserve to look inherent to a theatrical print from the late-’70s. The idea is to let fans see what audiences would have seen in 1977, which means something a little softer, a little grainier, and even a little more washed out colour-wise than any official Blu-ray release would likely be. “I’m not going to claim that as a kid that’s what I remember,” Mr. Black says, “My memory is just not that great. But I will say this, thinking back to watching a worn-out print and the kind of colour schemes and palettes that they used back then, and seeing this print projected, and knowing that the correction was done with that in mind, we’re trying to get that look and that aesthetic of that print.”
Looking at screenshots comparing the Silver Screen Edition to the Blu-ray, it’s easy to tell that the Blu-ray is a “better” source in a lot of ways, but that’s hardly the point. To watch the Silver Screen Edition is to be transported back to 1977. The colours feel more correct, the original effects are all there, and the slightly dingy look is perfectly fitting for a film from the period. For those looking for a more “modern” presentation of the film, Team Negative1 have obtained a scan of an IB Technicolor print of the original Star Wars. This print has many advantages, including a sharper image and colours that haven’t faded at all. IB Technicolor prints are also known for having more vibrant colours than normal, which should please fans more accustomed to the bold, contrast-y look of modern films and official restorations. Their restoration of the print, from 4K scans, is currently underway.
Another restoration based on the IB Technicolor print, and a few other sources, has apparently already been completed. Known as the Legacy Edition, the work was done by film composer and visual effects technician Mike Verta. He claims the restoration was finished in 2015, though because of his proximity to the film industry, he has no plans of releasing it. While LucasFilm has never gotten litigious over fan-edits or fan restoration projects, standing orders to destroy theatrical prints and the realities of anti-piracy law make sharing a restoration online a legal grey area at best. It’s too bad, though. If the video demonstrations he’s put on his Vimeo page are to be believed, the quality of his restoration surpasses anything else currently available, official or otherwise.
[Update: Mike Verta got in contact with me after this article was published. He clarifies, “I’ve been told explicitly by The Powers That Be that the hammer will fall if I put it online.” Don’t let that sound like a setback, though. Verta is preparing a presentation for executives at Disney and Fox. “I’ve heard many conflicting reports from inside the walls over the years, and ultimately decided the only thing to do is invite the executives to a screening and make the pitch,” he says. “So those plans are in the works.” The plan is to make the presentation later this year.
Asked what he hopes to come of his Legacy Edition restoration, Verta says, “I would be happy with having the restoration released, or using it as a proof-of-concept to supervise a new restoration from whatever’s left of the original materials.” Being allowed to supervise a restoration from the original Star Wars negatives would be “a dream job.” Verta says individuals at both Disney and Fox are aware of his restoration. “They tend to be the ones championing it internally,” he says. Everything Verta has heard indicates that the biggest hurdles to overcome for Disney and Fox making a deal for his restoration are legal issues. “There is labyrinth of legality to navigate, and not everybody is sure it’s worth the headache.”
“I want everyone to be able to see it,” Verta says. His effort has been a long, arduous, expensive labour of love. “My process combines the data from multiple input sources already – that’s why it has fidelity and detail that can’t be found in any one source or print,” he says. “Developing this process and these software tools which is where all the money (some $400k+) has gone over the last 15 years.” To let people enjoy the fruits of all that work is Verta’s ultimate goal.
It all comes down to convincing the executives at Disney and Fox. “There have been some online petitions for the original version over the years, but they represent what budgeteers consider unimpressive numbers,” Verta explains. “I think the more vocal people are about supporting these projects, the better.” Verta remains steadfast and hopeful. “Have faith; more to come,” he promises.]
Mr. Black doesn’t consider the IB Technicolor prints inherently better than the Silver Screen Edition they’ve already put out. “I love the Technicolor versions. I think they’re awesome. I think they look a little bit sharper, there’s less grain in them, the colours are all bright and pop, but that, to me, is not definitive,” he says. “That’s not Star Wars to me. If you were in England in 1977 for a couple of weeks and you went to the theatre on the first day, or week, and you just happened to see that IB Technicolor print, okay fine, it might’ve looked like that.”
