Special The Czech guerilla restorationist battling to "save Star Wars"
A couple of generations ago, certain young Czechs opposed to the communist regime’s re-writing of history engaged in the smuggling of books and other materials, determined to thwart official acts of revisionism and the suppression of information. Today, Petr Harmáček, a 26-year-old English teacher from the city of Pilsen, is engaged in a somewhat similar fight, albeit related to American film history. Going by the Internet nickname “Harmy” he has devoted hundreds of hours to trying to restore the original Star Wars trilogy – namely “Star Wars”, released in 1977, and its two sequels “The Empire Strikes Back”, released in 1980, and “Return of the Jedi”, released in 1983.
The creative force behind these films, George Lucas, began a seeming endless process of alterations to this iconic trilogy back in 1997. Computer effects were added, and a host of other controversial changes made. All the while, it appeared that the original unaltered films – along with their Academy Award winning special effects – were destined to be erased from history. Star Wars fans cried foul. “Harmy”, building on the efforts of countless other devotees of the original movies, set to work as a kind of guerrilla restorationist, tracking down film prints, Laserdisc copies – anything he could get his hands on to try to piece together a fading icon of film history. His efforts have been praised by fans and have even been covered by publications such as The Atlantic.
I sat down with Petr Harmáček for an in-depth discussion of these efforts, and began by asking him about the first time he saw Star Wars and the kind of impact the movie had on him:
“I was actually thinking about that recently. I think the first time I saw Star Wars was when it was first on TV here in the Czech Republic. That was around 1993-94 or something like that. I would have been like six years old.”
And that would have been a dubbed version.
“Oh, yes. Absolutely. I didn't see Star Wars with the original English for a long time after that – until the first DVD came out, I think. That was only the original film, and then I saw The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi as the special editions in 1997. I liked the special editions back then because I was around ten or something. So for me it was just a matter of the story that was important. But I had the films on VHS and as I was growing up with those films, I studied the special effects in them and I really began to admire them.”
It wasn’t me, I have to admit, but I know a lot of friends at school. Those films have a profound impact because they seem to offer young people a kind of spirituality. I believe Lucas did that deliberately, the kind of Japanese mythological story, the dark side, good and evil and all that. So did that impact you, or was it more the technical marvel side?
“Both, I think. Like I said, when I first saw the films, I didn’t really care about the special effects that much, which is why I didn’t really mind the special editions. But, yes, it had a huge impact on me. It impacted the way we played with friends. I was six, after all.”
So with your friends, you all became Star Wars fans?
“Some of my friends, yes.”
And that was a new thing for your particular generation, right? Yours would have been the first Czech generation to see these films?
Yes. Here in the Czech Republic, the Star Wars films were first shown in 1992 in the cinemas. That was just the first film, in fact. So yes, we were definitely the first generation of Czechs to see Star Wars. Apart from a select few, who had, like, German VHS editions back in the communist times. But no-one really had VHS players back then, so that was very rare.”
So in 1997, George Lucas, the director of the first film, and the creative force behind the entire original trilogy, released a revised version of his films. It was controversial at the time. But, I suppose, the biggest controversy is not that he did that but that he seems intent on destroying the original unaltered films. I don’t think there is a comparable example of a director being that determined to do this. So tell me the story behind this.
“Exactly. This is what I always say. I am definitely not against directors making an updated version, or their own personal edits of their films. For example, I love that there are, like, five different versions of Blade Runner (orig. 1982). And you buy Blade Runner on Blu-Ray and all these versions are there to see. The same goes for all the Alien movies. All the versions are available in the same or comparable quality. George Lucas is the only one that I know of who is pushing the ‘director’s cut’ you could call it – it is not officially called the ‘director’s cut’ but that is basically what it is.”
Let’s explain to our listeners and readers that might not have any idea of what the issue is here. So there is a film made in 1977, and then in 1997, the director returned to this film and made some changes.
“So he made this film in 1977. It won seven Academy Awards. And then in 1997, they went in and they restored the film. That was the first impulse: they wanted to restore the film for a 20th anniversary re-release. But then they decided to – I am quite convinced that they decided to test the technology for the upcoming prequel films on these special editions. So they added some CGI (computer generated imagery) characters into the movie; CGI creatures; they replaced many of the old Academy Award-winning special effects with new CGI effects. These additions actually have very little historical value compared to the original effects. Because in 1997, there was nothing new or special in CGI anymore. But those old effects, shot optically with real models, those were completely groundbreaking at the time.”
What your are describing could be called an act of aesthetic vandalism.
