The Force of Star Wars
"May the Force be with you.". Little over twenty years ago, this would have
elicited little more than a puzzled look. But by mid-1977 -- after a film
called Star Wars opened in theatres across the world -- this
expression was on the lips of millions. Indeed, Star Wars and its
two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi,
have gone on to touch the lives of hundreds of millions of people
throughout the world, making a lasting impact on the entertainment
industry, technology and popular culture.
While Star Wars was a defining event for one generation, it has been embraced by new generations, assuring its place as a timeless epic of grand design and boundless fun. The trilogy has both entertained and inspired moviegoers by exploring the conflict between good and evil, and between technology and humanity. It also strikes a chord by celebrating heroism and the limitless potential of the individual.
Star Wars has become so ingrained in the popular culture of these generations that terms and phrases that would have sounded strange just two decades ago are now part of the everyday language: Wookiee, Death Star, and, of course "May the Force be with you". From the days of Ronald Reagan and the "Evil Empire" to an episode of television's "Friends" revolving around a fixation on Princess Leia in a slave-girl costume, George Lucas' epic space fantasy has always been something special that lives by its own rules.
Countless film school students and those already in the business credit seeing Star Wars for their desire to become part of the entertainment industry. Other creative people - form fiction writers to commercial artists to advertising copywriters - point to the Star Wars trilogy as the beginning of their creative urges.
"There was something that happened to many people in their late teens and early twenties when they first saw it," explains Special Edition producer Rick McCallum. "It was a turning point where you actually realized that almost anything was possible and realistic at the same time".
The film's enduring influence has been recognized by two prominent cultural entities. In 1989, Star Wars was among the first 25 titles placed on the National Film Registry by The Library of Congress' Film Preservation Board as a motion picture that continues to have cultural, historical or aesthetic value. And, it was announced that the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is preparing an exhibit on the trilogy. "George Lucas translated the ancient forms of mythology into a story that has meaning for the late 20th century," says curator Mary Henderson. The exhibit will open in Fall, 1997. (A preview consisting of the C-3PO, R2-D2 and Stormtrooper costumes is already on display).
The three films also had a major impact on the way special effects were created, the post-production process and on motion picture presentation.
In order to realize his special effects ideas for Star Wars, George Lucas created the effects house Industrial Light & Magic which introduced computer technology to the film industry and revolutionized special effects. ILM has subsequently been honored with 14 Academy Awards and nine Technical Achievement Awards for its breakthrough work in special effects on over 110 films.
In conjunction with the release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas initiated the Theater Alignment Program and introduced the THX Sound System to ensure the proper technical presentation of the film. THX has since become synonymous with quality sound and is currently used in more than 1400 theater screens around the world. It is also now widely used in home theater systems and on laserdiscs and videocassettes.
Star Wars had an immediate and powerful effect on Hollywood when it was first released on May 25, 1977. It galvanized the entire motion picture industry as it shattered box-office records across the globe.
The trilogy continues to have significant impact: a recent survey of college students indicated that Return of the Jedi was their favorite film of all time, there are over 1500 Star Wars websites on the internet, and the "Star Tours" ride at Disneyland remains one of the favorite attractions in each of Disney's theme parks worldwide.
Celebrating twenty years of Star Wars, the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition will be the films that George Lucas always envisioned in his mind's eye, but lacked the time, money and technology to achieve.
"A famous filmmaker once said that films are never completed, they are only abandoned," Lucas says. "So rather than live with my 'abandoned' movies, I decided to go back and complete them." And not only complete them, but restore the visuals to their original color-suffused richness and take advantage of new sound technology to make the theater-going experience a truly visceral one.
Three years of hard but enjoyable work by a team of filmmakers and restorers has yielded the definitive versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. "I wanted to preserve the Trilogy so that it would continue to be a viable piece of entertainment into the 21st century," Lucas says.
For Lucas, preparing the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition has truly been a labor of love, a chance at last to complete a process that began two decades earlier. It is a unique experiment, and he is eager to see the results. "Nothing has previously been done on this scale," he says. "I enjoyed the chance to re-work the movies and finish them the way I originally envisioned them."
