HDvision celebrates the recent release of Star Wars on Blu-ray with a series of exclusive features, bought to you in partnership with www.savestarwars.com website. In this first part, we take a look at the inconsistencies of the Special Editions DVDs of the original trilogy, and explains why a definitive HD version is yet to come.
In August of 1997, the Special Edition of the Star Wars trilogy was released on video, in VHS and Laserdisc. The Special Edition looked and sounded pretty good in theatres, even if some complained it wasn't as vibrant as their memories of it from 1977 are (print vibrancy also depends on projector bulb intensity, and some theatre owners turn it down to extend the bulb lifespan). On video, it looked okay for its time, although the home video telecine of A New Hope has a very noticeable pink shift. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on the Laserdisc is still one of the best ways possible to hear the original film. Then, in early 2003, Lucas began readying the films for DVD, where he wanted to re-treat them. Picture sharpening and grain and dirt removal were accomplished courtesy of Lowry Digital Imaging, plus completely new colour timing was provided along with a bevy of additional picture and audio changes. However, the 2004 releases are probably among the worst digital masters ever seen on titles as big-ticket as these. Not only that, these new editions introduced problems and glitches that were never there previously.
What's Wrong With This Picture?
1) Crushed black levels
Today, digital technology has resulted in a trend towards high-contrast imagery. In order to get really dark blacks, the black levels are "crushed" while the contrast is greatly increased to get a "snappier" image which "pops" and looks crisp. The result is that when taken too far you eliminate all the mid-range detail and erase all the low-level detail. Things are either very dark or very white, instead of having a full tonal range of in-between grey shades. To illustrate this, below is a comparison of the 1993 master and the 2004 master. Notice the shadow levels in Vader's helmet, and the shadow cast on his cape, which do not display information in the 2004 master, as well as the dimmed down background.
Now, that's a example that not everyone has an eye to catch, because it's a bright scene to begin with. Here's what happens when you have an environment that is already dark:
Notice how the black levels have become so deep that they've swalled up all the picture information in the shadows. In fact, most of Darth Vader's face does not have discernable detail left in it. There simply isn't picture information in the darks to recover--it has been "crushed" to non-existance. The new "look" here is attractive in theory, to have Vader's face be half-buried in shadow, but the levels have been pushed way too far. Another typical example of this can be seen below. Notice how the set detailing in the centre is no longer visible, especially the fur chair covering behind Kenobi. There simply isn't picture information left in the black levels, which have been brought down far too hard.
Below, notice how the officer's shirt has become a nearly formless black blob, and detail throughout the room is reduced by the black levels. The original levels, as seen by the 1993 master, are much more natural:
Along similar lines, what happens to the fine details on an otherwise all-black surface? Those details get bled over by the contrast and black levels. An example would be...
2) Erased Starfields
The starfields. The films are called "Star Wars", but the 2004 release might be re-titled "Dark Matter Wars". The stars have often either been dialed out in brightness or erased completely in the worst instances. Some have even theorized that Lowry's dirt-removal program erased some of the stars, thinking they were dirt, but it's probably just because of the black levels; they wanted to have the blackness of space be total, crushed black, and it took the stars with it. Here's some before and after shots:
3) Image dimness
Despite having greatly increased contrast compared to the original photography, the 2004 image still looks dim in many shots. In addition to crushing the blacks, the whites have been dialed down too, and the image overall has a milky, dim quality that lacks the luminance a modern transfer should provide. You can see this in the lightsaber cores, but we'll get to that issue in a bit. Let's take that opening stardestroyer shot, for example. Here it is in the 1993 master:
Now, here it is on the 2004 DVD.
Look at the white levels, on the planet atmosphere, in the stars, in the engines, in the lazer core. Things that should have luminance to them are dim and grey-toned. It looks like someone put dulling spray on the screen.
4) Weird Colour Casts
The films have really weird color casts to them, and not just the intentional ones. Yes, Hoth is supposed to be blue-toned. But here is what the white Blockade Runner looks like in the 1993 and 2004 masters. Notice anything?
