Original Films Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand, Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Harmy
While most fan edits can usually be distilled down to the editor’s subjective goal for a film, there is a rapidly-growing facet of the community that involves the creation of reconstructions. These are edits which do not seek to create a wholly new version of the film, but rather to restore a previously unavailable version, using a number of different home video sources. One can say this method of fan editing truly came into being with Czech editor Harmy, and his excellent Star Wars Despecialized Editions.
First, a brief history lesson, courtesy of the first half of this very informative short documentary:
In case you can’t watch the video, in effect, everything that the original Star Wars film won Oscars for–the visual effects, the set and costume design, sound design–was significantly altered by George Lucas twenty years later to produce the Special Edition, a series of cuts that he felt lived up to his original vision for the trilogy. While the merits of these versions have been and continue to be endlessly debated by fans, the original versions are, at the time of this writing, MIA, in either original print form or on high definition (or acceptable standard definition, for that matter) video.
Enter Harmy, a Czech English teacher and video enthusiast, who sought to restore the original versions of the trilogy in the vein of an early effort by Revisited editor Adywan, by combining different video sources to bring the film back to its original state. Thus, the Despecialized Editions were born.
The first versions of the edits, available in MKV form, concentrated on two major fronts: correcting the massive alterations to the color timings of the films, and of course, reversing the editorial and visual effects changes that Lucas has made over three successive variations of the Special Editions. Even in these lower-bitrate versions, made with upscales of the Laserdisc-derived 2007 DVD releases of the original trilogy, were quite a step above the official Blu-ray release of 2011 in fidelity to the first-released cuts.
In the years since, Harmy has kept up with changes in both video editing technology and newly-available preservations of the original films, updating each edit accordingly. For this review, I used v2.7 of Star Wars, v2.0 of Empire, and v2.5 of Jedi, in two forms: the full MKV files and a custom blu-ray set made by editor NJVC. While both versions contain the same multitude of audio and subtitle tracks and have similar bitrates, the blu-rays lower the resolution to 720p in order to fit every feature onto a disc. This doesn’t bother me much, considering I don’t sit close enough to my 40-inch TV to notice a difference, but pick accordingly to your tastes.
Star Wars v2.7 is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Harmy’s set, considering how extensively the original film has been altered in 4 decades. In addition to the highest number of new visual effects, Star Wars suffered a heavily-skewed color palette, to the point that flesh tones begin to take on incredibly rosy complexions. The Despecialized Edition mercifully corrects this, using a well-preserved 35mm print as reference for correct theatrical color timing. The film is no longer forced to conform to the look of the prequels, appearing as it once did in 1977.
And of course, every successive VFX change is reversed–from things as huge as the original ILM Death Star battle to tweaks as small as restoring the orange blob of Vaseline under Luke’s desert speeder, nothing goes unnoticed by Harmy. Each original shot is returned through numerous different sources, depending on which is the highest quality version available; while most of the video is a color-corrected blu-ray rip, changes made to that master are reversed by taking from HD broadcasts of the 2004 DVDs or the 1997 Special Edition, and so on.
When it becomes necessary to restore a shot that was only in the original version, fan-produced upscales of the 2007 DVDs are utilized, with elements taken from two noteworthy film preservations, Team Negative 1’s Silver Screen Edition and the 16mm Puggo Grande Edition. The video above explains the process in much better detail than I can in these paragraphs, but to over-summarize, Harmy went the extra 100 miles on this one.
Empire and Jedi, while containing their fair share of VFX alterations, were less butchered by Lucasfilm, with the changes limited more to the inclusion of previously deleted footage and alternate audio takes. The latter example further displays the collaborative nature of the Despecialized Editions, with Harmy enlisting the approved usage of another fan project: a recreation of the original theatrical mixes. Produced by Hairy_hen mainly using the 1993 Laserdisc mixes, the main audio options replicate the standard 35mm stereo and the 70mm six-track mixes that were originally heard in theaters, with the first film also including the mono mix. All are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, and while most certainly aren’t reference-material, hold up to the official releases quite well.
Each MKV file is quite massive, weighing in at an average of over 30 GBs, with bitrates approaching an average of 20 MBPS. The latest versions are in 1080p, and look stunningly beautiful in their original forms compared to the official releases, which are varyingly faded or glossed over with digital enhancements. The blu-ray set by NJVC, with its lower resolution, doesn’t really handle the grain field as well, but as I mentioned before, unless you’re sitting right in front of the TV, this isn’t really something you will notice.
But that’s not all! Both options include a selection of interesting and excellent features, many of which aren’t easily available anywhere else. On the MKV files, no less than twenty different audio options are available: in addition to the theatrical mixes, the original Laserdisc tracks are included in Dolby Digital form, along with a wide array of foreign dubs (my favorites are the German and Japanese tracks. So awesome and funny at the same time). There are also audio commentaries available from the Laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, with Star Wars also presenting a rare official website podcast commentary by Pablo Hidalgo. Finally, each one provides an English Descriptive Audio track (so caring and thoughtful of the fans. If only Lucas could be the same).
In addition to the audio tracks, an equally-impressive selection of subtitles is collected from the Project Threepio effort, ranging from English to such overlooked languages as Thai and Navajo.
The NJVC blu-ray set, available in several options, ups the ante in the extras field with several more commentaries such as Internet podcasts by Rebel Force Radio and Collider, and even Rifftrax by the MST3K crew themselves, along with a few more subtitle options. The bonus features discs include a collection of goodies from around the inter-webs, such as featurettes detailing the changes made to the films over the years, parody productions, documentaries, deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, and even the excellent filmumentaries by Jamie Benning. All of the discs are finished with full motion menus which further push the official feel of this set.
All in all, this is a great time to be a Star Wars fan. The dark years of the late 1980s have passed, as have the Lucas years, where Star Wars was kept under the stranglehold of a veritable Darth Vader, a man who has become everything about the Hollywood system he used to hate. Look at it now, with new, acclaimed films in theaters, TV series killing it on the small screen, and fan productions restoring to us our most treasured memories of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, things are finally looking up. So this Christmas, or Star Wars Day, or anytime you want, fire up the Despecialized Editions and enjoy yourself. You finally can again.
HOW TO GET IT:
Despite the crackdown on p2p file sharing going on these days, the Despecialized Editions are still easily and readily available in just about every corner of the web today, thanks in no small part to their popularity. If you are going through the official channels, visit this Harmy-approved guide, which will walk you through the different methods of obtaining the digital files, whether in the full MKV versions or lower-resolution AVCHD files.
NJVC’s blu-ray set was briefly unavailable due to the creator pulling it from circulation–it appears that several unscrupulous individuals were selling the sets on Ebay. However, another fan has graciously and with NJVC’s support made them available again. All you need is a blu-ray burner and the discs, and you are good to go!