Sept. 8, 2004: Star Wars Original Trilogy DVD Press Day
As I'm sure most everybody has seen, today was the first day that long lead-time press could run stories on the original trilogy DVDs, due out on September 21. This coincided with the day the rest of the press (online, etc) got to attend a press briefing in Los Angeles, so we're playing at a bit of a disadvantage relative to time to work on a comprehensive article.
Some may recall, we learned at the Episode I DVD press event that George Lucas would not be doing the original trilogy DVDs until after he released the Episode III DVD. As it turns out, scheduling allowed him to make the trilogy DVDs happen early, though in a much more accelerated manner. It is possible that this accelerated schedule is responsible for the lack any deleted scenes in the new box set - it is also possible that such extra material will be saved for the definitive six-movie set we'll undoubtedly see someday. Either way, I know I'm very happy to lay hands on these DVDs a couple years earlier than expected.
The press briefing started off with small groups of us joining Jim Ward, VP Marketing and Distribution at Lucasfilm heading up a demo of one scene from each movie. These demos took place in a retro sort of living room that was right out of the 70's (Jim even claimed the Farah Fawcett poster on the wall was his), complete with a not-so retro THX EX sound system and plasma TV.
They picked the opening sequence from ANH, the Hoth battle from ESB, and the Sarlacc pit from ROTJ. These scenes were selected because the physical condition of the film was particularly full of dust and dirt and benefited greatly from the massive restoration project each movie underwent.
To say the films were more colorful, sharper and clearer than any version of the original trilogy I've ever seen would be a terrible understatement. The clips simply looked magnificent.
As we waited to see the demonstration, attendees got a chance to try out a finished version of Battlefront, which looks amazing. We'll have a review of it up before it is released on the same day as the DVD.
The best part of the day however was the Q & A panel Lucasfilm put together for us. First up was John Lowry, Film Restoration Expert from Lowry Digital, Rick Dean, Technical Advisor for THX, Van Ling, DVD Producer and Menu Master, and Jim Ward (L-R in photo).
Things we learned: This restoration project was more difficult than any other film John has done. He only had 30 days for each, which is very quick and he'd like to have done more. There was one movie that had over a million pieces of dirt in it and about two million total in the three movies. He uses 600 G5 Powermacs, each with 4gb of ram, to run his proprietary software that man-handles the process. A particular challenge to the restoration project were areas with optical effects (such as sabers) because there is quite a bit of difference in the contrast, softness and grain since these areas have at least two more film generations causing a dramatic difference in the areas directly adjacent to the optical effect sections. This is the first time we have had a true 5.1 surround soundtrack. Before it was kind of faked. Just as before, the discs start with one of three random planets as the menu theme. We will have to figure out the codes that allow us to control which one we see, but this time if you want to skip the openings, you can click ahead. As cool as the openings are, sometimes you want to skip past them and get right to the menus, so the skipping option is a nice addition. No discussion was entertained on Easter eggs, gag reels or shortcuts. As before, we'll have to figure it out for ourselves (because they are surely there). The menus, as expected, are very clever with lots of motion - my favorite had to be Dagobah.
Next up was Kevin Burns, Executive Producer/Director of the "Empire of Dreams" documentary that appears in the set. Jim Ward selected Kevin for this project based on his work on the movie "Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood" he did in 2000. I haven't seen it, but apparently his work is quite something. Kevin is one of those guys like me who was there for the movies when they came out, and he worked very hard to ensure his work allowed us to go back and experience the feeling of being there back in the day. Kevin even got permission to use pre-SE material for the documentary, such as the opening scroll of Star Wars without the "Episode IV" in the title. Like Lowry Digital, Kevin and his team had a very short timeframe in which to complete their part, which included arranging for and completing 40 interviews, each taking place where and when it could. Incredibly, the documentary includes a piece with stuntman Peter Diamond, who we know passed away unexpectedly, just three short weeks after his interview. We saw clips from the 2-1/2 hours of the "Empire of Dreams" documentary, and as cool as the movies are, many fans are going to appreciate this extra material. As a side note, A&E has a special this Sunday which is 1-1/2 hours of the documentary. You'll definitely want to catch it if you can.
I think it is safe to say that most of us attending had never had a chance to meet Irvin Kershner, Director of The Empire Strikes Back, generally considered to be the best of the original trilogy, so his participation was really cool. He was quite gracious in answering questions including why he thought his movie was the best - he just tried to give the dark movie what humor he could, work with what he had, it being a movie that starts with the biggest bang, rather than ending with it (the Battle of Hoth), all the while not being a fan of science fiction and completely inexperienced with special effects. Regarding the effects, George told him to just envision what he wanted and ILM would deliver. When asked if he was offered Jedi and if so, why he didn't take it, he said he couldn't have taken another three years on a movie as it was just too difficult.
A quite animated Mark Hamill was up last for questions. Mark easily took a wide range of questions, and even did a really nice impression of the too-cool Harrison Ford, who'd address things like questions about a technical quandary that might go unexplained in Star Wars by saying in his best Harrison voice "it ain't that kind of movie kid". Mark admitted Star Wars has been a controlling force in his life at times, but it's also been great as well. It was quite nice to see him continuing to get out there for the fans again.
Oddly, and I frankly don't really understand it, considering the massive amount of press he had to know was out there today on the DVDs, Jim Ward avoided ANY conversation or confirmation of changes to the movies on these DVDs. Changes we have long seen proof of with leaked footage, but also changes confirmed by all the long lead time press today as well. It was very odd indeed, as though he knew a secret we didn?t, like all the changes weren't really there and we would all end up looking silly, instead of him. He did say the version we have here is the one George Lucas feels is closest to his original vision. He didn't concede in the least that it was important that fans get DVDs of the original theatrical releases of the movies. In this respect, Steven Spielberg's handling of ET, by releasing the original and his current vision, sets the bar higher than what Lucasfilm is currently able to reach.
Jim also confirmed there is no truth to the rumors circulating (once again) on Episodes 7-9, but did brighten right up when he said Star Wars is coming to TV, a consistent rumor they are not avoiding at all.