Image dimness, plus the crushed black levels (check out Vader and the guy beside him), plus what was supposed to be Kubrickesque-white now has blue in it, which makes the skintones look pink (see: lobsterman, coming in a minute). Think maybe it was intentional? Well, here is how Lucas coloured the exact same ship in Revenge of the Sith, released the year afterwards, and which he had already filmed the year before the 2004 release:
Unsurprisingly, it looks exactly like it has in every single release except for the 2004 master. Such errors affect other scenes as well. What caused this? Poor judgement on the colourist, one can suppose, but a lot of it has to do with the crushed black levels--the colour casts you see above were already there to some degree, but when the black levels are brought down that hard, the colouring begins to take on different characteristics. But this is simply compounded by....
In an attempt to get the films to look vibrant, the saturation has been jacked way up. As a result, any mild casts that were there originally get exaggerated to the point where they are a distraction. The original Falcon shot might very well have had some green in it, but when the saturation is increased, the scene becomes coloured in a way that it never would have been naturally. This oversaturation affects skin tones as well. Here is an example:
Notice anything wrong? Take a look at lobster man in the background. Instead of a normal skin tone, the colour-shifting and exaggerated saturation have turned him into the worlds worst rosacea victim. Pumping up the saturation so unnaturally also makes things "pop" distractingly, like the coloured lights above, which are bleeding slightly.
6) Colourless engines and lasers
This brings us to one of the most confounding examples. Given the previous point, you would think that brightly coloured things like engine glows and laser blasts would be overpoweringly vibrant, right? Well, as we already saw, here's how the opening shot looks on the 2004 master. Notice the lasers and the Blockade Runner engine.
This clearly was not an intentional artistic choice, as it seem to vary from shot to shot depending on how it was recoloured. It affects the blue engine glow of the Falcon sometimes, and the X-wings too. It only happens in certain shots. The blue of the star destroyer engine in that opening shot clearly wasn't affected. In fact, because of the oversaturation when it flares the lens the whole screen goes blue.
7) Really badly done lightsabers (partly, but not totally corrected on the Blu-ray edition, HDvision note)
Finally, the thing that is most noticeable: the lightsabers have accidentally been recoloured in some shots. First, the white cores have been dimmed down. In the example below, it reveals some of the compositing flaws that you were never supposed to be seeing in the first place (look at the point where they cross) because that centre point ought to be brilliant white:
In fact, in that example, the white cores aren't just diminished, they don't even have cores at all.
But secondly, of course, they are not the correct colours. In the shot above the lightsaber isn't red. It's a form of pink. The Vader duel in A New Hope is not that bad but you still have shots like this.
Maybe Vader is trying to show more of his feminine side, but probably this isn't supposed to look like that. It's extra distracting because one shot is screwed up, then the next shot is fine, then the next shot is not, and the variation fluxuates between being really noticeable and being a bit forgiveable, but even in the best cases you still notice that it is there. The lightsaber colouring problem is found throughout the films, with Empire Strikes Back being the worst offender. It only seems apparent in the first section of the duel, in the freezing chamber, but it's enough to deflate the serious epicness of the scene. As a reminder, here is how the scene is roughly supposed to look, taken from the 1993 master:
Here are some choice examples from the "improved" picture on the 2004 release. Aside from the deliberately exaggerated blue tint, pay attention to the dimmed lightsaber cores (it might not look obvious--but when you compare against the cap above you really see the difference), as well as crushed blacks plus of course Vader's candy coloured blade:
How did this happen? Part of it might be because the saber colours were always inconsistent. Vader's saber changes from true red to a light red to an orangy-red from shot to shot, but you never noticed it because it was very mild. With the colour exaggeration and the dimness issues and all the other image manipulation that went on, these went from mild variation to outright total recolouring, despite the fact that the lightsabers were equally vibrant in earlier versions.
Also, in A New Hope, there is a moment where it seems as if Obi Wan's sabre is shorting out. It looks like they tried to fill it back in:
Now, one realize that in the original version, there wouldn't be anything on the sabre at all. But when you have ILM at your disposal to fix this would it really have killed them to put an actual lightsaber there, the way twelve-year-olds do in their fan-films?
Does This Sound Right To You?
As bad as all of this is, it doesn't stop with the visuals. The sound mix to Star Wars is pretty glaring too.