“Yes, I would go that far. Definitely. Especially since George Lucas seems to be hell-bent on destroying the original film.”
I have a quote here that I found from George Lucas: “I am sorry if you saw a half-completed film and fell in love with it.” So what Mr. Lucas is saying is that his film was actually a work-in-progress. It was only 35 percent complete. And that he is the auter, and thus has the absolute right to do what he wants with the film. Whereas your side would say: do what the hell you want to do with it for the rest of your life, but just don’t try to destroy the original.
“Yes. Exactly. And the problem is that actual film material is unstable. And it is deteriorating. And unless there is something done soon, it could be lost forever.”
And apparently Mr. Lucas has also refused to provide a print for the US National Film Registry. He has only given them a copy of the 1997 revised version.
So this is arguably quite extreme revisionism. A critic could almost say it was an act of Orwellian petulance. And the changes were not just adding CGI effects into the films. There were also some even more controversial changes to do with characterisation. There’s a famous ‘who shot first?’ issue. And there is also a fresh round of changes after the 1997 changes, for the latest home video version, and now the character of Darth Vader is suddenly screaming something he didn’t scream before. So could you explain that to us?
“Yes. First the ‘Han Solo shot first’ issue. This is like the mascot scene of the entire anti-special edition movement, if you could call it that. Basically the character of Han Solo [played by Harrison Ford] is a rogue character. Especially at the beginning of the original film. And he has the story arc of becoming a more compassionate character at the end. But at the beginning he is a rogue. He is basically a gangster and a smuggler. And he is cornered by this bounty hunter, and Han just shoots him under the table in cold blood. In the special edition they added the bounty hunter Greedo shooting first, and only then does Han shoot him. Not only does this change the character of Han, and it sort of cheapens the story arc of him getting to be a better character by the end of the film, it is also technically pretty badly done. Because they just added in this head jerk so that Han Solo avoids the first shot. And this is [laughs] completely unrealistic. So it looks terrible, but mainly it changes the character.”
And in the second example. The new Blu-Ray releases are not even a release of the 1997 version, or even subsequent changes made for a 2004 DVD release. These changes appear to be getting more and more infuriating, right?
“Yes, it is very funny. When the 1997 special edition came out, George Lucas said: ‘This is my original vision. This is what I wanted.’ Then suddenly in 2004, a DVD came out with even more changes. So where is the ‘original vision’ from 1997? And then in 2011, the Blu-Ray came out with even more changes. So this is like the fourth or fifth version already. The releases are always of better [technical – meaning higher resolution] quality than before, which means the previously available version then does not exist in comparable quality, even the 2004 version. And, yes, the changes get worse and worse [laughs] all the time!
In Return of the Jedi, the character of Darth Vader now screams: “Nooo!”. Can you explain that for us?
“Yes, so in the last prequel film [Revenge of the Sith, 2005], at the end, when Darth Vader is first introduced, when Anakin turns into Darth Vader, he learns from the Emperor that his wife is dead and he screams ‘Nooooo!’. And this moment was ridiculed by fans from the beginning. And it almost seems that George Lucas added the ‘Noooo!’ to the Return of the Jedi to spite the fans who criticised that moment in Revenge of the Sith.”
In 2010, the subject of Star Wars’ fans increasingly love-hate relationship with their idol, the creative force behind these movies, was the subject of a documentary feature film entitled “The People Versus George Lucas”. Featured in the movie is a clip of George Lucas speaking in 2004, addressing the potential ironies of the Star Wars story as it relates to his own experiences as an independent film-maker:
“I was sort of fighting the corporate system, which I didn’t like. And I am not happy with the fact that corporations have taken over the film industry. But now I have found myself being the head of a corporation. So there is a certain irony there – that I have become the very thing that I was trying to avoid. That is Darth Vader. He becomes the very thing that he is trying to protect himself against.”
I asked Petr Harmáček for his take on this documentary film:
“It is definitely about the fact that people are angry about the special editions. But then there are also some people who are angry about the prequels. I personally dislike the prequels, but I am not at all angry about them. Because for me, I just don’t watch them. No problem. I don’t like a movie and so I don’t watch it. But the problem here is that I like the original films. But with these special editions, they keep shoving in stuff from the prequels.”
So is there an irony there that the story of Star Wars, which is one of a choice between good and evil, and the power of the dark side, and Darth Vader turning bad? Is that not really, ironically, a story about George Lucas himself?
“In a way it is. And I am still hoping for a Return of the Jedi and for him to redeem himself and to finally condone releasing the original versions. Although he has now sold all the rights to these films to Disney. So he basically has no say in it anymore.”