The inspiration for releasing the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition stemmed from the approaching anniversary of the original release of Star Wars on May 25, 1977. "Several years ago, we began to wonder what we were going to do for the anniversary," says George Lucas. "I suggested we try to release all three films as a trilogy, one right after the other, and within a few weeks of each other; this would allow audiences to experience them like Saturday matinee serials, which they closely resemble. Because I've always seen the three films as one epic story, this seemed to be a very appropriate way of celebrating the twentieth anniversary."
Another strong impetus for bringing Star Wars back was Lucas' belief that the trilogy was always meant to be seen on the big screen. "It was designed as a theatrical experience," he says. "It is very important to the overall enjoyment of the film that it be big."
Lucas was aware that millions of youngsters, who are among the films' biggest fans, have never had the opportunity to see the Star Wars Trilogy in a movie theater. And he has strong feelings about what they've been missing: the communal experience that goes with watching a movie with several hundred other people. "They really have missed the excitement, the electricity, that goes through an audience," Lucas says. "It's the same kind of group experience that happens when you attend a live football or baseball game, or a rock concert."
"One of the things that Star Wars definitely created was giving us a reason to scream and yell while watching the movie," McCallum elaborates. "With the Special Edition, a whole new generation of young people will be able to enjoy that excitement."
The realities of filmmaking two decades ago, and the limitations of technology at that time, were also important factors in the decision to go ahead with the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition. Back then, Lucas had to contend with a tight budget, deadline pressures and the technological constraints of pre-digital visual effects and sound. There were also numerous problems during Star Wars' grueling shoot in Tunisia and at the EMI-Elstree studios in England. Two decades later, and with the critical help of today's state-of-the-art technology pioneered by Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas is able to bring the films much closer to his original vision.
"This was my ulterior motive" says Lucas of his decision to bring the films up to today's visual and aural standards. "There were various things with which I was never satisfied: special effects shots that were never really finished, and scenes I was unable to include due to lack of money and time." Adds McCallum who, while toiling on the Special Edition produced two episodes of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" and started preparing for the new prequels: "That's the wonderful thing about this process. Virtually all the changes we've made have been about specific things that George wasn't able to achieve back then. It's been very exciting to be able to revisit the films, continue work on them and bring them to a level that George is happy with."
Before Lucas' vision could become a reality, however, Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox had to address a significant and unexpected problem: the original Star Wars negative, from which pristine 35 mm prints would be struck, was in such bad condition that it would be impossible to use. The once vibrant colors had faded by 10% to 15% overall and dirt embedded in the six reels of the negative could produce scratches and pit marks that would loom large on the big screen.
Precautions had been taken. In 1977, the original Star Wars negative was carefully stored in a subterranean vault in Kansas, at an optimum temperature of 50 to 53 degrees Fahrenheit. But due to unforseeable circumstances, such as a now-discontinued color stock that proved susceptible to fading, the filmmakers were faced with the daunting challence of first restoring the negative before any changes could be made.
The restoration was spearheaded by Lucasfilm/ILM and Twentieth Century Fox, and the team included Pacific Title (for recompositing of opticals), YCM Labs (to provide the color timings) and restoration consultant Leon Biggs, who helped supervise the overall process.
The biggest production challenge for the Special Edition was the restoration, says McCallum. "It has been the most difficult and collaborative portion of the whole process, and was the major accomplishment," he adds. "There is a group of about 30 people who worked for three years cleaning the negative with a sponge, frame by frame. These are really the unsung heroes, because the restoration is what this was all about in the first place."
A major part of the restoration was that meticulous cleaning of the negative, utilizing a special chemical bath heated to 100 degrees. After the cleaning, sections of the original negative, which were needed for Special Edition work, were sent to ILM visual effects producer Tom Kennedy. That footage was digitally scanned into a computer and matched to new footage. Then, after intermediary processes, a final negative and print were made.