1) Too much bass, sloppy fading and really loud surrounds.
Simply put, the mix is the equivalent of the crushed black levels and oversaturation in the picture: to get it to sound "punchy", the bass has been upped to the point where it sounds unnatural and distracting in some instances, and the surrounds are unusualy loud too. You can also hear the dialogue levels being faded up and down. Listen to the dinner conversation between Luke and his aunt and uncle, for example. As a result of all these factors, the mix simply doesn't sound as good as it should--unlike, say, the 1997 5.1, which sounds even better once you have heard this one.
2) The surround levels have been swapped (corrected on the Blu-ray edition, HDvision note)
While the above may have simply been misguided preference, here we come to the main complaints. In certain areas of the film, the left and right channels have been accidentally reversed in a few shots, which can be very disorienting at times. This is a flagarant error. So, you'll have violins coming at you from the left-rear and right-front, with dialogue and explosions on the right-rear and left-front. I imagine this must be how it would sound while listened to in the spatial warp of a black hole. Well, sound doesn't exist in space, but you get the idea.
3) The music is gone
The music is also frequently dialed down so as to be buried under the sound effects; this is less apparent in the stereo mix but it's noticeable in the 5.1 version. In the worst instances, it is totally gone. Particularly noticeable is the memorable swell during the very first dive towards the Death Star, which now simply isn't there, whether in stereo or Dolby Digital. Like the swapped channels, it looks like they accidentally dropped the music track here.
Empire and Jedi fare better, but they too suffer from louder surrounds and bass-heaviness. The 1997 Laserdisc mixes of all the films remain as the best 5.1 version available.
George Lucas personally supervised the colour timing himself from Skywalker Ranch, where it was performed in-house by ILM. The finished color-timing was screened for him for his ultimate approval. From here, the colour-corrected version was given to Lowry Digital Imaging for their dirt-removal, where Lucas again supervised, gave input and then approved of the total, finished product. See this article for further detail. Lucas was very involved in overseeing the picture treatment. The press release by Lucasfilm even extolls the virtues of colour correcting it in-house at ILM with George's involvement to get it exactly the way he wanted.
So what the hell happened? Lucas screened the final master of the films with Rick McCallum as well, and he's also screened them since, such as at his AFI tribute a few years ago. The simple truth may be that Lucas just didn't notice. During this time he had, after all, figured out how to put Hayden Christensen and Jar Jar Binks into Return of the Jedi.
Why didn't anyone say anything? Surely anyone that saw the new films and saw Vader holding a pink lightsaber or the cool blue Blockade Runner hallways knew that serious technical errors had been made.
The DVD set was released in 2004 and viewers started complaining immediately. Lucasfilm then issued a press release saying they were "deliberate artistic choices,". To look at an alternate scenario, when Back to the Future came out on DVD in 2003, Universal cropped it's aspect ratio incorrectly, and so they set up a recall; earlier in the year, Gladiator came to Blu-ray, riddled with DNR, and so an exchange program for a new transfer with all the detail and correct colouring was set up by Sony after enthusiasts complained. The Star Wars trilogy, on the other hand was re-released in 2005 in another boxset that used the exact same transfers. The same transfer then began to appear on TV in a hugely-hyped Spike-TV network deal. Then the exact same transfer began making the rounds on TV in high-definition. Then it was re-released on DVD in 2006, again in the same transfer. It has since been screened at numerous big-ticket venues, including Celebration IV and an AFI screening. Lucas must be very proud of it.
As a result, it's hard to even appreciate the merits that the Special Edition might have. And with the original theatrical versions available only as Laserdisc versions, this really means that there is no good quality official transfer of any of the films, which is pretty sad.
What is more, the Special Edition version here was only scanned from the film negatives at 1080p. This is to be the new digital master for the films, and all of the new ILM work was done from this scan. So, if you ever see the films in theatres again, it will be from 1080 lines of resolution, never mind a 2K scan. But seeing as Lucas shot his second two prequel films in this same resolution, I guess he really doesn't mind, or notice, the quality difference. I would believe that.
