.: Fan Preservations
I should say right off the bat that you will find no information here about where to obtain fan preservations. I should also say off the bat that this website in no way supports or encourages the selling of such preservations; virtually every fan-made DVD of Star Wars has been made out of the passion and enthusiasm for the franchise and are intended for personal use, not for profit. If you find someone selling a DVD, they are making money off of someone elses hard work (not to mention Lucasfilm's). And don't anyone ask me where to get anything either, this is an information page, not a trading hub.
With that out of the way, let's get into it. If you've wanted to watch Star Wars in the best available way for the last decade or so, you've had to go beyond Lucasfilm. For starters, they refused to release the original versions of the films for about a decade, and when they finally broke in 2006 their release was still so poor in quality that it was over thirteen years out of date, and so fans have continued to fix, tweak and enhance the official releases. In short, we have to care because Lucas doesn't, and we have to do the work that Lucasfilm won't. Here, I'll take a look at the brief history of Star Wars bootlegs and fan preservations, and where the current state of the art stands.
The Early Days
When the Special Editions supplanted the original cuts in 1997, Laserdisc was about to die in the United States, and when the refurbished films were issued on home video that year it marked the last time the trilogy was released on Laserdisc. That year was also the debut of DVD. As such, there was no demand for "preservations" of the original trilogy, because everyone was still watching them on VHS and Laserdisc. But things began to change very quickly. By 2000, the new video format had really taken off, and many classic films were coming to DVD looking and sounding better than anyone had ever heard or seen them. In 2001, the first Star Wars DVD was officially released (Episode I), and demand for the rest of the series was really starting to build. Lucas was very vocal, however, that only the Special Edition would be released, and furthermore maintained that it would take until after the prequels were complete for it to happen.
Around this time, the first bootlegs started to appear. Among the earliest were supposedly those from Asia (as a character on the Simpsons once referred to Hong Kong: "Hidden Pirate Island"), which included the release dubbed "LOOK", which was popular on eBay. These usually used the 1995 THX/"Faces" Laserdiscs, and were usually of poor quality. However, by 2002 DVD sales had overtaken VHS sales and it became clear that DVD was the wave of the future; eBay had also risen in popularity quite a bit, and would soon take off with the introduction of Paypal. Around this time, the maker of the Editdroid release began making plans to use the Definitive Edition Laserdiscs for a DVD set (at that time, he says, there was only a bootleg from Asia), and other fans that owned this popular, deluxe release had similar thoughts, as it was considered the best available source for the original Star Wars films. It's hard to say what was the first fan preservation, but when the famous "Cowclops/TR47" transfer came out in the summer of 2003, based on the 1993 Definitive Edition LD, there wasn't a huge amount of competition. Cowclops describes his techniques:
"Hooked up the s-video out on a Pioneer Elite CLD-59 Laserdisc player to a
Sony Digital8 camcorder with analog in. Recorded the video to DV format by way
of the camcorder, and used firewire to digitally transfer the video into the
computer. From there, used several programs to filter out the noise from the
laserdisc. Then, encoded the video to DVD format with CinemaCraft Encoder SP.
Finally, authored the DVD with DVDit PE and wrote it to a Ritek 2x DVD-R with a
Pioneer DVR-104 drive using Nero."
This may sound incredibly crude by todays standards, but the release was of good quality at the time, and with PCM sound was long regarded as having one of the best soundtracks. This version was probably the most popular version on eBay and with street sellers, and was your standard "original version of Star Wars on DVD" for a long time, and still circulates to this day. The Special Editions began to appear on DVD as well, and rips of both versions started appearing as CD-ROM burnable files on the file-trading websites and other networks that were relatively new at the time.
In 2002, originaltrilogy.com had gone online, consisting of a petition where one could add your name "to bring the unaltered Star Wars trilogy to DVD in 2005," and by the end of 2003 had garned almost 50,000 names. By then it also opened a forum, which slowly built a small community of experts, seeking to see the original trilogy preserved. The release of the further-altered Special Editions in 2004 only added to their cause, and provided further impetus for members and outsiders to transfer the Laserdiscs to DVD, such as the popular "Isomix" release, which also preserved the vintage documentaries that were glaringly absent from the official Lucasfilm set; the "Dr. Gonzo" Laserdisc transfer also surfaced in 2004, which was among the first to introduce anamorphic widescreen. Around this time, torrents and usenet had become popular as high-speed internet had become wide-spread, and DVD burners were finally becoming affordable, cutting out bootleg sellers and making things peer-to-peer. An editor created a release called "Editdroid" for his own use sometime in 2003, using professional editing tools such as AVID, re-creating the original crawl in After Effects, and providing an isolated score as well, with slick menu design; the release laid low on usergroups but surfaced on the internet in 2005 under the name "Mysterious Mysteries," as no one initially claimed credit for it, and was considered one of the premiere preservation efforts for a time. As home editing technology became cheaper, easier to use and more powerful, preservationists continued to push the bar, and community allowed them to share materials and build more and more elaborate releases.
