A team of determined craftsmen restore luster to the science-fiction classic.
"When I saw the first print struck off the original negative, it was gone," sighs Rick McCallum, who produced Lucas' Young Indiana Jones series, who moved on to the Star Wars Special Edition Trilogy and will soon graduate to producing the long-awaited prequels. "I'll have been restoring the film for three years by the time it comes out, and that film is only 20 years old! We weren't sure we could make it in time."
The Special Edition's visual effects producer, Tom Kennedy (Radioland Murders), blames the disastrous state of Star Wars' negative on the "roller coaster" created by the overwhelming success of the film, which caught the studio unprepared. "They made far too many release prints off the original neg," Kennedy says. "After 20th Century Fox reprinted Star Wars from the negative, we saw all the various levels of quality we could get out of the original cut, and we discovered some interesting and frightening things. It was put together very quickly, in the heat of the moment to get more shots in, so they used four different stocks, which is unusual. In addition to the original Kodak 5243, 5247 and 5253 negatives, there was also CRI, a unique color reversal stock. If George had wanted to do something even more creative to an optical shot, like flop it or add an overriding zoom, and there wasn't a lot of time, they used CRI as an intermediate reversal stock to alter those few effects shots after the fact."
Fortunately, Fox's head of postproduction, Ted Gagliano, made the restoration of Star Wars a personal labor of love, working closely with YCM Labs, Pacific Title, Lucasfilm editorial, ILM and Skywalker Sound. Had the negative been constructed more conventionally, the first order of business would have been to wash it in a sulfur bath a 104F, then wipe it down by hand. But those four different film stocks couldn't be washed together; instead, they had to be separated and washed in batches. That meant dissecting the original Star Wars negative, washing it, and then reassembling it. "That made everybody suck in their breath, " Kennedy says, recalling the stressfull situation. "Thankfully, Robert Hart, the neg cutter on the second and third films, came in to put the negative back together. After doing various tests, we found out right away that nothing beats scanning original negative. Star Wars was an A-B neg cut, which meant that they could actually lift and slug original negative and send it back to ILM whenever we were enhancing a live-action shot. I think this is the first time someone has tried to bring a Seventies effects film back to the big screen."
Sadly, after 17 years, the CRI material had lost so much dye that every shot realized on that reversal stock had to be removed and recomposited from scratch in order to bring Star Wars back to its original glory. Soon, Kennedy had Star Wars Special Edition film editor Tom Christopher (at Skywalker Ranch) and visual effects editor Dave Tanaka (at ILM) searching to come up with the original effects elements so that these shots, as well as other less-than-perfect opticals, could be recomposited digitally.
Remarkably, George Lucas had saved all of those bits and piecesall the editors had to do was find them. Despite Lucas' painstaking archiving of everything connected to his work, much of the original negatives, as well as the other film elements and background plates, were nearly impossible to find because they'd been misfiled over the years. "Since Lucasfilm has branched out into so many venues, a lot of original footage has been reused for other purposes," Tanaka explains. "Over the course of 20 years, a lot of those boxes and binders have been moved from one place to the next, so if a page was missing from the original Star Wars editorial archives, we had to be a bit creative in finding things. A lot of the original effects shots we were redoing or adding to were found at ILM, but most of the original live-action footagewhich was never intended to be used for special effects plates, but which we're also now manipulatingwas found at the Ranch, because that's where the live-action cutting room was located."
Besides tracking down all the elements needed for the shots that ILM was recompositing and adding to, Tanaka's other responsibility was to re-create the editorial environment that had been established when Star Wars' footage was first assembled. Once that system was again in place, Tanaka could then "get into that mindset" while employing today's visual effects editing techniques to make the original elements fit together and time out perfectly. "Unlike live-action picture editing, which involves cutting shots together one after another, visual effects editing means placing several layers of film strips on top of each other to make one shot," Tanaka explains. "The visual effects editor traditionally decides when spaceships enter frame, and when explosions are supposed to happen. But since we were replacing original shots from Star Wars with new effects shots, our job was also to ensure that we didn't disrupt the original editing of each sequence. Although George wanted all of the spaceships to be more dynamic and to move twice as fast and double the distance, he also insisted that the new shots be the same length as the old ones. That was a challenge."