Empire Strikes Back Screening Review
Unlike the premiere of 'The Empire Strikes Back" on May 21st of 1980, this showing came unexpectantly with no fanfare. A muted celebration by a small town sharing the love of film as a community experience. Brought about by a block of individuals who believe in the preservation of culture. Well if not all culture at least this well appreciated milestone.
We joked on the way in about last years showing in which the enthusiastic crowd afterward sought out the projection booth and asked when the next installment would show. Our giddiness of the upcoming nights activities brought us to the same conclusion, that people would be riding high at the end of the second installment. ...but we forgot to factor in the movie itself. The middle chapter of a three part opera, rarely has a positive outcome. So although happy to be able to see Empire again, but with the Rebel Heroes taking a severe beating, the crowd left with conflicting emotions. A decent way to sum up the atmosphere might be, somber but appreciative.
I'm jumping all around, let's back up to the beginning. To give this showing a sense of time and place a selection of original 1980s film trailers were shown. Raiders, Poltergeist, ST:TMP were lovingly digitized from old film stock. I didn't go to the movies much back then, so it's a real eye opener how different trailers from this time were compared to the high energy productions they've become. Along with the trailers was a classic 'Refreshment Time!' reminder to go to the snack bar and fill yer belly.
Lacking the media blitz of a typical Star Wars release, this nights showing was a by the seat of their pants last minute piece together. To put it short, the schedule got moved up. For everyone here who has put together a project, we all can share in that queasy feeling you get while the video compiles/renders. It can never happen quick enough. For the negative1 team, this too was the case in the week leading up to the showing. That's right didn't come right out with it, but this was a practical real world test for seeing how the film scans would project in a theater setting. As was shown in the now defunct blog, (locked in carbonite as a casualty of this process) the calibre of the work underway showed brilliantly on the big screen, although a work in progress.
As is quite familiar to those around here, the work-in-progress nature of preserving the Star Wars films maybe an unending adventure. For this ESB screening, on the table were multiple 35mm sources. To show the audience how the passage of time affects the film restoration of the future, a little show and tell was on display. Some of the warped purple film was brought in so everyone could see how up shits creak things have gotten. This strip of film has a similar wave to Chewbacca's mangey locks and a purple color shift not seen since the AotC Blu-ray. The reel is so reeky and funky and warped and twisted it no longer can fit on it's original reel.
This horror scene of a putrid bloated film corpse is a wondrous reminder of the positive aspects of fandom, though. Someone saved this reel. It held fond memories for them. As the previous owners were well aware, this maybe the last time they'd ever be in the presence of a similar object, so they kept it around. (Yes, yes, yes one of the owners let it get this messed up, but let's ignore them for the time being, ok?...) Multiple sources were used to piece together the screening, but am not certain if all the good ones had been scanned by the time of this screening.
With the best of what was available, global color correction was liberally applied, mostly on a reel by reel basis. I found the first reels lacking the vibrancy of the last. But that was to be expected as the Luke/Vader confrontation in the belly of the freezing chamber with it's contrasting blue/orange color scheme dwarfs the rest of the film, colorwise. Those scenes came across probably as well as Lucasfilm ever expected it too. This 2K-ish scan holds up well.
Not immediately obvious, and we're still trying to figure it out, but when did Empire last show theatrically, in an almost original form? Our initial guess was that it didn't get shown after the Jedi re-release. But searching afterwards we did find a 1985 poster which was: http://cinemasterpieces.com/cinestarwars.htm
"Produced to promote an exclusive one-time showing of the entire Star Wars trilogy in 9 theaters across the U.S. on March 28, 1985 to benefit the Corporation of Public Broadcasting."
Let me circle around for 'one more pass'. As with any digitization and compression, multiple passes are done and this was the first time the -1 crew had done a length of video past 10-15 minutes which could play in a current day digital theater projector. So it took several days and the final product needed several encoding steps so that it could be handled by the projector. I believe the format is called either Digital Cinema Package or Distribution Model. More info here http://dcimovies.com/ & http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/formats/fdd/fdd000177.shtml
This turned out to be an informative test run for the team. Earlier in the week with the clock ticking because of the revised timeline a first compression pass was completed. In the spot check multiple errors were found and fixed for the final projection. But during the screening, before Luke could get a faceful of Wampa-wallop, the file jumped to him getting dragged in the snow... If you were standing near the projection booth you could hear a reminiscent Calrissian phrase "Ooops, I thought we fixed this. I know they told me, they'd fixed it..." So the Wampa lost his close up. Maybe the Wampa was a little shy about all the screen time it got in the Special Edition.
Or as rumor has it, Wampa's agent has let it be known that his client was not just a little, but VERY embarrassed by his expanded role in the SEs and has let it be known that if it can be assuaged he would prefer a reduced role. The glitch obliterated his appearance and we hope that suits them fine...