“I am not sure. Nobody really knows what is in those papers that they signed.”
Let’s turn to your specific restoration efforts. Basically, frustrated by the fact that there has been no official release forthcoming from Lucasfilm or Fox, you have decided to grab as many elements as you can and to try and assemble through digital means a high definition version of the original Star Wars films. How did you go about doing that?
“I wasn’t the first person to have this idea. But I was the first person to do it in high definition. There were people who took the special edition DVDs and then took some Laserdisc transfers and tried to blend these together.”
Let’s explain that. The only way that people can now get hold of the original films is either VHS releases, film print copies or there was also a very low quality DVD release of the originals, viewed by the fans as somewhat contemptuous.
“This is important. In 2004, a DVD came out – a ‘super special edition’, with even more changes. And the fans started asking for the original version on DVD. Because this was not forthcoming, the fans were making their own transfers from a Laserdisc release. I don’t know if the listeners are familiar with this format. Nobody has ever heard of it here in the Czech Republic. And it was pretty obscure in other countries as well.”
It was a kind of giant DVD that looked like an LP gramophone record.
“Yes, a giant optical disc. But it was actually analogue video. Like VHS but higher quality, and slightly higher resolution. So it was nearing DVD, but still quite far from it. So people started doing their own transfers of these Laserdiscs, and they made DVDs from them. And they became quite efficient at it. They made some quite nice-looking discs, considering what else was available. But definitely not to be considered a worthwhile release in terms of preservation purposes. And then Lucasfilm announced that there would be a DVD featuring the original version of the film on it. But when they released it, it was discovered to just be one of those Laserdisc transfers put on DVD. They used the original Laserdisc masters, so it was slightly better than what fans were able to do with their Laserdiscs, but only a little bit. And I am quite convinced that they just wanted to cash-in on the popularity of these Laserdisc transfers. Because they already had those masters in storage; there was no real effort involved for them. And at the same time they could say: look this is the original version, look how ugly it looks, because it wasn’t restored obviously! And look how great the special edition looks in comparison. But this is a completely false comparison. But they did that. They actually had...”
When you say “they” you mean Lucasfilm, right?
“Yes. At the behest of George Lucas himself, I’m sure. But they actually had a page on StarWars.com where they had comparison pictures of the special edition versus the original and they were taken from those DVDs.”
I found a rather shocking statement, which surely cannot be true. But it is one that Lucasfilm issued: “The negatives of the film were permanently altered by the creation of the special editions and existing prints are in poor condition.” The first part has to be nonsense, because nobody messes with a negative in that way...
“I just don’t know what to believe anymore in this. Because, yes, nobody does that. But it would seem that they actually did it. Because they said that the Blu-Ray transfers are made from the negative, and they already include all the special edition scenes, which you can clearly see are actually scanned from film. They have some film blemishes here and there, even in the CGI scenes. So they were scanned from the same film as the rest of it. And if it is actually true that this transfer was done from the original negatives, then they must have actually re-cut the original negative, which is crazy.”
And then they could have even disposed of some of the film of the old original effects?
Threw them in the bin?
“It is quite possible. Although the Lucasfilm archives are huge and they archive everything, so it is quite probable that even if they re-cut the original negative, they could possibly have kept the pieces they cut out and put them in storage somewhere.”
So you are standing on the shoulders of countless fans across the world whose mission has been to just get these original films before audiences on home video. And you yourself have presumably spent many hours in front of a computer...
Putting together all sorts of source materials.
“So the way I work is that I take the HD special edition footage, and I replace not only the whole scenes, because the materials available of the original are such poor quality that you can’t just put them inside an HD video and not make it look completely jarring.”
Because it would be blurry. It is lesser resolution.
“Yes. So in many cases I actually used special effects software to paint out the changes they made. And it is a technique called rotoscoping where you sort of paint around an object and paint it out of the background. And I jokingly call out this process done to Star Wars ‘Rontoscoping’...”
And of course your edition is called the De-Specialized edition. A very pointed name.
“Yes. And in the special edition, they added digital dinosaurs that they called Rontos, into the original film. And because they were called Rontos, and the original technique is called Rotoscoping, then I jokingly called in Rontoscoping.”
