“The Negatives of the Movies were Permanently Altered”

08 Nov 2006

A revised version of this essay is included in my essay collection The Films that Formed Me Collection 1, on my web site here.

Over at originaltrilogy.com 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?

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’s own feelings towards archiving are pretty well summed up in comments he made about the Special Editions. See the original quote on Wikipedia here:

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 and digital file formats are the artifact you want to preserve, and give you “perfect quality?” Huh. That’s news to me. 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. Much of the things I’ve personally worked on: multimedia projects that use videodiscs, or documents in obsolete text or image file formats, or projects stored on casettes or 5 1/4 inch floppies or in compressed archives for which there no longer exists decompression tools that can run on modern computers, are long-gone, even when the media themselves are still readable. 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.

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’s own short-sightedness.

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