Some frames got dropped and the processing function replicated and tweaked some frames. A few frames fell into a repetitive loop of sorts in which a few frames fells into a repetitive loop of sorts where a few frames fell into a loop. Where the frame displays then quickly displayed the intermediate derived frame information over a different key frame for part of the frame while other parts follow some other order, only the processing algorithms can appreciate. 15 seconds of video glitch and maybe 1 minute where audio went out of sync, then as suddenly as it arrived, everything fell back into place. A brief moment of glitch video art. I dug it, but the rest of team negative1 were rather embarrassed and were glad to see it go. team negative1 is not planning on a world of Humdingers, so let this be the last.
Star Wars in 2k digital has become the high end standard. (We know it won't stay that way if we can help it.) Starting with the Prequel Trilogy and Blu-Ray release. The projectors involved have improved since 1999. This is probably a completely tainted memory, but recall walking up to the TPM DLP presentation in 1999 and seeing a faint grid, when close up. Like looking to close at a LCD monitor. But for this Empire screening, there was none of that. What's nice about a community gathering is no one cares (too much to complain maybe, but I stayed out of eye-line) if someone like me walks right up to the screen during the show. Did not see any noticeable digital artifacting, even in quick high intensity explosions. This projector, don't know if this was 4K able, believe it was less then 5 years old, up-res'd fantastically. So as a test run, to see the work of a bunch of enthusiasts who believe in the active participation in the preservation of culture, it was a huge success, from a certain point of view.
Equal to that success was the enjoyment of the diverse crowd. Filled predominantly with locals who week-in, week-out support this establishment there was also an eclectic mix of film related folks who 'hear' about these kind of chance events. From a new theater owner who was in business for just a few years, seeking knowledge how he could create the community feeling this theater has developed; to a gear hound involved in installations who had helped a member of the negative1 team install some equipment; to a documentary film maker, who inadvertently gave me the chuckle of the night. Involved in what sounded like an interesting but challenging documentary, this fellow came across as crotchety old veteran, interested in the advances of society but also trying to stay above water, in more ways then just creatively. Such it is for a growing portion of the population looking to still contribute. So when the Dagobah Luke/Luke-Vader confrontation rolled across the screen, with the musical sweeps quieting the crowd and the slow-mo pulling in the eyes, I was not expecting the person with possibly the most film experience, definitely at the event but probably that i'll ever meet, gasp 'oomph' when the lightsaber struct the mask. Having lived with this movie for so long it's hard to pull back and remember how this films reveals make an impact. Then to cap it off when the fallen mask's face plate explodes to show the self within, in my vicinity someone uttered to themselves a little 'oh shit'.
Still on the agenda is clean up. Although these were the better of the overall reel scans there were green scratch lines running up here and there to deal with. And a few reels toward the end had a tv-like snow dusting, which made Dogabah feel a little like Hoth. (ho ha, that was a long way to go for that analogy... This might be the most difficult of the clean up jobs, time wise it's not a long duration, but the number of flecks will make the CPU's churn) When a closer scene by scene inspection can be completed, maybe some of these imperfections can be solved by choosing a different reel.
This is a rather miraculous project. You don't just overnight piece together an outfit who have this knowledge base and expertise. Following the headlines for the recently rediscovered Black Angel by Roger Christian, for that project it was people inside major companies who stepped forward to do this same type of work. The number of people with these types of skills and time is small. Most of us who have been around these parts for a few years know (but definitely don't like) the speed at which projects and the group knowledge base advances. One way to help is get involved, learn these skills and contribute even in the smallest of ways.
Moving forward there are no guarantees. Like Star Wars in 1978, plans were made to move forward and create another movie but it was not certain that Star Wars II would capture the public's imagination a second time. And like in April 1980, there are no reassurances that the work by team negative1 will be able to continue. The ever looming shadow of suppression by copyright bothers me to no end. Sad and troubling that even talking about these kind of events can kick in the wheels of some unforeseen actions. But Star Wars engaged the public to overcome it's economic expenditure and maybe the public will come to the aid of film preservation. What form that takes is what the next 5-10 years hold.
Those who attended this screening of ESB were glad to be able to see the continuing development of these characters. Although the "I am your father" lines brought a mock jeer/cheer from a member of the crowd, who maybe one of those anti-fans of the incredible shrinking universe Star Wars would become, starting with ESB, as the Joseph Campbell Myth of Family took over the storyline.
So i've been wracking my brain to figure out a conclusion, coming up blank when I sit down to write and probably giving fits to those who wants these words read by others. And maybe that's the point I seem to be falling back on, this preservation saga is in progress. This project is charting familiar and new territories. ESB is one of those complex emotional rollercoaster, which captured our imagination and acts as a guide along our journey. This screening shared and symbolized that conflict. I hope you all are able to share in a similar experience.