George Lucas Wants Desperately To Preserve Old Movies… Unless They're His; So Fans Are Trying To Do It Instead

from the edit-wars dept

Kevin Carson points us to a fascinating story in The Atlantic about fans trying to recreate the “original” version of Star Wars (“Episode IV — A New Hope for the folks who feel like being pedantic) from 1977. As various fans have pointed out repeatedly (mainly each time Lucas went back and “edited” Star Wars again), back in 1988 Lucas spoke to Congress about the importance of preserving original versions of movies, and avoiding the constant attempts to update and modernize them in ways that might erase the original versions. Key quote:

Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control. In order to reconstruct old negatives, many archivists have had to go to Eastern bloc countries where American films have been better preserved.

In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.

This was part of his attempt to create so-called moral rights for content creators, but the wording seems kind of strange considering how Lucas himself later did pretty much everything he described above as being heinous and troubling. The Atlantic article highlights just a few of the more famous changes (though there are many, many more):

In the original versions of the films, for example, it?s clear that Han Solo pulled out his gun and shot the bounty hunter Greedo. In the 1997 version, Greedo shoots first. In the 2004 version, they shoot at the same time. With the release of the later films, later versions of the original trilogy were edited to add in appearances from Jar Jar Binks and Hayden Christensen. Lucas even replaced the voice of Jason Wingreen?the original Boba Fett?with the voice of Temuera Morrison who played Jango Fett in Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Even worse, Lucas has actively resisted attempts to make the original copy available. When pressed about it a decade ago Lucas claimed that the original was “half completed” and he wants people to see the “finished” product instead:

The special edition, that?s the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it?s on VHS, if anybody wants it. … I?m not going to spend the, we?re talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn?t really exist anymore. It?s like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I?m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be. I?m the one who has to take responsibility for it. I?m the one who has to have everybody throw rocks at me all the time, so at least if they?re going to throw rocks at me, they?re going to throw rocks at me for something I love rather than something I think is not very good, or at least something I think is not finished.

That’s all well and good, but it’s yet another example of the sense of entitlement some creators have in which they believe they not only hold the copyright on the original work (which they may), but also ownership over the experience of fans who watched/heard/experienced the content. And that’s where things get tricky. When the artists start to muck with that experience.

And that’s what led to the result here, whereby fans are painstakingly recreating the 1977 version of the film.

There’s an incredible video highlighting how one of the main people involved in this project, a 25-year-old in the Czech Republic who goes by the name Harmy, goes about fixing things. It’s fascinating:
The “new” version is amusingly called the “despecialized” version, and uses bits and pieces from the many, many releases to reconstruct the original. While some point out that there was a DVD release of “the original” film, the video notes that the techniques used to transfer the film to DVD were very problematic, leading to a variety of problems, including “motion smearing,” faded colors and aliasing.

The lengths these fans go to in order to recreate the original is quite incredible, going through all the different versions, picking up pieces from one and inserting them in the other, doing careful color corrections, “upscaling” low res versions to make them HD. It’s really quite incredible, and it appears Lucas would rather they disappear entirely. He even rejected a request from the National Film Registry when it requested a copy of the original to preserve.

Curators at the National Film Registry picked the 1977 version of Star Wars to preserve for history?s sake, but they still don?t have a copy in the registry. When they asked for a copy, Lucas refused, saying that he would no longer authorize the release of the original version.

While Lucas’ changes and updates to his film bother some, I’ve never been that concerned about those attempts to re-imagine his own work, but it does seem particularly silly to try to block people from even having the choice to view the original. It’s great that fans are putting in so much effort to reconstruct it by themselves, but it seems like Lucas could just speed that whole process along by making the original available.

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Comments on “George Lucas Wants Desperately To Preserve Old Movies… Unless They're His; So Fans Are Trying To Do It Instead”

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jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This is where the artist and the public part ways.

The artist might feel the work was released too soon, might still have ideas to improve the work, and will offer up their complete vision at a later date, as has happened with the few films where the artist had the luxury to do that.

But what the artist can’t change is the experience the public has seeing it the first time. This is the culture part of art that has nothing to do with the artist. It’s how the community at large experiences and assimilates a work of art. It’s how the masses react to things, and it’s what makes art public.

It’s also the reason why these insanely long copyright terms are detrimental to culture and the public. It might be adhere to the artist’s wishes. It might be profitable for the copyright holder. But it’s not beneficial to culture to take art out of the public sphere. The artist and the copyright holder are not the only ones that deserve a voice once a work of art has affected the entire culture (in this case everyone on the entire planet.)

That’s the whole reason the public domain and fair use exist, and it needs to be vigorously defended.

zip says:

From Blade Runner to Pretty Baby

The standard model seems to be leaving the original alone offering up a secondary “director’s cut” — or in the case of “Blade Runner” (the original “director’s cut”) a confusing array of different versions of the same film has resulted over the decades.

