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Feature: Star Wars Restoration

The Clean Wars

Plenty in Ultimate DVD

Despite 30 years of wear and tear, Star Wars looks better than ever…

If Star Wars had flopped at the box office, chances are the film’s original negatives would be in pristine form. But Episode IV and its two immediate sequels remain three of the most popular movies ever made: over the course of 30 years they’ve been much in demand across the globe, and hence the phenomenal wear and tear inflicted on the original prints. Put simply: Star Wars as it existed in the archives just wasn’t good enough quality for DVD.

Enter John Lowry, CEO and founder of Lowry Digital in Burbank, and Rick Dean, Director of Technical Business development for THX. Like guardian angels of the Hollywood archives, they have restored numerous films for the digital format – Lowry has thus far brought 90 movies back to pristine condition, and the pair collaborated on Paramount’s superb Indiana Jones box set last year.

“We got a few rude shocks on this one,” says Lowry. “The nice folks at Lucasfilm sent us some samples to look at, and said, ‘Now, the real movie’s not this bad, the real movie is around four times worse.’ It was a significant challenge. We haven’t seen anything quite this bad from a dirt-perspective. Knowing the way George Lucas works, he’s fussier than we are – and we’re pretty fussy people – it had to be absolutely pristine, and I think we got there.”

In a battle worthy of an attack on a Death Star, Lowry and his staff of 48 people loaded up their 600 Power Mac G5 computers (each holds four gigabytes of RAM) and prepared to unleash their massive technological arsenal on three decades of grime.

“It all began with the work by ILM to transfer the film from film to the digital format,” he says. “Then we moved data back and forth from San Raphael down to our place in Burbank on disk, on hard drives.

“The dirt was the biggest single challenge. 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. We removed up to one million pieces of dirt in one scene.

“At some point the dirt becomes part of the picture and very, very hard to get rid of. Normally we recognize it because it’s there in one frame and then gone. In this case it was in the adjacent frames too. We were replacing dirt with dirt so it was hard, with some very special challenges.”

The worst single sequence?

“Oh boy, I’m afraid there are too many to go through,” Lowry sighs. “The [Tatooine] scene in the opening where we’ve got C-3PO and R2-D2 going through the desert, it was like a sandstorm of dirt. It was a real challenge.”

Lowry’s brief extended far beyond restoring the films to match their original quality back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The release of Episodes I-III has set a high benchmark, and Lucas required that the original trilogy should match the standard of the new. Yet this battle for consistency sometimes involved the addition of grain to the picture: new special effects sequences shot for the 1997 Special Edition releases were noticeably of different quality from the surrounding scenes.

by Harry Thompson

Get the many articles about the DVD release in
Ultimate DVD #58

Image © Visual Imagination Ltd, Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd
Feature © Visual Imagination 2004. Not for reproduction

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Ultimate DVD #58
October 2004
ships from Sep 2 2004
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