Epilogue: Blu-Ray Release
In September 2011, the Blu-ray version of the Special Edition was finally released. Although many fans hoped this would be a chance to do a fresh scan in a higher resolution and solve a lot of the problems from the previous release, such was not the case. The 2011 master is just the 2004 master, with additional content changes layered over top. The colours and black levels have not been adjusted at all. They look the same. So, unless noted, everything noted so far applies to the Blu-rays. The 2004 master was always intended to be used as the primary master for the films from here on out--it was, as noted, approved by Lucas.
However, Lucasfilm did thankfully fix a handful of issues. The main one was the lightsaber issues. In this promotional piece for the official site ILM Associate Visual Effects Supervisor tries to pass off the "deliberate artistic choices" as problems caused by technology. "Some of the issues come from these movies being finished for film and projected for film, and that's how people saw them. A lot of things that look a little different on HD or DVD are really the nature of how video treats color space," he says in regards to the saber problems. Of course, this is patently absurd, and totally untrue. Besides which, the 1997 home video of the Special Edition had no such issues--nor did the 1995, 1993, 1992 and on and on home video versions.
The problem is that they listened to the loudest complaints but didn't really get at the root cause of it all, and they haven't applied a critical or even a consistent eye. The shot of Luke's green saber in the wide-angle on the Falcon is corrected, because everyone uses that as an example. But it affects the whole scene, because the whole scene has been manipulated so much that it gets darkened and takes on a green hue. Here is a downsized shot from the 2011 Blu-ray in which Luke still has a green saber.
There were a few shots in Vader's duel with Kenobi where they did fix the core problem. His saber still looks a bit on the pink side, and Kenobi's weird shorting-out is still present.
In Empire Strikes Back they fixed a wampa shot in which the puppeteer arm was visible in the corner. However, it is strange that in the area they painted the arm out, they left a weird, curved frame line. Why ?
The strange thing is, they obsess over detail like that, but other equally noticeable goofs like Luke's head poking back into frame after he jumps off the carbon freezing chamber are still there. Beyond that, this is what the 2011 Blu-ray carbon freezing duel looks like:
Exactly the same as 2004. The consistency here is baffling.
In Jedi, they fixed that saber shot across the Emperor close-up, and also fixed his "slugs" (composites of black blogs put over his head to hide light spilling under his hood). They also fixed a number of other shots, particularly with Darth Vader, where there were colour and core issues in the saber. Again, though, it is done slightly inconsistently. But thankfully, about half of the saber issues in Star Wars and Jedi look to be improved.
Unfortunately, almost all of the problems of the 2004 set remain. Other than those handful of inconsistent lightsaber fixes, the Blu-ray does nothing to improve the 2004 master (unless you also count Darth Vader wailing "NOOoo!!"...). In the promotional piece linked a few paragraphs back, Lucasfilm boasts of the three quality-control phases the release went through. "It went through three phases of QC (quality control) processes," describes Diane Caliva, Production Manager for Media Operations at ILM. "In addition to Lucasfilm reviewing, there were outside companies hired as well. The first was Blu-focus/THX QCing our masters. Then it went through Deluxe and their QC process. And at last was the emulation phase, by the Deluxe team. We would get 'kickback notes', and then Dorne and our team we would assess the shots, and go in and clean up the files."
One might suppose the problem is that there was only limited freedom in what to "fix"--Lucas had supervised and okay the colouring already. The black crushes weren't errors in need of fixing, they were a deliberate aesthetic made by the boss. This doesn't explain why they would fix errors like the wampa arm, and add a reflection to a cloud city window matte, while leaving in all the miscoloured lightsabers and other goofs like visible wires and the like. Maybe the 3D releases will get some more right ?
A main part of the problem is that Lucasfilm did not do a fresh scan and start over. The black-crush is "baked in", so even if Lucas wanted to bring the blacks to more normal levels there would simply be no detail to recover. They would also lose all the clean-up work Lowry did, as the cleaning was done to the colour-corrected master and not to the raw scan.
Originally published on www.savestarwars.com
HDvision additional notes : For Episode 4, you can see if you click on some of the comparisons, that the 2004 DVDs sometimes shows a green vertical line on the right of the picture. This green vertical line is still present on the new Blu-rays, thought hidden by most televisions overscans.