The original Star Wars on VHS. Image: Kissa/Flickr
The original Star Wars trilogy has seen a number of changes over the years. The first Star Wars (1977), and its sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), were famously altered by Lucasfilm and re-released in 1997 as the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition to tie in with the 20th anniversary of the series. These changes added new scenes, music, edits, and CGI effects. Further changes were later added to the films’ DVD and Blu-ray releases in 2004 and 2011.
But for years, fans have been clamouring for a high-quality DVD or Blu-ray release of the original and unaltered Star Wars trilogy.
One such devotee, Petr Harmáček (aka “Harmy”), has spent nearly half a decade pursuing his own long-running saga—to return the first Star Wars trilogy to its former glory. "I wanted to be able to show people who haven't seen Star Wars yet, like my little brother or my girlfriend, the original, Oscar-winning version, but I didn't want to have to show it to them in bad quality,” he explained.
Petr "Harmy" Harmáček created the "Star Wars Despecialized Edition." Image: Petr Harmáček
And so with the aid of fellow Star Wars fans, he embarked upon creating the “Star Wars Despecialized Edition”: a version of the films that restores them to their original theatrical vision—albeit in HD quality—by collating footage from various sources and then combining them into one seamless edit.
Harmáček’s attempt to restore the original trilogy to its former state was borne of a curatorial interest. He first saw the original unaltered cut of Star Wars on TV as a child in the Czech Republic, but was introduced to its sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi exclusively through their special editions. When he later saw these sequels in their earlier forms, he was disappointed at how much the films had changed.
"The original effects were completely groundbreaking at the time, and trying to suppress the original versions is, in my opinion, an act of cultural vandalism"
“It made me pretty angry when I realized that some of the effects shots I was admiring so much were actually re-composited digitally and thus lost much of their historical value,” he explained via email. “These original effects were completely groundbreaking at the time, and trying to suppress the original versions is, in my opinion, an act of cultural vandalism, because it's an attempt to bury the work of those artists who spent thousands of hours working on those sets, matte paintings, edits, and all the other art that was altered or replaced in the special editions, and those artists who were recognized for their work by the Academy Awards at the time now found their work erased.”
To embark on rebuilding the Star Wars trilogy was a long process, and not one Harmáček achieved alone. “There were fans before me who took the special edition DVDs and some LaserDisc transfers and tried to blend these together to recreate the original cuts in higher quality,” he explained. “When one of those guys, Adywan, made a great DVD reconstruction of The Empire Strikes Back, I decided to make an HD version of that. And as I worked on it, I learned more and more visual effects tricks, which I could then apply to de-specializing the other two films and eventually make better and better versions.”
Harmáček used several sources to restore the films; among these was a digital transfer of a rare 35mm film print and Italian 16mm print, the 1993 LaserDisc editions, the Special Edition DVD releases from 2004, and the 2011 Blu-ray releases that were based on these 2004 masters. Also of crucial importance to his work was the 2006 release of the original unaltered trilogy on DVD, which was poor quality and had to be cleaned up and fixed by Harmy and co. for consistency.
He was only able to use the 35mm scans for small portions of the Despecialized Edition. He received film print scans of certain scenes from Star Wars preservation enthusiasts, who purchased the old reels on eBay and scanned them digitally using a homemade scanner. He then used various techniques to clean those up, including automated cleanup in a free command-line-based program called Avisynth, and the meticulous manual cleanup of dirt and scratches in Adobe After Effects. “Some of the reels were also severely pink-faded, so I had to pull out the original colours,” he explained.
An example of "despecializing": a flying droid added into the special edition of 'Star Wars' is removed. Image: Petr Harmáček
To incorporate old effects footage, he had to utilize a painstaking rotoscoping process, compositing images from older sources into the newer versions before applying digital clean up and colour correction.
Fan edits of Star Wars are nothing new, and several re-cut versions of the films can be found on YouTube. The most famous example, often credited with beginning this trend, is Mike J. Nichols’ The Phantom Edit, which first came to popularity in the year 2000. A heavily-altered re-cut of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, it removed a lot of the elements that had been seen as problems in the film, which was the first of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy released from 1999 to 2005 and was widely seen as weaker than the original trilogy by fans and critics, including Harmáček. “The fact that they put prequel stuff into the original Star Wars trilogy is one of the absolute worst things about the special editions for me,” he noted.
Harmáček argues that his attempts to restore the films to how they used to be is not an act of defiance like that seen in cuts such as The Phantom Edit, but an act of preservation designed to maintain a classic. “When the 1997 special edition came out, George Lucas said: ‘This is my original vision. This is what I wanted,’ Harmy explains. “Then suddenly in 2004, a DVD came out with even more changes. So where was the ‘original vision’ from 1997? Then the Blu-ray release in 2011 came out with more changes still.”
In Harmy's version of 'Star Wars', Han shot first. Image: Petr Harmáček
Harmáček started his edits in 2010, and finished his latest version last year, a long-running process that has taken thousands of hours of work.
Perhaps surprisingly, he has not run into any legal troubles for his work on the project from either Lucasfilm or Disney. He does not condone piracy, and downloads of the “Despecialized Edition” are intended to be shared among legal owners of the official releases. “There are countless other efforts to preserve Star Wars in its original form and so far the powers that be have been quietly tolerating our little community efforts because we don't really represent any sort of threat to their revenue,” he suggested.
Whether the work of fans like Harmy will lead to an official restoration of the original Star Wars classics is still up in the air, and fans’ only hope (apart from Ben Kenobi of course) is that now Disney owns the franchise it might eventually re-release the original unaltered trilogy in high quality.
After having spent so much time rebuilding the past however, Harmáček remains “cautiously optimistic” regarding the release of the long-awaited new entry, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and hopes it can retain some of the charm of the films that so captured his—and millions of others’—childhood imagination.