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‘Star Wars’ Strikes Back Against Tyranny of Decay

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When producer-director George Lucas was out stumping for the preservation of America’s film heritage, he wasn’t expecting the problem to hit so close to home.

In preparation for the re-release of his 1977 blockbuster “Star Wars” on its 20th anniversary, 20th Century Fox discovered that the film was in serious need of repair.

“We found when we went back that the film needed more than being cleaned up,” says Tom Sherak, executive vice president at the studio. “Not the whole movie, but part of it.”

The main problem, says Lucasfilm producer Rick McCallum, who is hard at work on the restoration, is that the duplication stock developed in the ‘70s by the major film houses was supposed to last a lifetime. The specially treated stock, called CRI, was created because films from the 1960s were already losing their color.

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But when Fox pulled “Star Wars” from the vaults, it was discovered that “the duplicate, from which the release prints were made, as well as the negative that its stored on, were corrupted,” McCallum says. The main defects in “Star Wars” were found in special-effects optical sequences, which sometimes contain eight to 10 layers of film.

But it’s not just “Star Wars” that’s in trouble. Many negatives from 1970s movies, considered the last great period of American filmmaking, are in poor condition, says McCallum, an irony not lost on his boss, Lucas.

“Great works of art from the Renaissance have lasted for centuries,” says Lucas, “but films made 20 years ago are deteriorating.” The reason the problem hasn’t really come to light before is that “Star Wars” is one of the first films of the era due for a major theatrical re-release.

It has taken 11 months to piece together the components for a pristine new print with a team consisting of Fox’s Ted Galliano, Tom Kennedy from Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic and Leon Briggs, who supervised Disney’s restoration of “Snow White.” The cost of the Special Edition “Star Wars” restoration has been shaved by some old-fashioned footwork. The damaged sequences were reconstructed by hunting down different film negatives from here and abroad, including Lucas’ personal negative. There was enough uncompromised material in each to restore most of the damaged sequences.

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The rest, particularly bad scene wipes and dissolves, are being repaired using ILM’s state-of-the-art computer graphics division. “Four or five years ago it would have been impossible to do this job,” McCallum says.

In addition, Lucas is adding new material to “Star Wars” for its Presidents Day 1997 reissue, “some of which is unbelievable,” Sherak says. The footage, slightly more than two minutes in all, was not in the original movie because the budget (a gargantuan $10 million) would not allow for the special effects the sequences required.

In addition, the soundtrack is being digitally re-mastered and digitalized. “It’ll all be in THX (Lucas’ sound system), which will prove how far we’ve come technologically since then. It’ll knock your socks off.”

A fresh negative of the new and improved “Star Wars” will then be struck. And McCallum says today’s stocks are stronger and more resilient than in the past. (CRI went out of use in 1979 and better film stocks were used on the “Star Wars” sequels of 1980 and 1983.)

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But that doesn’t mean everyone’s off the hook. Even film data stored optically on discs that were supposed to last 50 to 100 years have been found to be corrupted after only four or five years, McCallum says. The best hope, he adds, is a relatively low-cost process for scanning films digitally. Such a system is expected within three to eight years.


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