By the end of 2005 there were a slew of Laserdisc transfers trying to outdo each other in quality and supplements. Old-timers from those days will probably remember some release names: Citizen, Moth3r, Doctor M, Farsight, Rowman, second attempts by Cowclops and Editdroid. As DVD quality kept improving, it nonetheless became clear that these transfers would never look better than just Laserdisc releases, and restoration technology back then was fairly non-existant. This is why the X0 project began: an ambitious attempt to use the best Laserdisc player ever built (the Pioneer X0), as well as professional grade post-production hardware and software to make a release better than the Laserdiscs on their own could offer. The mastermind behind this project, Laserman, suffered serious health problems, stalling the project and it was never completed, despite significant financial investment from themselves and public supporters. Another project that attempted to overcome Laserdisc limitations was OCP's "Classic Edition" releases, which used the 2004 SE DVD and edited in portions of Laserdisc, to not very convincing results. All of these projects mentioned thusfar have now become obsolete; Moth3r's PAL versions and the Editdroid series were considered among the best, but by todays standards they are soft and suffer from a number of defects. Some of these still circulate simply due to their established history.
The official DVD release of the original, unaltered trilogy in 2006 provided a brief moment of elation and then a firestorm of controversy as it was soon confirmed it was a release using the 1993 Definitive Edition master. However, as it was a port directly from the master (a D1 or D2 tape), and also had the benefit of the true original crawl, it nonetheless offered by far the sharpest and most detailed transfer of the films. It has since become the standard source for further work.
The 2006 release had many problems. On originaltrilogy.com, the release was coined as the GOUT--George's Original, Unaltered Trilogy--as a jab that Lucas had intentionally released it in poor quality so that it would have a handicap in competing against his Special Edition (which probably has some truth to it). The release was plagued by a number of problems: 1) The 1993 master had DNR applied to it which smeared away detail in any moving shot and sometimes left trailing artifacts. 2) It was not anamorphic. 3) It suffered from aliasing or "jaggies". 4) It was not up to modern standards of detail. All of these were a result of the era in which it was made, which was over a decade out of date. 5) It was excessively grainy, especially in early scenes. 6) The audio mix was not the original. 7) It was plaugued by frame jitter, or gate weave. 8) It lacked the original subtitles. Most of these could be solved. The easiest to do was convert it to anamorphic widescreen, and by the end of 2006 viewers were already doing this themselves. The other ones required some creativity.
Here we come to the modern era of original trilogy preservation. There were a few experiments in 2007 attempting to tackle issue 1) and issue 4); some, such as Paulisdead, who made the "Vintage Edits," thought the GOUT could be edited into a colour-corrected 2004 master since the release was so much sharper than previous efforts and hence wouldn't stand out as much. These, more or less, failed; the problem was that some shots would require rotoscoping GOUT portions into an SE frame and needed professional-grade skills to achieve it (which was why Adywan's releases were successful--but even he didn't attempt some shots). The other was that many shots were exclusive to the GOUT and thus you were stuck cutting between Lowry's 2004 master and a 1993 Laserdisc master, and it was an obvious jump in quality. One ingenious solution Paulisdead did stumble upon was using a photoshop histogram plugged into an AviSynth script that automatically transfered the GOUT colours to the 2004 master, to auto-colour-correct it. It was not totally successful, since it revealed noise in dark areas, but his techniques would point the way for future efforts.
