Most of the changes to the complete Star Wars saga on Blu-ray are of the subtle nature, correcting long standing little mistakes in the picture and sound. Unnoticeable on previous formats, but in High Definition will need to be addressed, as the picture and sound quality on Blu-ray and large HD televisions are so much higher and therefore mistakes are more noticeable.
In addition, as with the Special Editions (1997), we will also be seeing some more digital alterations and tweaks. Most notably the puppet Yoda used in Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) will be replaced by a digital Yoda to match his look better with the digital Yoda in Episodes II and III. The digital Yoda also allows for more natural facial expressions and body movements, which is what George Lucas has been aiming for in all his fantasy characters. Similarly, some subtle eye blinks will be added to one of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983) for a more natural facial expression, and probably a few digital characters will also be added here and there.
This is not new, or the first time a puppet has been replaced by a digital version. Remember in the Special Editions, several puppets and even actors in costume were replaced by digital characters to allow for better expressions and movements and a more realistic look. Sy Snootles, for example, the singer in the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s palace at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, was originally a puppet character and never really looked convincing as a real creature. The Special Editions replaced that character with a digital version and even added some new digital and live action characters to the Band, making that scene look so much better and more fun to watch. The famous Cantina bar scene in Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) also had some alien characters digitally replaced at that time. Whole scenes that were cut from the original release of the film were edited back in with digital and live action characters from later sequels inserted, tying the movie in with the newer elements of the trilogy.
Ever since the Special Editions, other film makers have also used digital technology to update older films and TV shows. Star Trek the original TV series has updated all their special effects shots of the Enterprise in space and orbiting planets. They have all been replaced with digital space ships and more realistic looking planets giving the series a much clearer, cleaner and more realistic look. The difference, I think anyone will agree, is huge and updates the stories for future generations to enjoy.
I’m looking forward to the new changes. It’s like seeing your favorite film for the first time again, or like playing an old super Nintendo game that’s been upgraded for the new Wii system with all new graphics. I understand people who grew up with the Star Wars movies being very fond of those original versions. I was also an instant fan of those films when they first came out, but those movies were made so long ago, with limited time and money, when the technology wasn’t available to make the effects look better.
When Star Wars first came out on VHS tapes, we were so excited to finally be able to own them and watch them at home, uninterrupted and share them with our families. I still own those very first tapes and believe me, looking at them now, they are awful compared to what we have now. The color, picture and sound quality was bad, they were panned and scanned; meaning the sides of the picture were cropped to fit into the square TVs we were using then; so we were not seeing the movie as it was shown in theaters in its original widescreen aspect ratio. There were all kinds of visual dirt, scratches, matte lines, outdated optical effects and inconsistencies in the sound track. It was a mess but we loved it because we didn’t know any better.
Only George Lucas knew how much better the movies could be and he showed us. With each new format upgrade, he upgraded the movies too, so they would continue to be viable and engaging entertainments for future generations. And unlike other directors whose films are owned by the studios they work for, George owned all the Star Wars movies outright because he made them with his own money, except for the first one. So he could do what he wanted. If he hadn’t done this, Star Wars today would look like the original Clash of the Titans movie from 1980 with outdated special effects that did not age well and are unwatchable today even on Blu-ray. He doesn’t just own the films but he even pioneered the technology that made these films possible and changed the film industry forever; improving it and making it easier for future generations to make these kinds of films.
One of the things that George Lucas has been able to improve, is the way that films are made and edited, making it easier to go back and change things as you come up with new ideas. While making a film, there are all kinds of budget and time restrictions placed on the film makers as the release date looms, and once the film is released to the public it was considered finished and completed. Many directors, however, would have done things differently or made improvements, if only they had the time and money to do so. George always believed that just because a film was released in theaters didn’t mean that a film was finished. For him, the films continue to be a work in progress and as long as the tools exist, the director can continue to improve his vision for later releases.
This is a huge new concept that we are witnessing in the film industry since the digital revolution, that ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) pioneered, and film makers will continue to take advantage of it to fulfill their artistic vision.