FAN EDIT REVIEW: The Star Wars Trilogy – Harmy’s Despecialized Editons

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Original Films Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand, Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Harmy
Category: Reconstruction

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. While he was hardly the first, one can say this method of fan editing truly came into its own 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.

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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 2006 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, the blu-rays lower the bitrate slightly 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.

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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.

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Top: 2011 Bu-ray, Bottom: Despecialized v2.7

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.

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When it becomes necessary to restore a shot that was only in the original version, fan-produced upscales of the 2006 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, the amount of work that went into creating these cuts prove that sometimes, the fans care more about something special than the creator.

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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 still in 720p, but 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 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. Later versions of the MKVs are stated by Harmy to be in full 1080p resolution, owing to new elements pulled from Team Negative 1’s now finished Silver Screen Edition and a new set of prints being restored by an OriginalTrilogy Forum member known as Poita.

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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.

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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.

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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-quality 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!

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FAN EDIT REVIEW: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – Revisited

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Original Film Directed by Irvin Kershner, Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Adywan
Category: FanFix

The home video history of Star Wars and of the art of fan editing itself are heavily intertwined. Beginning in 2000 with Mike J. Nichols’ The Phantom Edit, the resultant “remix culture” that has surrounded George Lucas’ more controversial 21st Century fingerprints on his magnum opus has now ballooned into a complete community as extensive as cosplay culture. Needless to say, there are now tons of Star Wars fan edits out there, and are as varied as the selection at a Baskin-Robbins; you have Harmy’s Despecialized Edition restorations of the original unaltered trilogy, grindhouse mixes like The Man Behind the Mask”s War of the Stars, Christopher Nolan-style time-benders like Star Wars: Renascent, and you have your basic fanfixes, like The Phantom Edit.

Emerging in the late 2000s with several restorations, editor Adrian Sayce–better known as Adywan–soon established his own indelible mark upon the Star Wars fan editing nation with Star Wars Revisited, a massive reimagining of the modern state of the original trilogy. While seeing the merit in the concept of a Special Edition, Adywan set out to heavily alter Lucas’ re-edited versions, in an attempt to produce “what the Special Editions should have been.”

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Adywan’s Revisited version of Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 2009, and quickly became a popular edit with its intricately-crafted new visual effects, massive color regrading, and subtle fixes to stupid mistakes that Lucasfilm should have repaired long ago (Obi-Wan’s lightsaber changing to a dimly-lit pole comes to mind). After 7 years of hard work, his long-awaited followup, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited, is finally here, and it was so worth the wait.

As of this writing, it is only available as a 720p x264 file at a size of around seven gigabites, but even on this relatively shrimpy format the edit is simply stunning. Even a cursory scroll-through of the screenshots from the x264 version reveals a picture far superior to even the official Blu-rays. While liberties are taken with many elements in order to bring the film in line with Adywan’s vision of a functional director’s cut, ESB-R is second only to Harmy’s Despecialized Edition in fidelity to the original theatrical image.

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Even the majority of his changes seem to minimize the shock inherent to seeing an altered version of a movie so many remember so well. For example, Obi-Wan’s Force ghost on Hoth is no longer lacking the characteristic edge sparkle it and all the others possess, but Adywan keeps the brightness on it down low enough to not break the mirage-like effect that particular ghost was always meant to have. Many other changes, while substantially more noticeable, always make sense: the Battle of Hoth now contains more AT-STs to offset the out-of-place original occurrence of the vehicle; the swamps of Dagobah are a little more crawling with exotic creatures; the asteroid field is even more intense with an expansion of the field on the z axis. Every change is not forced or full of nonsense.

Like with A New Hope Revisited, the film has been through a complete color re-grading, although this time it seems less noticeable, no doubt due to how screwed up the previous film’s color palette was by Lucasfilm. In addition, various technical gaffes and limitations have been fixed, including all new starfields and smoothed out jump cuts. Lightsaber and blaster effects have all been completely rotoscoped by Adywan.

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Not every change is perfection, however; in what I believe will be his most controversial, Adywan has used CG to further animate the Yoda puppet’s mouth. In some scenes it works, in others it’s just distracting. Hey, at least it’s not a full CG Yoda, right?

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With ESB-R, Adywan has reclaimed his place at the top of the fan edit mountain. With picture and sound even better than the official blu-rays, and additions and fixes that, for the most part, greatly improve upon Lucas’ own hair-brained ideas, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited should be in everyone’s fan edit collection.

HOW TO GET IT:
Visit Adywan’s how-to-download page for details on getting the 8gb .mkv. DVD-5, DVD-9 and Blu-ray versions will be available sometime in the future.