.: The Star Wars Blu-Ray Blues

It took George Lucas until three years after DVD sales surpassed VHS sales before he put the Star Wars trilogy on the new format, almost seven years after its debut and more than a little late. Blu Ray will be a bit better at only five. Rumours of a 2011 release started percolating earlier this year, and fan ambassador Steve Sansweet confirmed a few months ago that a release was in the works. Finally, on August 14, while making a rare convention appearance, George Lucas himself announced the Blu Ray for 2011 during the Celebration V convention.

"I wish I could say it was coming out this year," he said, "but it's not.  It's coming out next year." Thunderous applause came from the crowd, as expected.


There are a number of things to take some issue with here though, so bear with me for a moment. After originaltrilogy.com gathered more than 70,000 signatures to release the original cuts of the trilogy on DVD, they began a brief time ago a similar campaign to get the original versions of the films on Blu Ray. However, it is predictable but incredibly unfortunate that George Lucas later announced the new Blu Rays will be the Special Editions only.

Did he mean these Special Editions? While having only the Special Editions is one thing, the new digital masters that Lucas spent "millions of dollars" (his words) perfecting in 2004 has so many picture and audio issues that watching them is a bit of chore. Most perplexing is his statement in Lucasfilm's press release: "The films have never looked or sounded better." I can assure you that the films here do not look better than the films here. Depending on how you measure it, the 2004 release is among the worst examples of how the films have ever looked. But we can at least pray that Lucas has corrected these "deliberate artistic choices", in the words of his company's publicist, for the impending release.

Lucas did, however, at least on first glance, give some hope that in the future the original versions might be restored, but that they had to treat the Special Editions first. "We've been working on this for a long time, but there are pipelines. Unfortunately, the recent releases get priority over what we call the classic versions of things," he said to the New York Times. Gone was his speech about "his vision" of things. He lamented that presenting the originals was just too expensive to do, which at least implies he might be open to it were not very pricey. Releasing the originals on Blu Ray, he told the New York Times, is "kind of an oxymoron because the quality of the original is not very good. You have to go through and do a whole restoration on it, and you have to do that digitally. It's a very, very expensive process to do it. So when we did the transfer to digital, we only transferred really the upgraded version."

This statement is seriously wrong, and I'm going to explain why. The original films were already restored. Starting in 1995, the original negatives of all three films were restored by Twentieth Century Fox for the 20th anniversary. It was a tremendous undertaking that Fox spent almost $20 million on, but it preserved the negatives for many more generations. Simply put: the restoration of the original films has already happened. You may say: but those were the Special Edition negatives. Yes. But the Special Edition negatives are the same negatives as the original versions, except in the shots where a change has been made, like a redone X-wing shot, or another Ronto creature put into the background of Mos Eisley, or a recomposited optical. New shots and scenes are simply excluded, like the added Jabba scene, since the original version negatives never had these. With these guidelines, cumulatively, what percentage of the total film would one say the Special Edition enhancements represent? Maybe 10% of the existing film was changed for Star Wars, maybe 5% was changed for Empire and Jedi. Give or take.

This means that 90% and 95% of all the restoration work was done and paid for by Fox in 1997. Lucas would literally have to restore between 10% and 5% of the films. And that's only if those segments are in need of repair--much of the films were fine and did not require any work other than washing the surface dirt off the film. So, in a more realistic scenario, he might find himself having to do repairs to 5% of Star Wars and 3% of Empire and Jedi. Then, one can edit them into the existing scan of the negatives and colour correct it.

But what about all that fancy digital cleanup by Lowry Digital Imaging that the 2004 release was treated to? This stuff is pricey and the films are so damaged they need it, right? Wrong. While it would be a nice bonus to have this treatment, to erase some scratches and density fluxuations, this is not strictly required. The 1997 Special Edition had no such treatment. Think back to how great the films looked in theatres in 1997. That is how the originals would look if the negatives were scanned as-is, without further digital repair.

Lucas has the world convinced that restoring the originals is some super-ambitious, multi-million-dollar undertaking, but almost all of the work was already done back when Fox was paying for it all. 

So, what is there to look forward to in the new Blu Rays? Well, during the announcement at the Celebration V convention, Lucas showed a deleted scene from Return of the Jedi that was completed and even scored by John Williams in 1983 before being cut, and it's pretty cool. He has said other deleted scenes will be on the set. Neat. So, the set will provide some of those essential materials that were conspicuously lacking in the 2004 set's meagre single disc of bonus material. I guess, how else could they get people to buy the Special Editions again. Steve Sansweet even remarked, "we aren't calling it definitive," preparing us for the inevitable double dip down the line. And you know all those deleted scenes they are trying to lure in fans of the original films with will be all over YouTube eventually. All I know is that I sure won't be buying this. Not unless the original versions are there in new transfers.

The original versions of the Star Wars trilogy can be presented in high-definition restorations from the negatives relatively easily. Lucas is estimated to be worth about $3.5 billion in assets. That's a figure you and I cannot even grasp. Renowned film restorationist Robert Harris even volunteered his services in 2006 to get to work on the original films. I'd be in on it too. If they collected $2 from every patron at Celebration V, the restoration would already be paid for. All it takes is that little rubber stamp of approval from some suit sitting in a leather chair in Skywalker Ranch. But when the 2004 boxset sells $100 million in it's first day of release, I guess they really don't need to care about such things. You can predict the Blu Ray will do comparable numbers.

Still, Lucas' comments at least provide some evidence of his weakening stance on his "one version only" crusade. Let's hope he finds a bit of change at the bottom of that swimming pool full of money one day.