In a few situations, however, portions of the original negative that were too faded just couldn't be used. In those cases, the restoration team turned to such master elements as the YCM (yellow-cyan-magenta) separation masters. The negative that was subsequently made off the YCMs looked just as good as the original negative. Additional challenges were presented by the four different film stocks and numerous photographic styles - from location and soundstage work to complex motion-control shots - used during the original production of the film.
A basically discontinued process proved to be a surprising resource for the all important color "timing," which controls the intensity of colors on the screen. Twenty years ago, two Star Wars prints had been struck in the three-strip Technicolor process, which since its inception in 1932, has been considered the finest printing process available; it is now almost a lost art. George Lucas himself provided one of those original Technicolor prints, which had been in storage in his home. "That's the Star Wars I made," Lucas says.
For the Special Edition, George Lucas was intent on creating a state-of-the art, digitally remixed soundtrack. Although the original Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were all presented in stereo sound, motion picture audio technology has since made significant improvements with the introduction of digital sound and the THX program. "The original release of Star Wars preceded the introduction of our THX sound system in theatres," Lucas says. "I wanted everyone to re-experience the films with the added benefits of today's motion picture sound advance."
As they did with the negative restoration, the filmmakers returned to the original sources to ensure the best possible sound. "We went back to some of the original tracks," says Lucas, "and obtained the cleanest copy. We then remastered it digitally, so that this will be the first time the film has been released in digital sound."
The 1977 Star Wars release included a handful of special 70mm engagements; those prints had magnetic tracks which, according to Lucas, "enabled the sound to be heard in its full glory. Unfortunately, the majority of theaters at the time exhibited the film with optical tracks which, even using the then-new Dolby System, did not have the sound quality of the 70mm prints." But the new digital sound surpasses even that of the original 70mm prints. "The Special Edition will have a range of sound that's been impossible to achieve, until now," Lucas says.
Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, who supervised the sound for the original film, took on the same duties for the Special Edition. Burtt assembled the various mixes and versions of the original film, some featuring additional dialog that has "created a bit of folklore because some people would say they heard one version and somebody else heard a different one, and they would argue over which is the ultimate version," Burtt says. Burtt also had the chance to finally implement suggestions George Lucas had made 20 years earlier in a carefully prepared series of notes.
The result of Burtt's efforts is the definitive Star Wars mix. "If there was an extra line of dialog or a change in sound effects," says Burtt, "it is here in this new mix for the Special Edition."
Burtt and his team also completely re-mixed the surround sounds, adding new material to provide enhanced spatial effects throughout the films. "Spaceships will now be heard going over your head," Burtt says. "We also added really low frequencies that will shake you during explosion scenes and spaceship pass-bys."
The new scenes created for the Special Edition were particularly challenging. "Inserting those into the old mix required a form of surgery," Burtt says. "We had to cut into the old sound and carefully insert the new sound, making sure that the transitions did not result in audible 'bumps' or drop-outs."
For the new Jabba/Han Solo scene, Burtt had only the track of Harrison Ford's dialog from the original shooting session. To complete the scene, Burtt erased the sound of the voice of the actor who'd been standing in for Jabba, and replaced it with a new Jabba voice. "We had a lot of fun creating Jabba's unique sounds," Burtt says. "I went to the Foley stage and filled up a garbage can with wet towels, with which I produced a very smushy, squishy sound for Jabba as he slithers around and gesticulates while conversing with Han Solo."
Burtt also added such new material as extra laser shots and new laser ricochets, and enhanced several explosions to make them sound bigger and have more of an impact on the audience. The sound quality of the dialog was also greatly improved.
Even with the improvements and enhancements created for the Special Edition's definitive soundtrack, Burtt remains impressed with the aesthetics of the original, 20-year-old mix. "Star Wars has been frequently imitated, and many films have derived from it their approach to sound effects and sound design," Burtt says."We were very impressed by - and proud of - how well that mix held up".
The visual changes
While Burtt and his team prepared the new mix, work continued on the enhancement of visual effects at Industrial Light & Magic. The idea wasn't to radically change any element of the films, but to follow the original scripts and add back scenes that had to be cut or that couldn't be accomplished because of the state of technology or lack of time or money.