For Team Negative1, the Silver Screen Edition and upcoming Technicolor restoration are only the beginning. The group has also been hard at work restoring both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and are expecting to have both out by the end of the year. They’re looking into the possibility of scanning 70mm blow-ups of the films for future releases.
Recently there have been some indications that an official 4K restoration of Star Wars has been commissioned by Disney and completed by Reliance Media Works. A promotional reel from the digital restoration company features cleaned-up footage from Star Wars that looks nothing like the official Blu-ray release, lending credence to the rumours of an impending release. The prospect of an official restoration hasn’t dissuaded Mr. Black and Team Negative1 from continuing their work on restoring the trilogy. “If there’s an official release, fine,” says Mr. Black. “If there’s not, oh well. But hey, at least you guys have [the Silver Screen Edition] that you can be very, very happy with.” He also questions whether there will be enough appetite for yet another official release of Star Wars. “So many people have bought this trilogy over and over again, at some point they’re going to get a little worn out.”
Whether or not an official release of the unaltered original trilogy appears, you can be sure some subset of diehard fans will not be pleased with the results. In this respect, Team Negative1 are just a part of a larger movement of fans reclaiming the art they love. “I think there’s room for all these versions,” says Mr. Black. “People have been trying to ‘fix’ Star Wars for ages now,” he points out. “You’re going to have all these people splintering off with what they think is right and what their personal preferences are. And we’re okay with that. We encourage people to take the Silver Screen Edition as a source and then tweak it to their liking.”
Preference plays a key role in all of this. Everybody has their own idea of what Star Wars should look like. Some people look at the Silver Screen Edition and fall in love, while others still prefer the sharper, more modern look of the Blu-ray. “In that sense, there’s an aesthetic. We know that anyone under 30 kind of prefers the clean, sharp, detailed look,” Mr. Black explains. “Then the older crowd, the retro crowd, is like, ‘give me the grain and give me the matte boxes and give me a little weave in the picture.’ It’s kind of like CD vs. vinyl. I’m like an old school vinyl fan.”
As time goes by, amateur fans have greater and greater ability to do complex restoration work of the kind Team Negative1 have done, making their own personal, perfect versions of Star Wars. “The technology has always existed,” Mr. Black says. “We’re still using some of the same tools were used four years ago. That has not changed. And we’re not getting anything custom. We’re using off-the-shelf equipment, and now everybody has that and better. It’s all about the time, and the effort, and the hard-drive space.” Working on restoring a film also takes a certain mindset. “It’s just a lot of boredom and being closed up at home. I’m pretty much a shut-in. I’m a recluse,” jokes Mr. Black.
For years now, the phrase “Han shoots first” has been a cultural mainstay, scrawled on T-shirts, written on message boards, shouted out by everyone who ever wished they could once again witness Han, in all his bad boy glory, taking out the bounty hunter Greedo. It wasn’t mere cosmetics that upset fans. The changes to the scene, many have argued, with Greedo shooting first, and Han returning a killing blast in self-defense, soften the character almost beyond recognition. Hyperbole, surely. Having not seen the original version in at least a decade, I was excited to see the infamous scene as originally released, so I popped on the Silver Screen Edition.
To my shock, I’d forgotten that “Han shoots first” also meant that Greedo never shoots at all. In an instant, all the moral complexity of the character was back in place. As I continued watching, I was taken by it more and more. The softer, dirtier ‘70s visual style. The incredible miniature and model work. The beautiful matte paintings. The weird little glitches that couldn’t be fixed in time for the film’s premiere. Eventually all those surface details slipped away and I was drawn right back into the story, and the action, and the characters. Soon enough I was overcome by the incredible feeling that I was seeing one of my favourite movies for the first time all over again. Then it hit me. Here it was. Star Wars. Untouched, if a little worn. And it was beautiful.