That is, using AviSynth to eliminate some of the other issues. The unsolveable issues remained though: you could not pull out much more detail than the raw GOUT video, and you couldn't use the 2004 master because it was such a quality jump, so you had to live with the GOUT. That also meant living with the DNR smearing; some theorized that alternate sources could be spliced into it in the worst instances, but no Lasedisc transfer matches in quality and it has not yet been attempted to my knowledge. However, AviSynth could be used to plug in scripts to correct the other problems, without re-rendering the video file or losing quality. Anamorphic conversion, frame stabilization and even colour correction were easily accomplished. G-Force developed a script for frame stabilization that eventually encompased all of the previously-mentioned issues. He then turned to anti-aliasing and grain-removal, in which he was also extremely successful, but it introduced its own problems, namely erasing detail with it and making the films looks like video, but these will be discussed later. Creating the burnt-in Greedo subtitles required using Avisynth to match the font and positioning of the 1977 telecine bootleg and 16mm commercial print, with Jedi's subs matching documentary footage of a theatrical print. The final problem of obtaining original audio was overcome in 2007 with the Mono Restoration Project and in 2010 with the stereo and six-track releases (see: Theatrical Audio Resources for more info).
For now, I want to take a look at the top 4 fan preservations currently available. It is no surprise that they are among the four most recent. Technology and user ingenuity keep improving with each year and all four of these are from 2010, the year of this writing. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses, and appraisal will depend on your preferences.
Star Wars only
This edition was created by long-standing originaltrilogy.com member Moth3r, who had previously made one of the best Laserdisc preserves. In 2010, he released this, which was one of the first to sport the GOUT filtered through an Avisynth script. G-force's script has been continually updated, but one of the earlier problems it struggled with was detail erasure. In an attempt to de-grain and anti-alias the image, the image basically was softened to hide these flaws and smooth them over. This was essentially the same as the DNR that was applied to the original master, and resulted in a smooth, clean image that had no fine detail. Sadly, this is a trend that is becoming more and more prevalent in home video since HD became popular, as people don't want to see any grain and would rather have a perfect, smooth image that has had all its detail erased. As the biggest problem with the GOUT was its lack of resolution, any filter that softens it further should be considered a deal-breaker. Recognizing this, however, Moth3r used his own script to apply the softening only sparingly (though this means the aliasing is still there a bit). The grain has been left in, although it has been filtered a bit to get rid of some excess. Audio-wise, the release was the first restoration to feature the original theatrical stereo, with the mono mix as an alternate option. The picture, of course, also has been stabilized, made anamorphic, and contains the proper Greedo subtitles. There was also some mild colour-correction to increase saturation. Personally, I find increasing saturation of the GOUT tends to make colours pop and bleed a bit, but to be fair the GOUT is pretty washed out.
In short, this is a first-rate transfer. The one strike against it is that it's a single-layered disc, and as a result, there is some mild compression artifacts in certain high-motion shots. The upside is that if one didn't have a dual-layered burner (as most don't) then this is ideal for that very reason.
Editdroid 2010 /Original Theatrical Version
Star Wars only
This release doesn't have much exposure, but it deserves to. A well-connected friend handed me an unlabelled disc one day and told me that this was an as-yet-unreleased copy of the best available version of Star Wars. He was right. I was blown away the first time I saw this, although the release is not without its flaws. A technical description on the DVD explains how the GOUT was taken into photoshop so that extra detail could be extracted by playing with the levels. The image was also converted to anamorphic, and colour-corrected to match the actual Laserdisc balances(more midrange/less contrast, less saturation, more red-shifted). With its dual-layered file size, I would say this is the most detailed transfer of Star Wars that exists, and because it has less contrast some of the mid-range detail is brought out better. One thing people may not like is that it's less saturated than the other releases; personally, as Star Wars does have a pastel colour palette, I find it attractive looking, but some may prefer the other colour timing. The Greedo font is burnt-in, but is not the theatrical-accurate font or size--although, I have to admit I like this version of the subs better. The real strike against this release is that there was no anti-aliasing applied, so if the aliasing really bothers you then you might want to try another release. The audio is hit and miss: while the makers went to great pains to create an original 5.1-channel mix using Pro Tools, they based it off the 2004 mix, so while a 5.1 mix is attractive you have most of the 2004 mix's flaws, although it appears they corrected the music issues in the battle of Yavin; the alternate audio is the mono mix, which I prefer instead.
However, this is overall a very high-quality release, with professional-grade full-motion menus. It should be noted that while the note from the maker signs himself as "Editdroid" in aurebesh, this is not to be confused with the Laserdisc-sourced Editdroid of earlier times--rather, it is coincidence, as the creator here did not know of that release. The title on the menu says "Original Theatrical Version."