Sometimes there are good reasons to exterminate the original film and [discretely] offer up a re-edited version in its place. Another film that coincidentally came out at about the same time as ‘Star Wars’ was ‘Pretty Baby’ — and its original cinema version was also permanently redacted because of scenes that years later suddenly fit the legal (US) definition of child porn.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: From Blade Runner to Pretty Baby

It’s especially ludicrous when a country tries to ban something that’s legal in the rest of the world. Consider the extremely long ban in England on A Clockwork Orange, something that just seems ludicrous to an American.

And if it’s something you want removed from society, banning it just drives it underground and makes it seem cool, esp. with art – because most people know that art is harmless and it’s silly to try and ban it. Society can easily register disgust with something without having to make it illegal.

zip says:

Re: Re: From Blade Runner to Pretty Baby

I blame the “pedophile-lurking-behind-every-bush” scare largely on the internet.

Because the percentage of people who are sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children is extremely small (almost to the point of non-existence) the prevailing view of nudity in babies and young children has historically been uncontroversial. But the advent of the internet has allowed people with a rare (and especially shameful) proclivity to find each other and form mutually serving communities where they can feel accepted and not so weird.

Then when these underground cells are discovered, there’s widespread shock and outrage, and an effort to eradicate them … by eradicating everything that brings them together in the first place. (not unlike the act of outright banning of a once-common farm crop because a few people discovered another [non-government-approved] way to use it … by smoking it)

Though the Internet contributed to the public pedophile scare, it seemed to start a few years earlier – at least from what I noticed. I remember being shocked at learning that employees at 1-hour photo processing labs (the kind that every shopping mall once had) were required to call the police whenever they saw any photos (of any kind) with nude children in them. So those innocent photos that my parents took of their children (including myself) as toddlers suddenly became illegal contraband years later.

I apologise for the off-topic rant, but it’s just always amazed me whenever the public attitude on an issue has been completely turned around, especially when through the use of propaganda, scare tactics and draconian laws that criminalize things that were once perfectly legal as well as widely accepted by society.

Trevor says:


I can just see the wheels spinning:

“Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder…”

Wait, today, engineers can add color, change soundtracks, speed up pace, and add material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder! THIS IS GOING TO BE AWESOME!

saulgoode (profile) says:

The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control. In order to reconstruct old negatives, many archivists have had to go to Eastern bloc countries where American films have been better preserved.

Shouldn’t that be “where pirated copies of American films have been better preserved”, Mr Lucas?

DSchneider (profile) says:

Re: I have a bad feeling about this...

Now that he’s sold everything to Disney there’s actually a much better chance of this happening. The Mouse is going to be driven by profit motive rather than whatever weird artistic integrity motive the George tries to use; and they know releasing the original versions will bring in a metric ass ton of money. The only minor hold-back is that Fox has the distribution rights to “A New Hope” so they will need to come to some sort of agreement there, but with the potential money involved that shouldn’t be a major issue. Many people are speculating we may even get them right before the new movie comes out next year, but that may be to quick a turnaround to get them done in time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I have a bad feeling about this...

Disney won’t do it. They are masters of altering, reusing, and/or permanently burying old works. There are many old cartoons and movies which they will never release in the original, unaltered format. In many cases due to racist content, or because they prominently feature tobacco use… even ads.

None Given says:

Proposed change to copyright law:

For an artistic work to enjoy protection under the copyright act, an equal quality(and accessability) reproduction–unemcumbered by encryption or any other type of obfuscation–has to be deposited with the library of congress. This reproduction will be released to the public upon completion of the 28 year period of rights enjoyed by the artist.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yep! I remember that clearly, sitting in the theater at the ripe old age of 12. Star Wars affected me more than any other movie before, or since. While I don’t get all pissy over what George has done to the movie, I do think he should still make the ORIGINAL available in as high a quality as possible. If he thinks it’s “half made”, he can sell a two-pack with the original and the latest and challenge people to see how he’s “grown” as a movie maker.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I was about that age, on a family camping trip, and we drove 30 miles to the nearest theater to see it the summer it was released (’77?). Had the same effect on me, too. 🙂

To me it will only ever be called Star Wars and I will only ever want to see it as it was initially released (I’ve seen the ‘edited’ version and was underwhelmed). I find it so, well, obnoxious that the man responsible would deny those who made it the hit it was their memories. He can explain it all he likes, it still won’t make sense.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

very interesting point...

…about how lucas et al had a copyright on the *original* movie, and if they changed it (barely? significantly?) do they still have a valid copyright ? ? ?
seems if it were you and me (joe and jane nobody) if WE did something like that, it would be some sort of fraud against the state…
also want to mention another after-the-fact editing which frosts my flakes: spielberg bowing to IDIOTIC pressure and ‘touching up’ ET (seems like another movie, too) where he took all the guns out of the hands of police chasing the kids/ET in that scene… kee-rist on a crutch…
of course, the REALITY is, elliot, ET and the rest of the kids would be fucking shot dead on sight, these days…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

No. The first theatrical releases were calibrated for arc or xenon lamps in theater projectors. That’s why too much red. A TV or computer monitor has a much narrower color gamut that a theater projector, so the home versions get recalibrated to that. Can result in many color errors. Sounds like the first BD releases were not properly recalibrated.

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