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May the technically improved Force be with you …

Louise Keller pieces together the background to the re-launch of George Lucas’ trilogy, from material in the Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox project notes.

Celebrating twenty years of Star Wars, the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition are the films that George Lucas always envisioned but lacked time, money and technology to achieve.

"A famous film maker once said that films are never completed, they are only abandoned," Lucas says. "So rather than live with my ‘abandoned’ movies, I decided to go back and complete them." Lucas has not only completed them, but has restored the visuals to their original colour-suffused richness, taking advantage of new sound technology for a visceral movie-theatre experience.

"So rather than live with my ‘abandoned’ movies, I decided to go back and complete them." - George Lucas

"I wanted to preserve the Trilogy so that it would continue to be a viable piece of entertainment into the 21st century," Lucas says. For Lucas, preparing the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition has been a labour of love. "Nothing has previously been done on this scale," he says. "I enjoyed the chance to re-work the movies and finish them the way I originally envisioned them."

"Nothing has previously been done on this scale" - George Lucas

Star Wars has become so ingrained in popular culture that terms and phrases that would have sounded strange just two decades ago are part of the everyday language: Wookiee, Death Star and, of course, "May the Force be with you." George Lucas’ epic space fantasy has always been something special that lives by its own rules.

Star Wars had an immediate and powerful effect on Hollywood when it was first released on May 25, 1977. It galvanised the entire motion picture industry as it shattered box-office records across the globe. The Trilogy continues to have significant impact: a recent survey of college students indicated that Return of the Jedi was their favourite film of all time; there are over 350 Star Wars web sites on the Internet (and the "Star Tours" ride at Disneyland remains one of my personal favourite attractions in Disneyland.)

"There were various things with which I was never satisfied.." - George Lucas

How did it come about? "Several years ago, we began to wonder what we were going to do for the anniversary," says Lucas. "I suggested we try to release all three films as a trilogy, one right after the other, and within a few weeks of each other; this would allow audiences to experience them like Saturday matinee serials, which they closely resemble. Because I’ve always seen the three films as one epic story, this seemed to be a very appropriate way of celebrating the twentieth anniversary."

The realities of film making two decades ago, and the limitations of technology at that time, were also important factors in the decision to go ahead with the Special Edition. Two decades later, and with the critical help of today’s state-of-the art technology pioneered by Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas is able to bring the films much closer to his original vision. "This was my ulterior motive," says Lucas of his decision to bring the films up to today’s visual and aural standards.

"Spaceships are now heard going over your head," - Ben Burtt, sound designer

Before Lucas’ vision could be realised, an unexpected but significant problem had to be addressed: the original Star Wars negative, from which pristine 35 mm prints would be struck, was in such bad condition that it would be impossible to use. The once vibrant colours had faced by 10% to 15% overall and dirt embedded in the six reels of the negative could produce scratches and pit marks that would be exaggerated on the big screen. Precautions had been taken. In 1977, the original Star Wars negative was carefully stored in a subterranean vault in Kansas, at an optimum temperature of 50 to 53 degrees. But due to unforeseeable circumstances, such as a now-discontinued colour stock that proved susceptible to fading, the film makers were faced with the daunting challenge of first restoring the negative before any changes could be made.

Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, who supervised the sound for the original film, took on the same duties for the Special Edition. Burtt and his team also completely re-mixed the surround sounds, adding new material to provide enhanced spatial effects throughout the films. "Spaceships are now heard going over your head," Burtt says. "We also added really low frequencies that will shake you during explosion scenes and spaceship pass-bys."

For the Special Edition, George Lucas was intent on creating a state-of-the art, digitally remixed soundtrack. Although the original trilogy was presented in stereo sound, motion picture audio technology has since made significant improvements with the introduction of digital sound and the THX program. "I wanted everyone to re-experience the films with the added benefits of today’s motion picture sound advances."

And it only took three years…..

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Australian release dates:

Star Wars - March 27, 1997

The Empire Strikes Back - April 10, 1997

The Return of the Jedi - April 24, 1997

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