Dark_Jedi has made at least three attempts at the trilogy now, so you should be aware of which version is which. His (or should I say G-Force's) first two attempts failed to properly engage the intricacies of film restoration, but his third attempt solved it and thensome. The first releases used heavy anti-aliasing and grain-removal from the G-Force script, such that the film was totally clean; it looked like it had been shot on video, not a film anymore. This plasticy look, trying to get a "perfect" image, is a serious problem in home video mastering in recent years, specifically in HD releases; often it caters to consumers who don't know any better or have misinformed notions about how a film should look. Digitals Bits has been a very vocal advocate against this, recently on the new Predator Blu Ray. Like the DNR that is today applied to Blu-Ray, and was applied to the Star Wars master in 1993 already, all the detail gets softened as well, extra-bad since the GOUT is already low quality in this regard, although the image clarity of the first versions was an interesting experiment. However, as further work and feedback resulted, G-Force and Dark_Jedi let back on the gas and only applied mild amounts of softening for the third release. Grain has been reduced, but not removed, as it should be, while the jagged aliasing remains totally gone. The image is a bit softer than the actual GOUT if you examine the fine detail, but the difference is minor enough that most probably won't be bothered.
With stablization, anamorphic enhancement and the proper subtitles for all the films, this is a solid release. Return of the Jedi in particular benefits, as there is no comparable restoration of that film (Empire is taken care of by Adywan, see below). However, the real clincher to this is the audio: basically, every single mix of the films. Theatrical stereo, mono and six-track for Star Wars, plus Dark_Jedi captured the theatrical stereo of Empire and Jedi himself. This is the first release to include all of these, and also the first DVD release to include the new 5.1 six-track mix by Harry_Hen, which is the definitive audio for Star Wars. As this is based on G-force's Avisynth script, it has the additional saturation and yellow-shift to Star Wars. All in all a great set of restorations.
Empire Strikes Back Theatrical Reconstruction
While working on Empire Strikes Back Revisted, Adywan noticed that there was no Empire restoration to celebrate the 30th anniversary. In only a few days Adywan whipped this up, and it came out in time for May 25th, 2010. This thing is a miracle of fan restoration work. Until Lucasfilm releases Empire in a transfer from the negative it will probably not be topped. Adywan had previously used the HD master of the 2004 transfer to recreate the 1997 SE, reinstating the original Emperor from a rare HD broadcast of the 1997 version and cutting out the Kiwi-Fett audio, while colour correcting the tinting to 1997 levels and re-colouring the lightsabers to their proper hues. From here, he intercut GOUT material over the 1997 material. How did he do this, when others failed to do so? Well, Empire is very light on the changes. You have to restore a few wampa shots, and a few Cloud City mattes, and then get rid of those windows that have been added all over the place. Not too heavy, if you're Adywan. It was actually much more work than he thought. The GOUT wampa footage has been heavily filtered to match the clean levels of the 2004 transfer, and only the one shot of the cave wall with a shadow moving across it stands out as less-than-stellar. The restored Cloud City is a real marvel--Adywan basically treated the shots as visual effect composites. In order to preserve detail, Adywan scanned the original matte paintings from art books and composited them over the 2004 footage, to have a seamless original image with all of the quality of the 2004 transfer. For shots of the hallways, Adywan took the 2004 footage as a plate and then composited GOUT portions over the windows only. Some of the shots required intricate rotoscoping, and morphing between GOUT and 2004 sources within the same shot. It's all entirely seamless--even the shot of Lando's original announcement, which begins as the 2004 master and blends into the GOUT within the same shot, looks good. And to top it off, the original audio is in 5.1 surround sound, based off a modified 1997 Laserdisc audio capture.
Anything bad to say about this? The colours are accurate, but the contrast is the same as the 2004 master, which means it is a bit too punchy and oversaturated; Dagobah is also too bright, while the image should have a tiny bit more grain apparent in my opinion. And the "corrected" shot of Han without his vest from the 2004 version is in there. But I'm being nitpicky. The transfer is a single-layer but you would hardly be able to tell. Adywan said he might do a dual-layered version at another date, and maybe tweak a few items (restoring Han's shirt would be easy, and the one wampa shot would be better filtered using G-Force's script). He experimented with an HD version of this, but the GOUT-HD compositing simply didn't hold together, so this is SD only, though it holds up remarkably well when upconverted. In short, this a marvellous effort, and the only way to watch Empire Strikes Back. The film has practically been restored to its original state from the camera negative, at least in standard def.
