There are pieces of Star Wars that will forever be ingrained in my mind. 20th Century Fox's opening fanfare can only herald the beginning of John Williams' iconic score. The sorrow and power of Binary Sunset in A New Hope and of Han Solo and the Princess in The Empire Strikes Back will stay with me forever. But somehow, one of my strongest memories of Star Wars was never in the films at all; it's from the trailer attached to the 1995 VHS re-release of the original trilogy. Even if they were never uttered in the films themselves, these words had a gravity to them. They felt like Star Wars.
For those who remember. For those who will never forget. And for a whole new generation who will experience it for the very first time...
The 1995 release, unchanged but for the remastered THX audio, was dubbed "The Original Star Wars trilogy on video...one last time." That was true enough--Special Edition followed two years later, and those who will never forget the original trilogy have fallen into a cycle of disappointment and dismay with every subsequent re-release. There are countless justifications for hating the Special Editions, from shoddy coloring mistakes to unnecessary CG alien additions, but one towers above the rest. The original Star Wars is a cultural landmark worthy of preservation--along with films like Birth of a Nation, Metropolis, and Citizen Kane, Star Wars had an incalculable impact on the language of film, and Han Solo stepping on CG Jabba's tail had nothing to do with it.
George Lucas has, perhaps, lost sight of that fact. His fans haven't. While most of us can't do more than complain, one member of the Original Trilogy Star Wars forum has gone above and beyond to restore Star Wars to its original (imperfect) form. Harmy, a 23 year-old student living in the Czech Republic, has spent most of 2011 working on his own Despecialized Editions of the original trilogy--ironically restoring the vision Lucas wandered from in the past 15 years.
With new changes in the Blu-ray releases stirring up rage and Vader Noooos across the Internet, Harmy's work has suddenly exploded in popularity. Fed up with CG insertions but desperate for a better picture than the letterboxed Laserdisc rips included on the 2004 DVDs? Harmy's Despecialized Editions are the closest you're going to get.
And here's the crazy part: Harmy didn't spend seven months undoing Lucas' damage with state-of-the-art editing software or a beastly octo-core desktop workstation. As he explained to me in an email interview, he works with the humble tools available to him: an old laptop, outdated Adobe After Effects, and consumer-grade editing software. Why? Because the original films deserve to be preserved.
"I used to have a copy of a copy of an old VHS (the original version) which I watched so much as a kid that I totally wore it out," Harmy wrote. "Actually in the case of TESB and ROTJ I saw the Special Editions first and it took a lot of effort to find the original versions on VHS here in the Czech Republic. And it was one of the awesomest STAR WARS moments for me when I finally got to watch the original versions of these films (though it also made me pretty angry when I realized that some of the Special FX shots I was admiring so much were actually recomposited and thus lost much of their historical value)."
Harmy originally got the idea to "despecialize" Star Wars when he found out an old girlfriend had never seen the movies. He wanted to show her the original, rather than the Special Edition, and ended up settling for the Laserdisc rip on the 2004 DVDs (often referred to as GOUT, or George's Original Unaltered Theatrical versions).
Long before starting the Despecialized project in 2011, Harmy had tried splicing the GOUT DVD footage into a 720p rip of Empire using Windows Movie Maker. The results weren't pretty, but he came back to the idea three years later and started work on a Partly Despecialized Edition of the trilogy, removing the most egregious SE changes. Those edits eventually rolled into the full Despecialized Editions he worked on this year, beginning with The Empire Strikes Back in February and ending with Return of the Jedi in August.
In addition to cutting out Special Edition scenes, Harmy color corrected each film--which involved matching up all of his disparate source videos--to mimic the original versions as closely as possible. Working with an HDTV rip as a base, he upscaled content from the GOUT DVDs, created custom mattes to hide Special Edition changes, and used extensive rotoscoping to piece the changes together.
Just a few of his most impressive edits are scattered throughout this article--hundreds more are compiled in a Picasa gallery here.
Even with Star Wars finally out on Blu-ray, Harmy doesn't plan to start the projects from scratch.
"I also decided against using the Blu-Rays as a source for the new versions, as I’d still have to work in 720p and from the comparisons I've seen between the Blu-Rays and the highest quality HDTV captures, the difference is so small (being the same resolution from the same master) that it wouldn't be worth it," he explained.
But the Despecialized project isn't over and done with just yet.
"I’m working on a new version of SW with some glitches fixed, some shots re-despecialized and some additional changes (for example I’m currently working on restoring the original lightsabers in the Ben vs. Vader duel or the original hologram of Leia, both of which were recomposited in the SE and given a very different look in the process)," Harmy wrote. "Then I’m going to do some further tweaks to ESB (some more changes were recently discovered and added to Doubleofive’s comprehensive SE change lists: SW, ESB, ROTJ, Blu-Ray)."
Harmy's initiative--and the passion of the Original Trilogy forum crowd, who kept him going through the more tedious editing moments--are rare examples of Internet dissatisfaction leading to something genuinely amazing and productive. The Save Star Wars website is a fascinating resource for changes made to the series over the years, and its story about a 2010 screening of a one-of-a-kind Technicolor imbibition dye-transfer print sparks a tiny hope that one day a 4K or 6K scan of the original film will digitally preserve Star Wars for decades to come. It may be a forlorn hope, considering the time investment and equipment (nevermind the legal issues) involved in digitizing the film.
Until the day Lucasfilm or a very rich, very bold fan scans that Technicolor film, the Star Wars community subsists on edits like Harmy's, put together with the Special Edition and GOUT DVDs and HDTV rips from satellite broadcasts. If you're interested in diving into the deep, deep world of Star Wars fan edits, Harmy's Despecialized editions are easy to find with a little Googling. Most editors aren't nearly as exacting--or as subtle, anyway--and instead focus on having fun with Star Wars instead of preserving it.
Harmy's own Star Wars Trilogy: The Very Special Edition, available in 12 parts on Youtube, mashes up real footage with Star Wars parodies from the obvious (Blue Harvest and Robot Chicken) to the obscure (random Youtube parodies). One edit removes excess Ewoks from Return of the Jedi. Another cuts the prequel trilogy down into a four hour affair, lopping off about 40 percent of its original runtime. And, of course, there's the famous Phantom Edit, which pushes Jar Jar into a small supporting role and excises about 20 minutes of the film.
For now, Harmy's edits represent the closest thing to George's Original Unaltered Theatrical we can watch in high definition. And with another round of editing on the way, the Despecialized edits will only be more faithful to the versions that drew moviegoers to theaters again and again and again--the versions we'll never forget.