Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of certain other people, who are wrong. That's another opinion.

The DVD Restoration - What went wrong?
I'd only be guessing, but they'd be educated guesses, so here goes: My predominant feeling about the DVD's content is that it was rushed. I think there were a lot of different divisions in the production that were dependent on each other - Van Ling couldn't do the menus without certain scenes being finalized, and the marketing team and packaging people needed things to be ready at a certain time for them to do their job, that sort of thing. It happens all the time in production - not everyone can take all the time they need to do their work properly because so many people further down the line are waiting on them.

So why the rush?  Who knows, but you can be assured that the Star Wars DVD's are only a small part of an overall production and marketing juggernaut designed to keep the Star Wars brand at maximum profitability as much as possible.  Just because they're OT doesn't mean their release wasn't carefully calculated in the marketing scheme of Revenge of the Sith, the video games, licensing deals, the upcoming television show, etc. A multi-facetted company like Lucasfilm is a lot like a chef preparing a banquet dinner: You've got to have an even, steady flow of courses. There's only so much room on the dinner table, and people will max out if you give them too much all at once. You give them a plate, let them digest for awhile, and then bring out a little more.

Also - and here I'm totally speculating - I really don't think these were produced by an "A" crew, most of whom are probably on ROTS. Many of the production errors I've seen have that distinctively "inexperienced" feel to them. It's hard to describe... it's not lack of talent... there's just a certain flavor to productions executed by up-and-comers. And I also don't know exactly how much of the work was outsourced...

Lowry's Infernal Machine
This is borderline gossip - it comes to me from one of Lowry's competitors, so take that for what it's worth.

There's a company up the street a couple blocks called, "Pixel Magic." They do most of my film scanning, and a fair amout of my film output work.  I've got a lot of friends up there, and in fact, their chief engineer designed my place, too. One of the senior guys over there helped film the starfields for Star Wars, in fact (which is how I learned they were pin-hole-punched black lucite).  

Anyway, one of the things they specialize in is film restoration.  They'd done a lot of Disney's restoration work, and it came time to do a new set of projects for them. But Lowry was interested in the business as well.  So apparently, Disney sits Lowry and Pixel Magic down at the table and has them fight it out for a bit, since each of them has different philosophies: Pixel Magic believes in doing the restoration by hand, with people, frame at a time, and Lowry was advocating his automated algorithm approach. So Disney gives them each the chance to do a scene using their respective methods, for comparison.

Now the word is that Lowry's process was much faster, and had a hell of a sharpening algorithm, but it also did things like eat all the glints out of people's eyes and chew up highlights thinking it was noise.

Certainly the total obliteration of things like the laser bolt glows in the opening shot of Star Wars seem to indicate that this cleanup process can be as destructive as it is useful, and I have a suspicion that the new CG starfields in the opening shots are casualties of the process as well.

But it's hard to argue with the look of the Tatooine footage - it truly is pristine. I think that like anything else in the universe, "all things in moderation." I think that intervention on the part of some concerned producer could have retained the benefits of whatever cleanup was used, and still watchdog the integrity of all the elements in the frame.

Now, some of these things we may be content to blame on computers, but other things are truly human errors...

Crunch Time
I'm going to teach you a little something about post-production image work, because I'm seeing something on the ANH DVD that I recognize. Look at this picture:
This is an un-retouched shot of Los Angeles at night, as it came out of the camera. Notice there are deep blacks, bright white points, and a whole range of mid-ground brightness values as well. Lots of depth in this image. A histogram of this image looks like this:
The graph shows a lot of information at the dark end of the scale, because it's a night shot. It's hard to see, but there is a little blip way at the bright end of the scale which represents things like the lights.