The process began in late 1993 under the supervision of producer Rick McCallum and ILM's multiple Academy Award winner Dennis Muren (who had worked on the original film), John Knoll, Joseph Letteri, Alex Seiden and Steve Williams. The irony of what they were doing wasn't lost on the ILM team. "George created ILM to do his visual effects for Star Wars," says producer Rick McCallum. "And now, after all these amazing breakthrough films the company has worked on, the new technology that was developed at ILM is being folded back into the original film."
Kicking off the three-year process of creating the Special Edition, Muren used a Star Wars videotape as a guide as he described Lucas' initial ideas to his ILM colleagues, who then created a series of storyboards. A screening of the film at ILM followed soon thereafter, and the Star Wars writer and director came up with additional ideas for the Special Edition.
The ILM team was determined to ensure that the computer-generated (CG) elements would not jump off the screen when compared with the original film's 20-year-old opticals, with camera work that used such inventive techniques as stretching a panty hose over lenses for filters under the blazing Tunisian sun. "The challenge was to seamlessly put our synthetic images into the image space from the original footage, to enhance and not to change," says CG supervisor John Berton. In addition, some of the original tricky camera moves from the films had to be recreated to allow the ILM team to insert critical CG elements.
Digital technology, which ILM pioneered in films ranging from "Jurassic Park" to "Twister," was used extensively to add greater depth to two key scenes in Star Wars: the entrance into the city of Mos Eisley, and Han Solo's confrontation with Jabba the Hutt; the latter was filmed in 1976 but not included in the original film.
"A lot of work has gone into enhancing the entry into Mos Eisley," Lucas says. "Twenty years ago I couldn't make it into the bustling spaceport it was meant to be. I only had half a street to shoot on, and no real special effects or matte paintings to work with. Now we're able to travel through the town, see how big it is, see that it truly is a spaceport and make the scene a more interesting experience."
To that end, Lucas populated the streets with several new creatures, droids and people. In addition, the computer graphics team at ILM doctored Luke Skywalker's landspeeder so that it is now clearly floating as it arrives in Mos Eisley, rather than gliding as it did originally. (Lucas' dissatisfaction with a "Vaseline blob" job to hide the landspeeder's wheels was one of the specific reasons that he decided to proceed with the Special Edition.) These enhancements and others give the city a whole new and surprising look. "You'll realize it is a much larger and more dangerous place than previously depicted," says McCallum.
Completing the Han Solo/Jabba the Hutt scene involved using footage from 1976 and new, computer-generated elements. During the original filming, Lucas shot the scene with a human actor, intending to substitute a puppet or stop-motion creature, but due to time and budgetary constraints, that never worked.
Since the Han/Jabba relationship became a major plot point in the two subsequent films, Lucas was determined to finish the scene for the Special Edition. "I really wanted to put that back in there," he explains, "because it was relevant to what happens to Han at the end of the movie and in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I wanted to be able to connect the first film with the next two, the way it was meant to be." So, with the help of state-of-the-art CGI, the Special Edition team took the original Star Wars footage of the Millennium Falcon's docking bay, removed the human actor and substituted a Jabba that was built 100% in a computer.
The ILM team deliberately designed Jabba to look a little younger in Star Wars than he does in Return of the Jedi. The giant slug also moves under the power of his own undulating organs.
Other enhancements for the Star Wars Special Edition add to the visual interest of a scene in the Tatooine desert where beasts of burden called Dewbacks actually move for the first time, and the final space battle, which is grander and much more sweeping.
As the effects work continued on the Star Wars Special Edition, ILM began the process of creating Special Editions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. According to visual effects supervisor Dave Carson, most of the work on The Empire Strikes Back involved taking original elements of a particular sequence - live action, miniatures etc. - and blending them together digitally, allowing for a much more precise alignment than was possible in 1980. This digital recompositing enabled the filmmakers to improve the look of a few key scenes in The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition.