I should also point out: Adywan released a version of his Star Wars Revisited called "Purist Edition" which omits most of the radical changes, such as the re-editing of Ben's hovel or the expanded Yavin sequence. As such, it is a "partly de-specialized edition" that contains much of the original footage through GOUT-2004 compositing similar to the Empire restoration, and SE-additions are kept to a minimum.
Despite what may be considered bleak odds, the future of fan preservations is looking better than ever. For starters, it is only in the last few months (as of August 2010, the time of this writing) that all of the original theatrical audios have been captured in high quality, with six-track surround for Star Wars, and Empire and Jedi on the way, plus Adywan's Empire Strikes Back Dolby Digital creation. It is actually a very exciting time, to have the films sound as they originally did and in great quality and surround sound to boot.
However, the biggest issues have been, and will continue to be, in picture restoration. Until someone scans a 35mm print, we will still be working from the 2004 master and the GOUT. But what can be done to further improve things? Is it even possible? I think it certainly is. One way is to continue to work on the Avisynth scripts, to de-alias without softening the rest of the picture, if that is possible. The GOUT still has some pretty coarse dupe grain, especially in the first couple of reels of Star Wars and Empire, and this needs to be reduced throughout the films. One method would be to continue to improve the Avisynth scripts to allow heavier grain reduction without picture softening. Another would be to build an algorithm similar to Lowry's to automatically paint out the dupe grain while leaving the original emulsion grain alone, but this is a lofty undertaking.
The most exciting premise, in my opinion, is following in the footsteps of Adywan's restoration work. He basically fully restored Empire Strikes Back, short of a few minor details that could be easily cleaned up. The main blockage right now is that Star Wars is very difficult to tackle the same way, and would require someone of at least Adywan's level of skill to do it correctly. My reason for offering this direction is because even could we perfectly solve the GOUT Avisynth problems to get rid of the dupe grain, smooth out the aliasing and leave the fine detail untouched--it still would look lacklustre by modern standards. It is still a 1993 Laserdisc master at the end of the day, and that's a distinct ceiling. Adywan with his Revisited showed that Star Wars, the most difficult of the three, could have some Special Edition ehancements removed by compositing and rotoscoping only those parts of the shot and filtering the GOUT--he was able to get rid of those rontos and flying droids, for example. It would require a lot of work and a lot of time, but I believe the rest of the film can be done. The hardest part is still the shots that are exclusive to the original version, such as the shot of Ben's hovel, or the original dogfight footage. How would one cut between the 2004 master and the GOUT? Filtering the GOUT like in Empire Strikes Back works best with brief clips, before your eye can discern the artifacts and quality difference. It could be done anyway, but the results would not be as impressive as the Empire Strikes Back restoration, although Return of the Jedi would hold up.
One answer is the X0 project. Before Laserman went to the hospital, he demonstrated his "Black Magic" process, which used professional post-production hardware and software to take multiple transfers of different Laserdiscs and combine the detail from all the layers while excluding dirt and noise, using Shake compositing software and a custom script. The result was stunning, and looked far superior than the GOUT. If a cleaned up GOUT was added to this process, it would be all the better, but even before the GOUT was released the results were extremely high quality. Below is an example.
Now, the X0 people claim the project is not dead. But its been on hold for about four years now, and no one knows if the restoration mastermind, Laserman, is even alive. Given that they solicited donations and received decent amounts of money from people, it seems only fair to give them back something, at least while in wait. And so my plea to X0 members is to release whatever footage has been processed, specifically original-version shots; according to project member Zion, he only received two shots that were given the full Black Magic processing, but even ones that haven't been treated to the process could be useful. Doing this will give restorationists new tools and sources from which to make future edits. A final answer is to attempt the same process ourselves, although this would require a great level of technical knowhow and some pretty serious hardware and software. Given the above example, however, it seems that this is the most effective methodology; one could intercut it with the 2004 master almost seamlessly.
The problem remains, however, that there will be no natively HD transfer of the original versions until different source material surfaces. However, if the above examples and releases show, watching the original Star Wars trilogy can nonetheless be had in high-quality.
For some information on various Star Wars preservations, there are a few links to start with. One is originaltrilogy.com's preservation board, which also has a stickied thread on various projects. Another is the long-standing Galactic Trade Federation, which is a little out of date now. OT.com started a sister site called fanedit.com, which has a database of some preservations and fan edits, though its currently a bit lacking on the subject of Star Wars. This website took a look mainly at bootlegs and fan preservationis of the trilogy, but has not been keeping up with post-GOUT developments. There are more pages out there, but these sites are the ones best known to me.