Now, somewhere in the last 10 years or so, as more of us video-game types got into post-production, a trend developed to make images "punchier." The term we use is "crunching," as in "crunch the blacks." Most movies today seem to suffer from crunching, which has the effect of deepening the blacks and brightening the whites, but it also destroys all the mid-ground values, which is where all your image depth comes from. Without it, your images tend to look flat. Here's how most people treat the above image today:

I'm exaggerating a little bit for demonstration, but not by much. The depth is gone. At some point, people decided this punchier look was better. I'm not sure why, but this is the primary difference between the look of the prequels and the original trilogy. Have you ever actually seen images from the movies side-by-side? The prequels look like video games in comparison; their images are crafted by younger digital-age artists, not photographers.  Powerful tools, no idea how to use them.

What I find really interesting, is that this is how most people set the graphic equalizers on their stereos:

Big "V's" - lots of bottom, lots of top, no depth. Just like the images. And in audio, this has the same effect as on the video - it takes all the warmth, depth and imaging out of the experience. But there's a visceral experience to having bright, tinkly sounds and chest-thumping bass; just like getting sparkly brights and deep rich blacks in images. What's sad is that people don't realize you don't have to choose one or the other.  You just have to know what you're doing, and you can have the best of both worlds: satisfying images and sound, that also have the full spectrum of frequencies in the middle, for believable depth.

Don't forget, most of the time now, we're crafting images in ways that could never exist in nature, and then presenting them to the eye as though it were real. The eye is the most perfect camera in the universe - it never takes a bad picture, and it is hard pressed to believe this flat, shallow world of images could ever exist. While our brains and eyes are busy trying to figure this puzzle out, our hearts can't focus on giving a damn.

The Artist's Responsibility

There's a lot of talk about artists' rights these days, but very little talk about an artist's responsibility. It's true that George Lucas can round up every remaining print of Star Wars and fire them into the sun if he wants (die hard purists feel he’s pretty much done this already), but that doesn't mean it's a good idea, and to me, it's an abdication of an artist's first responsibility.

I often use this analogy:

When I was 4, I drew a picture of our family and gave it to my mom. It was very crude, but she cherishes it to this day. I never intended it to be something special, but it came to mean the world to her, for all sorts of reasons.

Today I could draw a much better picture. But if her drawing was fading, if the paper was disintegrating, and I was the only one who could preserve it, and I replaced it with one I drew today, it would crush her. It would never be the same.

I'm the artist - it IS my right to change it. I can do whatever I want.  But it would be almost cruel to do so. 

Now, as much as my mom loves that drawing, it didn’t change her life; it certainly didn’t change the world.  But Star Wars did change the world - in countless ways.  I consider Star Wars every bit as historically significant as Romeo and Juliet, and while many people seem content to witness the obliteration of the original version of this movie, there are very few people who would advocate Shakespeare’s writing in a wacky sidekick for Romeo, if he could.

With our VHS tapes disintegrating, and our laserdisc players not able to be serviced anymore, this incredibly important piece of history is in danger of being lost forever.

The poet Paul Valéry said,  “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  To the artist, this means that you may be forever dissatisfied with your work… fighting the desire to change it as your life experiences change you, and you increase your mastery of your craft.  The temptation to do so is sometimes nearly overwhelming.  But the subtler message of this quote is that the world is full of poems… so abandoning them is necessary, if they are to make an impression on the world.

I am, first and foremost, an artist; and Star Wars created me.  My parents were George Lucas and John Williams.  The very day I saw Star Wars for the first time, I knew I wanted to write music for movies. Some months later, when we acquired a grand piano, I immediately asked to start taking piano lessons, and I’ve been at it ever since.  To me, the great gift of Star Wars is that I’ve been able to live every second of my life with absolute clarity of purpose.  I‘ve known what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember, and I’ve spent every day since pursuing it.  Along the way, my love of all things movie-related led me into related areas as well; hobbies that became second careers. In my life, I've been a visual effects supervisor, a sound designer, a recording engineer, an editor, a camera operator and a director.

But no matter which art I’m practicing, I can never forget that my work has the potential to change others, as Star Wars changed me.  That is the great gift and responsibility of artistic talent.  I believe that our art is not for our own glory; not for us, but for those who would be affected by it.