Most of the recompositing was done in the film's opening snow battle sequence, set on the planet Hoth. Says Carson: "In the original version there were some dark lines showing in the battle scenes as well as a transparency in the objects that had been matted in. For some scenes of the pilots flying over the snowscape, you could see, if you looked very closely, part of the snowscape printing through the cockpits and the side of the ships. With the help of digital recompositing, we were able to minimize these and other artifacts." And a scene in an ice cave now contains a more ferocious Wampa creature.
Lucas also asked Carson and his team to work on some scenes set in Cloud City, the home of Lando Calrissian. Replacing the original matte paintings of a streamlined floating city are three-dimensional enviroments built totally in the computer. Other scenes are opened up and given a more extensive feel by the addition of windows in several of the elaborate hallways in Lando's palace. "We now get a stronger sense that there's an actual city around the characters," adds Carson.
For the Return of the Jedi Special Edition, ILM has fleshed out a brief musical number that takes place early in the film in Jabba the Hutt's palace. There is new music in a blues vein and extra musicians, singers and dancers, some live action and some digital. Femi Taylor, who played the green-skinned Oola, an enslaved dancing girl in the original Return of the Jedi, returned to shoot new footage that was intercut with material she had filmed 17 years earlier.
The ILM team also enhanced the sand pit sequence where Luke, Leia and a temporarily blinded Han clash with Jabba's henchmen above a pit occupied by the enormous and fearsome Sarlacc creature. In the original version, the monster is largely unseen; for the Special Edition, Lucas decided to create additional chills by adding some more tentacles and a beak inside the pit. "The more scenes we added," says Carson, "the more George liked it. So now you'll see an enormous tentacle or beak in just about every shot with that pit. And it really does change the nature of the scene - it makes it more fun."
Also adding to the fun is a re-working of the joyous victory celebration following the destruction of the second Death Star. Instead of a celebration on just the forest moon of Endor, audiences will also see victory parties on Tatooine, Cloud City and Coruscant, the Imperial capital planet.
Before the future
While the re-release and enhancement of the Star Wars Trilogy is first and foremost a celebration of twenty years of Star Wars history, it can also be seen as the first step into a new Star Wars future.
Eventually, the classic films that are Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, are to form the core trilogy of an unfolding saga that will finally resume with a trio of "prequel" films that will soon go into production, that are set in the decades before the original Star Wars will chronicle the life of young Obi-Wan Kenobi and the downfall of his student, Anakin Skywalker, who is destined to become the evil Darth Vader before the third of the new films ends.
And in many ways, the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition can be seen as a way to gear us up and get everyone ready for a brand-new Star Wars film, scheduled for a release in the summer of 1999.
The box-office results of the Special Edition films are a way to gauge how much pull Star Wars still has, fourteen years after the last film entered the theaters. In turn, the hype created by the release of the enhanced trilogy also serves to wet the appetite of viewers for the release of the first prequel in two years time.
But perhaps more importantly, the production of the Special Edition is a way for Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound to return to that galaxy far far away that started it all, allowing them to use the new digital technologies that these companies themselves pioneered with such movies as "Jurassic Park" and "Jumanji" on the already established Star Wars universe before letting their powerful tools loose on the all-new trilogy.
The most concrete example of this is the appearance of the galactic capital of Coruscant, a world set to feature heavily in the prequel trilogy, in the new celebration sequence at the end of the Return of the Jedi Special Edition. Not only does the creation of this sprawling cityscape serve as practice for and use in the upcoming new films, but the appearance of it in the trilogy's new conclusion also works as a cliffhanger of sorts for the audience, revealing the look of an important new world and leaving the viewers gagging for more.
Indeed, with the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition bringing the original Star Wars experience back to theaters all over the world in a way never seen before, breaking box-office records and generating more interest than any other re-release in motion picture history, and an intriguing, brand-new saga up for release in the foreseeable future, it can be truthfully said that the Force is with us once again, and it is stronger than ever.
Constructed: 12 April 1997
Last revision: 20 July 1999