Apr 19, 2011

Saving Star Wars

For photography, film and historical enthusiasts (preferably all three), Saving Star Wars: The Special Edition Restoration Process and its Changing Physicality is the most comprehensive, detailed and technical description of the process motion picture films go through when printed for theatrical screenings or restored decades later for re-release or home theatre.

Don't let the subject matter of Star Wars deter you- the article doesn't get into any of "Han shoots first" debate. Author Michael Kaminski instead meticulously assembles the most thorough chronology and explanation of the multiple generations negatives need to go through, how they age, what needs to be done to counter-age them, and what restoration generation each subsequent release of Star Wars comes from (briefly, the 2004 DVD release film source does and does not come from the 1997 restoration).
Had the film remained like this, we would have a restored version of Star Wars, perfectly matching the original release but with pristine quality, even to the point where it was better than what could have been possible back then (as with the higher quality optical transitions). However, this was only part of the process of making what was eventually called "The Special Edition." ILM was working on many dozens of new shots, and an even larger amount of enhanced shots, using digital effects to re-do, expand, re-edit and otherwise alter many scenes in the film. When these were completed, they apparently were printed onto film and re-cut into the negative, replacing the original negs, which were undoubtedly put back into storage. As a result, the negative for Star Wars is filled with CGI-laden modern alterations. When Lucas says that the original version physically does not exist, this is what he really means--the negative is conformed to the Special Edition.-Saving Star Wars
Film restoration has always fascinated me, and there's usually not that much information available. Magazine articles and DVD special features rarely get into close detail about the process these projects take, but mostly because it's a very dull process just to get things where they should normally be (it's much more interesting to show before/after shots of Han walking around CG Jaba the Hutt than to show grain smoothing and chromatic aberration of desert scenes). I even started the Wikipedia page about film restoration company Lowry Digital (mentioned in the article) because they didn't have an official site at the time and I was more interested in what people contributed to the page.

For my Art History final at SCAD, I did a presentation about film restoration, leaning more toward the argument that students should consider the care of their work now before it deteriorates. For example, Martin Scorsese became the biggest proponent of film preservation and archiving in the early 80's after realizing that his original camera negatives for Taxi Driver have deteriorated with age and are unusable. The climactic shootout, in particular, was slightly de-saturated at the request of the studio to make the scene less-violent (grayer blood isn't as bloody, apparently), and because the negatives are gone, this alteration can't be undone.

The original color scheme of Taxi Driver's shoot-out sequence is represented in this still from Taschen's "Steve Schapiro, Taxi Driver."

The altered brownish sepia tones were manipulated onto the final sequence in order to get an R rating from the MPAA, which felt that the violence in the shoot-out sequence was somehow toned down by the sepia effect.
On the other hand, Director of Photography Gilbert Taylor photographed Star Wars to be gauzy and slightly soft-filtered--this was at the request of Lucas. In certain shots in Tunisia, Lucas insisted on using filters, even pantyhose over the lens, to get an intentionally soft image; Taylor disagreed with this approach, feeling the desert already gave a soft look, but did it anyways. The sharpening to Star Wars that Lucas in 2004 insisted on, especially in the desert scenes, often betrays this deliberate look, especially ironic since it was Lucas who initially insisted on it in 1976.-Saving Star Wars

This is one of the reasons I'm an enthusiast for digital acquisition and tools for moviemaking instead of film and analog. Although it sounds completely backwards from wanting to maintain the highest original quality- the fact is film is an atom-based medium that is susceptible to deterioration, rather than digital "bits," which can be duplicated infinitely without any loss in quality. Director David Fincher said in an interview when talking about shooting Zodiac digitally, that even though 35mm film may be "4K," by the time you see a film in a local theatre your print's degraded to around 1K (1080p HD televisions are slightly less than 2K, or 2048 pixels wide, in quality). However, employing the right workflow digitally, your theatrical output could be conforming out directly from your raw camera files, or "digital negatives."

In the DVD for Once Upon A Time In Mexico, director Robert Rodriguez gives a tour of his Troublemaker Studios, describing his sound mixer, editing station, music scorer and more as "a giant [computer] mouse." What he meant was that because all of the elements are acquired digitally- picture and sound- they don't have to go through generations of manipulation that degrades or loses quality. If the MPAA wants the blood less saturated for theatrical release, they can have their wish with a few clicks of a keyboard, and you can change it back if the film is later regarded as one of the greatest ever made.

Whenever films are color-timed, it is the Interpositives from which theatrical prints work from--original negatives do not contain any color-timing information, so whenever a release goes back to the original negatives, all the color-timing is lost and the film must be re-timed from scratch all over again. It is doubtful that an entirely new negative was struck from the corrected IP for Star Wars, which might explain why Lucas enacted a second color-timing effort in 2004 when he returned to the original negatives.-Saving Star Wars
Had Star Wars been acquired digitally, the color-timing for the rerelease would have been unnecessary- simply load the saved DaVinci data files (like a .doc, probably just a few megabytes) into the raw camera files, and export out to whatever format you wanted. Export for BluRay or streaming on Netflix- your audience will be viewing the film only at the limitation of the medium.

As for whether the films should be altered after release, I'll let other people decide.

UPDATE 22 April 2011

Studio Daily wrote an interesting, short article about the restoration and re-coloring of modern films, specifically Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan (though I feel the word "Remastering" would be more accurate, as these 10yr-old films are just getting digitized for the sake of home video release, rather than to actively save them from irreparable damage).

The quote I found most interesting shows that George Lucas isn't the only one obsessed with change:
“A lot of creators never stop thinking about their films,” even after their release, Levinson said in response. He went on to explain that the director is the arbiter of how far a colorist should go in refining a film’s imagery. He mentioned one type of director — naming no names — for whom a film’s look is a bit of a moving target. “I’ve done the same movie four times and had it look different all four times,” he said.

In the words of Leonardo DaVinci, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."