This is the great lesson that Star Wars had on me and my artistic philosophy. I will not simply make art on my own terms, that’s masturbatory. I will make art deliberately to have a positive impact on people’s lives, if only for moments at a time, and recognize that it is a gift I'm giving the world, and cannot take back.  I realize that it is not simply a matter of possession, but an opportunity for others to define their very existence through a connection with the work. That makes the experience every bit as much a part of them, as it is of me. I vow to forever protect that.

Because you just never know.

CG and the Suspension of Disbelief
There's an important term in filmmaking: "suspension of disbelief." It was first coined in 1817, and it refers to an audience's willingness to accept, say, laserbeams and lightspeed, for the purposes of "going along for the ride," emotionally.

As good as the human eye is for spotting artificiality, we're more than willing to stay in this suspension so long as nothing enters the frame which destroys it. Without this suspension, we couldn't watch cartoons, where nothing is real. But you could never mix the stylized world of cartoons with actual real photographic imagery and convince a viewer they were one in the same.  You can do things like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where such elements co-exist, but you can't convince the eye that they're of the same nature.

There was no CG in 1977 when Star Wars was filmed. Just photography. There was primitive bluescreen photography, and miniature photography, but it was all photography of real objects. The CG insertions into Star Wars don't blend with the look of the original photography, so they destroy the suspension of disbelief. Your eye immediately recognizes the new elements as being out of the relative reality you've been experiencing... and this takes you out of the drama.

Some of it is the nature of the beast: photoreal CG extremely difficult to attain. It used to be a visual effects-person's nightmare to hear, "Looks fake."  Today however, with sometimes 2000 visual effects shots to be produced in a few months' time, there's no way to give every shot the time and resources necessary to really get it right. So gradually, audiences are being trained to accept a lower and lower standard of believability, to the point where today, people actually say, "Good effects," in praise, not realizing that once, you weren't supposed to notice; you were supposed to be engaged in the story. You were supposed to remain in the suspension.

I remember the ad campaign for the first Superman movie: "You will believe a man can fly."

The filmmakers realized that this was the key to the movie; this was the core of the suspension of disbelief.  And dramatically, if you bought it, then you were in for a ride.  By today's standards, the effect doesn't hold up, but it did then, and audiences ate it up. Today's superhero movie is Spiderman. Spiderman never bothers saying, "You will believe a man can swing from webbing," because the CG is entirely unconvincing. Filmmakers learned to put a spin on this in the last 10 years or so saying, "it's stylized... it's a comic book come to life..." Let me tell you, visual effects people never wanted to have excuses made for their work.  It was always supposed to look real. But you can't make it look real when you've got 2000 shots to do, trust me on this. It's getting easier, though - movie after movie with substandard effects are training people not to know the difference anymore. Spiderman didn't make any shortage of money, did it? And nobody cares that it's not Tobey Maquire swinging on the web.  Nobody cares that it isn't even a real person swinging, or a real city he's swinging in. But imagine if they did!  Imagine if you actually believed a dude jumped off a skyscraper. Now that's suspension of disbelief.  I consider it a missed opportunity.

All that being said, creating photoreal CG that blends with photography is possible, it just wasn't done in this case. And more to the point, it didn't need to be. More on this here.

As an aside, when people tell me Spiderman is a great movie, I ask them if Raiders of the Lost Ark was a great movie.  They say, "YES!"  I say, "Sing me the theme to Raiders." They always can. Then I say, "Sing me the theme to Spiderman." They can't. $100 million-dollar-plus movie, and not one person, musicians included, can get a note out. Then I ask them to imagine Raiders without the music. Unthinkable, right?  Things have gotten so bleak out there that you can take away a good musical score, easily responsible for 70% of the drama in a movie (you can argue this, but you'd be wrong), and people still love it. It's sort of like giving people a choice between eating a bowl of wood chippings and a bowl of gruel. If it's all they've got to eat, they'll eat the gruel every time; that doesn't mean gruel is good. That's Spiderman: a bowl of gruel in a world of woodchippings. (I'm a professional, don't try these analogies at home.) Plus, Tobey Maquire's no Harrison Ford. Nevermind, go back to sleep...

