For years, numerous groups of fans have attempted to restore the original 35mm of the original Star Wars – later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope – to varying degrees of success. While the film has been previously released on Blu-ray, that version of Star Wars was not the one that audiences saw in 1977. Instead, the official HD release of Star Wars was the Special Edition, which made its debut in cinemas shortly before Episode I: The Phantom Menace, with added CGI and even a few newly added scenes – much to fans’ chagrin.
Not all of the added effects are bad per se – some of the new CGI done in the space battles added a new crispness to those sequences – but for the most part the additions felt cheap, unnecessary, and/or out of place. Thus, fans have made numerous attempts to bring back the original in HD, even creating petitions for Lucasfilm to release an official version themselves. In response, George Lucas famously claimed the original 35mm negatives had been destroyed when they made the Special Editions, and no HD scan of the 35mm print could be made. Lucasfilm did later release a scan of the Laserdisc version as a Bonus Disc on one of the many Star Wars DVD releases, but for most, that wasn’t enough.
The latest attempt at restoring the original version of Star Wars (and maybe the best so far) was created by a group of dedicated fans calling themselves Team Negative1. Their painstaking efforts resulted in what they appropriately call The Silver Screen Edition. The process began by acquiring 35mm prints of the original Star Wars release before the Blu-ray edition even came out. From there, things didn’t get any easier, as many 35mm transfer houses refused to handle the print – mainly for the simple reason that it was technically illegal to even possess.
Eventually, a solution was found, but not an easy one. In order to transfer the print, Mr. Black (the pseudonym for the main force behind The Silver Screen Edition) explained to Movie Mezzanine the grueling operation for transferring the print to digital. “You would have the digital camera right up against the lens of the projector, and you’d take a picture, and then advance a frame, and then take another picture,” Mr. Black said. That was a good start, but was by no means the end. While they had digital versions of the 35mm prints, there was still significant damage to each frame that needed to be fixed.
To do so, Mr. Black and the rest of Team Negative1 took a more intensive process than usual. “We didn’t want to make the same mistakes that the professional people make,” Mr. Black said. “They all take shortcuts. They all do this auto-cleanup. They all do this digital noise reduction and grain reduction, and every other thing you can think of.” To restore their version, Team Negative1 would individually clean up each frame one-by-one, which took an incredible amount of time, but also led to a version they could truly be proud of.
The Silver Screen Edition of Star Wars is currently available online if you really look for it, but with one small issue. As mentioned before, the release of the original 35mm restoration in HD isn’t exactly legal, and thus can create quite a stir among Fox (who still owns the distribution rights for Episode IV) and Lucasfilm. Mike Verta, a film composer and visual effects technician, created his own restoration which he calls the Legacy Edition, and while he has no plans of releasing it online to the masses, he told Movie Mezzanine that he is currently planning a presentation to Fox and Lucasfilm, which he hopes to deliver later this year.
The big question still remains of if whether an official HD version of the 35mm restoration will ever be released from Lucasfilm. While not theoretically impossible, George Lucas made his stance pretty clear when he said, “In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned. At some point, you’re dragged off the picture kicking and screaming while somebody says, ‘Okay, it’s done.’ That isn’t really the way it should work.” Lucas later added, “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.” Lucas clearly views the Special Editions as the definitive versions of the film, and while he is no longer in charge of Lucasfilm, it seems likely he still holds some degree of power over whether the original version gets released in HD or not.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on December 15th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode 9 is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.