“The Negatives of the Movie Were Permanently Altered”

Paul R. Potts

In this final essay about the original film, I discuss “visionary” George Lucas’ weirdly myopic view of his own movie’s future. It seems that Lucas in 2006 couldn’t even foresee that there would be higher-resolution digital formats like Blu-Ray — initially released in 2006.

The URL I used for Lucasfilm’s response to the originaltrilogy.com petition is broken, but at the time of this writing, I was able to find Lucasfilm’s reply here.

In 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm. 20th Century Fox seems to have the rights to the original film. What does this mean for the possibility of an official, authorized, fully-restored release of the 1977 film? I have no idea.

Over at originaltrilogy.com here there’s the text of a reply from Lucasfilm about releasing the original 1977 Star Wars on DVD. It’s all pretty much what you’d expect until you get to this paragraph:

As you may know, an enormous amount of effort was put into digitally restoring the negatives for the Special Editions. In one scene alone, nearly 1 million pieces of dirt had to be removed, and the Special Editions were created through a frame-by-frame digital restoration. The negatives of the movies were permanently altered for the creation of the Special Editions, and existing prints of the first versions are in poor condition.

Now, I don’t really know anything about filmmaking or film restoration, but the phrase “the negatives of the movies were permanently altered” brings me up short. What the hell does that mean? Does it mean the negatives were restored, as in cleaned, or whatever else an archivist would do to them? That’s wonderful. Or does the publicist really mean “altered,” with Special Edition changes cut out, or printed on the negatives?

Like I said, I don’t really know much about filmmaking, but I can’t imagine a scenario in which any archivist or preservationist would make destructive changes to the original source material. Most restoration work (on paintings, on sculpture, etc.) is inherently conservative, operating under the fundamental dictum “do no harm” and perhaps the informal creed “don’t do anything that will cause future generations to curse your name and piss on your grave.” I’m quite certain that no reputable institution would start correcting spelling errors in their Gutenberg bible in permanent ink or brightening up the colors of a fading Picasso painting with magic markers.

Lucas’ own feelings towards archiving are pretty well summed up in comments he made about the Special Editions:

So what ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition], and you’ll be able to project it on a 20’ by 40’ screen with perfect quality.

So DVD media is the artifact you want to preserve, and it gives you “perfect quality?” There is so much wrong with this, I scarcely know where to begin.

DVD video is a compressed video format — you start out with bigger digital movie files, and they become small enough to fit on a DVD. It is also “lossy” — some of the information in the original digital file is lost. This is visible in the form of visible artifacts, often in the form of “ringing,” “banding,” “blockiness,” and even something called “mosquito noise.” None of these artifacts are present in the original format. I’m not even an expert on digital video, but I can see these artifacts in many DVD releases, even on a relatively small screen.

I’m sure the people who worked on the BBC Domesday Project — thought that LaserVision videodiscs were “archival” as well, but in just a few short years they were proven wrong, and that media was only salvaged by heroic effort.

A lot of modern digital formats and media are even more ephemeral. Many of the things I’ve personally worked on are long gone. This includes multimedia projects that use videodiscs, documents in obsolete programming environments or image file formats, projects stored on cassettes or old floppy discs or in proprietary compressed file formats of all kinds. Even when the media themselves are still readable, it can take heroic efforts to find hardware, or a virtual machine, that can present the multimedia as it worked originally. It’s a big, big problem. It’s hard to believe that an alleged science-fiction visionary whose career has been spent embracing new technology would somehow fail to see this.

And so the only viable “best practice,” long-term, is to preserve the original work as well as one can, restoring it if possible while doing it no harm, while also periodically using the best-available technology to create derived formats.

One can only hope that Lucasfilm has at least one genuine preservationist or archivist working for him who actually cares about the integrity of the original source material. If not, we can only hope that those materials will wind up in the hands of a University library with a mission to preserve them, so that the legacy of the original films will somehow last beyond Lucas’ own short-sightedness.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 8, 2006

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