Star Wars Fan Films: A Review
You Know Who You Are

A writer writes, always.  A writer reads; reads with a critical, adoring eye and an insatiable appetite for both new material, and classics alike.  Even the layout of text on a page is art, to the writer.  A writer has whole paragraphs of great literature memorized – solid pillars in the foundation of their craft.  A writer cannot read a menu without mentally expanding the descriptions of entrees.  A writer has difficulty ever focusing completely on a conversation, for one part of the brain is scrolling the dialog in real-time, and taking copious, detailed notes.  A writer reads this editorial, and instantaneously one-ups it in the mind; irrevocably sensitive to its clumsy rhyme and meter, the missed opportunities, the ham-handed metaphors and shallow insights.  A writer would delight in reworking this paragraph.  On a desert island, the writer would be content with a stick.

Just as the photographer - whose eyes are the world’s best cameras – sees composition, light and shadow every waking hour of every single day.  The photographer sees the bluish hues of shadows on a snow bank, while others blink and squint and shield their vision from the glare.  The photographer loves the weight of the camera, the music of a transport turning; the delicate click of the shutter closing. The photographer’s eye, after a lifetime of training, sees the world in utter slow-motion, able to perceive the subtlest shifts in expression and composition, and watches vigilantly, always, for that one defining moment in time. The photographer reads about photography; will talk for hours about photography, looks at photographs; dreams of taking pictures. A photographer sees the world with such detail and sensitivity that they can capture the whole of an experience onto a tiny sliver of emulsion, and yet evoke the most powerful of emotions in those of us who have merely eyes.

The composer, too, can never escape the music.  Turn signals become metronomes; the elevator bell rings in D-flat.  Composers hear music swelling when they kiss; and war drums in the washing machine spin cycle.  The composer taps pencils all day long, and whistles, and hums, and sings and claps… and practices, and practices and practices and practices.

It’s like the director, who sees the world by its drama.  The director hears an accent, and pictures an ancestor’s journey in musty, cramped quarters on a sea-weary boat.  In a crowd, the director sees the silent loner; in a subway, the director’s watching the deadly third rail.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could make a film - one that was moving, or truly entertaining, without need for caveat, disclaimer or excuse - without having to spend a lifetime learning, and struggling, and training, and honing your craft?  Wouldn’t it be great if you could reap the personal, fulfilling rewards of leaving behind a piece of art that meant something to someone, that contributed in even the smallest way, without need for talent, dedication, and experience? 

Well you can’t.

Having a camera doesn’t make you a photographer.  Final Draft software doesn’t make you a writer.  Telling your fat friends in Jedi bathrobes to make mean faces doesn’t make you a director, and the world doesn’t care about lightsaber fights.  Making films that are worth the time, worth the energy, and worth presenting, is really, really, really hard – no matter what Apple Computer tells you. 

You haven’t mastered your craft, and you have nothing to say.  Your film is nothing more than a narcissistic fantasy; a shallow piece of self-loving, masturbation fodder: insignificant, irrelevant and insulting.  You believe the raving press from the psychologically desperate, with their impossibly low standards of expectation, because it’s exactly what you want to hear.  You’re either too self-centered to care about the truth, or too ignorant to see it.

The truth is, the world is full of photographers, writers, composers, directors, actors, and editors, who have made their craft a life’s pursuit; who have more to contribute to the world than meaningless ego-glorification pieces. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll never have to face them in a darkened theater.  Until then, fill up the world’s bandwidth with your incomprehensible, uninteresting stories and painful, cringe-worthy dialogue.  Humiliate your friends in costume and watch your film over and over and over.  Proclaim yourself an emperor in your shiny new clothes; but don’t call yourself a filmmaker.

You have to earn that.