Here's a press release for the DVDs about the restoration, I don't know if you've read already or not. Of course it includes McCallum's opinions how this thing is the greatest ever. Let me know if this breaks the thread since I copied it from a document.
“You Can Repair Him, Can’t You?”
A meticulous, frame-by-frame digital restoration,
unprecedented in scope, makes the STAR WARS TRILOGY
look even better than on opening day
When technicians at Lowry Digital Images first viewed the negative of STAR WARS: EPISODE IV A NEW HOPE, they expected to see a lot of sand – after all, much of the movie takes place in the deserts of Tatooine. They got it, all right, but not the kind they anticipated.
“There were sandstorms of dirt on the film,” says John Lowry, CEO and founder of the Burbank, Calif.-based company. “In the desert scenes alone, we probably removed more than a million pieces of dirt. That means each frame literally had hundreds of pieces of dirt.”
In many ways, the films of the STAR WARS TRILOGY were victims of their own success. “Generally, the more successful a film, the worse condition it’s in. When a movie starts out, there are some expectations for what’s going to happen with it, how many times prints will need to be made and so forth, then the studio makes a certain number of protection masters for printing. But if they go through them all, they have to go back to the negatives again because the protection masters are just plain worn out. Of course, every time you go back to the originals, you’re beating them up again. So, the big movies, the really successful ones, are usually pretty rough.”
Since Star Wars was, for many years, the highest-grossing movie of all time, it stands to reason that even its original film elements would have experienced some significant wear. Although some of those issues were addressed with the 1997 re-issue of the films, which was accompanied by a restoration, Lowry says his company was unprepared for the state in which they actually found the films.
Armed with a bank of 600 Power Mac G5 computers – each of which holds four gigabytes of RAM – Lowry’s staff of more than four dozen people waged war against the damage that nearly 30 years of handling and storage had done to the original negatives of the three films in the STAR WARS TRILOGY.
“The dirt was the biggest single challenge. It was just incredible,” he says. “We use automated systems here, which can remove hundreds of pieces of dirt in a scene, but in this case the automated systems just couldn’t cope.” Last year, Lowry Digital Images performed a digital restoration of the three Indiana Jones films, each of which had about 100,000 pieces of dirt. “In the STAR WARS films, we removed up to 1 million pieces of dirt in a scene.”
Prior to being sent to Lowry’s company, the original negatives of the three STAR WARS TRILOGY films were transferred to high-definition video (in a 10-bit 4:4:4 RGB format) through the telecine process, then sent to Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s visual effects company. At ILM, technicians worked with George Lucas to digitally “color time” the movies.
“When you’re shooting a movie, things are shot at different times, on different days, under different lighting conditions,” explains Mike Blanchard, Lucasfilm Ltd. Post-Production Supervisor. “Then the film gets sent to a lab to be developed, and the chemical bath is always slightly different. That results in inconsistencies in the film, and color timing is the process by which you smooth everything out.”
Prior to the advent of digital technology, color timing was a hit-or-miss proposition done in a laboratory setting. “It was really hard to get right,” Blanchard says. “But in the digital environment, there’s a lot more control. You have the ability to fine-tune things exactly the way you want them to be and bring out subtleties in the film you couldn’t get by the traditional method of color timing. On the STAR WARS TRILOGY, we were able to retime the movie to make it look the way George originally wanted it to be.”
The color-timing process was completed with a high-definition video version of the original negative – replete with visible signs of wear. “It was in horrible shape,” concurs Blanchard. After ILM finished its process, the newly color-timed versions of the films were sent to Lowry Digital Images.
Simply put, Lowry says, the Trilogy was the most difficult project his company has ever had. “We’ve cleaned up more dirt on these three movies than we have on any movie we’ve ever worked on, including Citizen Kane – and that was almost impossible,” he says, trying to give some idea of the challenges his technicians faced. “The end result? These films are absolutely stunning.”
One unique hurdle that Lowry Digital faced came from the now-outmoded techniques used to create the groundbreaking visual effects for each of the three films. Images of flying spaceships, hurtling asteroids and exploding planets were often achieved by optical printing, which required running the same piece of film through a printer for each effects element, resulting in a lot of physical handling. Although the film was treated with utmost care during production, that handling invariably took its toll.
“Optical effects reduce the quality considerably by adding at least two more film generations to the process,” Lowry explains. “In doing that, contrast comes up, the grain increases and the images are softer. The challenge is to match the opticals – which are softer, grainier, dirtier and with more flicker – with shots that are immediately adjacent to them. A distinct change of picture quality takes the viewer away from the story, and that’s obviously not the intent of the director.”
On the other hand, some scenes actually required Lowry Digital to add grain, especially in shots added for the 1997 re-release. “There were new effects, and you’ve got to be sure they match. We were always fighting to get a consistency, to get rid of artifacts in the film that cause serious distractions.”
Although he has restored 90 films and his work is seen by millions of people, Lowry says it’s neither audience nor critical response that pushes his company to improve the restoration process. “The biggest thrill is when we’re happy with the results. I have a team of people who live and breathe quality and dedicate themselves to creating pristine motion images. They work like crazy to satisfy what they believe in.”
After Lowry’s restoration ended, the work of getting the newly restored images onto the DVD began. THX – the leading provider of products, services and technologies for presentation excellence, and a company that Lucas founded – was on hand to supervise the exacting process.
“We were the eyes and ears down here on site during the transfer process,” explains Rick Dean, director of technical business development for THX. “We took the finished master and prepared it for DVD compression, which is the point at which things can often fall apart when making a DVD.”
The job of THX was to ensure that the now-pristine images created during restoration would lose none of their artistic integrity when appearing on a DVD. “We get a sense of what George wants to portray when telling the story, and we make sure that appears on the DVD in the best possible way. While the process we go through is focused on efficiency, it is designed with the artist’s vision in mind,” Dean explained. “We want to keep the detail in the picture, but minimize the digital artifacts that could appear on a DVD. In the case of the STAR WARS films, the restored masters were created using the original film elements, so we have been able to create a DVD presentation that’s better than the initial theatrical releases.”
For the STAR WARS TRILOGY, all of the restoration teams knew they had to apply even higher standards than usual. As Lowry says, “These are really, really important films that have to be spectacular.”
Rick McCallum, producer of Star Wars: Episode I and Episode II, as well as the STAR WARS TRILOGY Special Edition, said Lowry Digital’s restoration and the work of ILM and THX surpassed expectations.
“This is probably one of the most extensive restoration projects in movie history, but we needed to spend the time and effort to deliver a phenomenal final product,” McCallum said. “When people see the DVD, I think they are going to be amazed at the quality. But more importantly, these movies have been rescued and restored and will look their best forever.”
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