Petr Harmáček has put together a video published on YouTube detailing his extraordinarily painstaking and laborious “de-specialising” restoration efforts, conducted via assistance from a like-minded global network of Star Wars devotees. Here is a clip:
“A scan of the first part of the Mos Eisley scene from an actual low fade LPP 35mm print done on a home-built scanner by a group of dedicated fans called ‘Team Negative One’. The print, while in a fairly good condition still had too much grain and dirt to fit alongside the Blu-Ray footage, which was scanned from the original negative. So first an automated clean-up was performed in AviSynth by another OriginalTrilogy.com member who calls himself ‘Laserschwert’. Then, the footage was further enhanced and colour-corrected. Especially where the entirety of the frame had to be replaced. But also, where only elements from the scan were used to cover up the special edition changes.”
Astonishingly, Harmáček, and his fellow “Original Trilogy” enthusiasts also claim that the existing high definition home video releases of the altered special editions have major technical flaws, including poor colour correction.
“Absolutely, the entire technical execution of these official releases is very bad.”
How is that possible?
“I don’t know.”
But it is their product. They make money from this.
“There are a lot of people who are behind George Lucas on this, even fans. And they would say that ‘maybe this is what the film was supposed to look like.’ But when you know anything about colour grading, you can clearly see that there are technical errors there. It is not about specific colour grading [choices]. But rather technical errors. Plus, there is clear proof that this is not what the film looked like originally because there are people who possess non-faded original 35mm prints of the film.”
Tell me about that. Because for your restoration effort, you haven’t just upgraded DVD material from this poor quality release that you mentioned. You have also been able to source film prints as well. So where did you get them from and how did you go about utilising them?
“Actually, for the first [attempted] version, I only had the DVDs. But then some people – because owning a 35mm film print is sort of a gray area legally.”
Can you explain that? Because it is the property of the studio?
“I guess so. It depends on different legislation in different countries. But I think that in America you can’t legally own a 35mm print of a film. Which is why all the collectors are [reluctant to admit they own a copy]...but this law is kind of nonsensical because it happened many times that they wanted to restore some film and the materials they had in the vault were so deteriorated that they couldn’t restore it. And some collector saved the day because they had a perfectly stored print of that film. And this could very well end up being the case with Star Wars as well. If they actually destroyed some of the original negatives.”
I have also read that George Lucas is quite content to have that happen. To have all these copies destroyed. Therefore, all these collectors that have these copies are not even officially volunteering that they have them for fear that they could be seized. So there is now a kind of secret society of people who hold on to them.
“Exactly. But as technology evolves and it gets cheaper, some people were actually able to buy scanners or build them. The group that I worked with, they actually built their own HD film scanner from a camera and an old film projector. And they obtained – somehow, I don’t even know exactly how – some non-faded 35mm prints. And as far as I know, the prints were not complete. They were just bits. So that is what I was able to get hold of. But this helped a lot because those were some of the most difficult scenes in terms of removing the changes using other means. But now I actually had HD footage, which I still had to sort of combine with the Blu-Ray to make it fit inside. But the result is basically a perfect HD restoration of the scene. So I am very happy about that.”
One obvious question that I have to ask: Obviously, people will know that this isn’t your property.
And you are releasing it, and basically what you are doing is an act of copyright piracy. Or is there some kind of restoration clause in copyright law applicable here?
“I expected this question, of course. The thing is that the whole fan restoration and fan edit community has been doing this for quite a while.”
Because there is a website called originaltrilogy.com, right?
“Yes. And there are countless other efforts to preserve Star Wars in its original form. I realise that this is definitely a legally gray area. But the point of copyright is to protect the financial interests of the copyright owner. And I am completely convinced that 99 percent of people who download my restorations already own the official [special edition] versions anyway. So the studio isn’t losing any money over this at all. Or if it is, then peanuts.”
And there hasn’t been any official reaction to what you’ve been doing?
“No. Not at all. I am an ESL teacher. English as a Second Language. So I teach English at a language school. Which is what I studied. I studied English teaching at the pedagogical faculty in Pilsen. And, yes, I have no professional background in film editing. I started playing with Photoshop in high school. And then I sort of progressed towards moving images. And it is just a hobby.”
And would you like to work in the industry?
“Yeah! I guess if I was offered a job I definitely wouldn’t refuse it. I’d love to actually. It is kind of difficult here in the Czech Republic. Especially in Pilsen. There aren’t many companies that do this kind of thing.”
Maybe one day you will do what George Lucas did and make your own film.
And then not change it!
“Or if I were to change it, which as I said is completely fine, but keep the original version available. It is like a lot of writers actually change their books, like Tolkien changed The Hobbit after he wrote the Lord of the Rings. But you can still read the original version as it was. So that is not a problem from my point of view. The problem is the suppression of the original version.”