Star Wars Blu-ray Up Close at LucasFilm: Part 1 of 3

August 25, 2011

Star Wars is undoubtedly the most wanted Blu-ray release this year, if not ever. Anticipation for the six-film collection and separate trilogy sets is stronger than a Rancor's jaw as evidenced by pre-order sales over the past several months. So is skepticism that LucasFilm will put their best foot forward instead of leaving the door deliberately open for another edition a few years down the line.

This past Friday, August 19, 2011, myself and nine other journalists from around the world were flown to San Francisco to spend four hours learning about and experiencing the new Star Wars: The Complete Saga Blu-ray set firsthand. What better place to jump into Star Wars on Blu-ray than a complex where you're greeted by a towering Yoda fountain and can almost feel The Force surrounding and penetrating you. It was a magical experience not only for the surroundings and wonderful company that included a pair of Stormtrooper escorts, but also in how it changed my expectations and altered what I plan on watching first when the production Saga set is finally in hand.

In short, most your complaints from the past DVD releases have been heard and, more importantly, addressed, save for the inclusion of the theatrical versions of the Original Trilogy. There are no immediate plans for them to be released on Blu-ray and believe me, I long for their inclusion as much as all of you do. For now, it's best to give the original versions argument a rest and focus on what you will be getting.

After spending the limited time I had this past weekend looking through my notes, I've decided to break this Star Wars Blu-ray report into three parts: an overview and video improvements, the audio improvements, and the surprising bonus features. Yes, I said surprising, and wholeheartedly mean it.

To quench fears swirling around the Star Wars and Blu-ray fans suggesting Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray was slapped together as a quick money grab, LucasFilm's Senior Director of Marketing Kayleen Walters informed us that work began on the set over three years ago. This claim was backed up by Matthew Wood, Skywalker Sound Supervising Sound Editor, who began his work on the Saga's audio tracks way back in 2007.

While it may seem like LucasFilm is a little late to the Blu-ray party, they've actually had this set on their mind and in progress for a long, long time. Look for more on Matthew's work on the Blu-ray release in part 2.

To ensure maximum video and audio resolution that Blu-ray will support, LucasFilm has packaged each of the six Star Wars films on their own discs in the Saga set. These are the same six discs that will appear in the individual Trilogy sets. Discs 7-9, devoted to Original Trilogy bonus features, Prequel Trilogy bonus features, and documentaries, respectively, are all exclusive to the Saga set.

Each of the films in the Saga set is packed into its own sleeve with its own artwork, much in the same way Fox's Alien Quadrilogy Blu-ray set is constructed. The artwork leaves a little to be desired, but you'll find its what's on the discs that really counts.

What You Saw Is Not What You're Going to See

The Prequel Trilogy and Original Trilogy were treated a little differently for the Blu-ray release so I'm going to address them separately.

For the Prequel Trilogy, LucasFilm went back and struck new Blu-ray masters from the original digital master files. This evolved process will not only solve those pesky color timing and enhancement issues from the DVD releases, but also solve an issue with the Prequel Trilogy that you may or may not have realized existed (I did not).

As it was explained to us, the process used for mastering the Prequel Trilogy DVD versions from the original masters resulted in roughly 8 percent image being cropped from all sides of the frame due to magnification. It was a technological constraint of the time that modern processes and a meticulous frame-by-frame restoration have thankfully corrected.

To illustrate the point, below are two images (re: not direct screen captures) from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, the film most affected by the cropping issue. The DVD image frame is on top and the Blu-ray on bottom. You can clearly see there's a wider frame to the Blu-ray version, especially on the sides where Captain Panaka and Chancellor Valorum are standing. Click either one for a high resolution look.

Also new to the Prequel Trilogy will be the long-awaited CGI Yoda. He's confirmed, though unfortunately we didn't get a chance to see him during our time with the films. There are likely some other CGI fixes and tweaks sprinkled throughout the Prequel Trilogy that we'll have to wait until the Saga set is released to discover.

The Original Trilogy underwent a major video restoration for DVD back in 2004. These new Blu-ray video masters for Episodes IV, V and VI build off of that work, but they should also be considered new transfers as opposed to rehashed considering the amount of additional work put into them.

For example, ILM went in and spent countless hours fixing numerous issues ranging from optical compositing side-effects, blemishes, dirt removal, restorative touches, edge enhancement, and other subtleties that plagued the DVD versions.

After watching several minutes from various scenes in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, it's obvious that the Blu-ray versions will be the ones to own (at least until the Blu-ray 3D versions come around). They are well ahead of the DVD versions in terms of picture clarity, and also surpass the HD cable versions currently airing as there's no compression to get it through the satellite/cable line and into your home.

Kayleen walked us through a couple different examples of the types of fixes ILM made on the Original Trilogy films. The first fix involves a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where the Wampa swats Luke off of his Tauntaun. In the first still below that references the pre-fixed state, you can clearly see the puppeteers pole for the Wampa arm on the lower-left portion of the screen.

Here's the same shot from the Blu-ray release after ILM's work was implemented. Bye-bye puppeteer pole.

One of the major gripes with the DVD versions of the Star Wars films are the wonky color timing issues, especially in terms of the lightsabers. In the next still from Return of the Jedi, you can see the lightsabers unnaturally cutting through each other in front of the Emperor. Their colors are also more muted than they should be.

In the fixed version, you can see how ILM and LucasFilm have consciously improved the hot white inner core of the lightsabers, fixed the blade penetration issue, and evened out the glowing edges. Also notice the overall picture is brighter as well. LucasFilm did not address this during our presentation, but I have a question into them for clarification and will update accordingly.

Purists might groan at these fixes and they have every right to do so. While I'm no fan of inserting all new scenes or replacing scenes (I'm looking at you, special editions), I have no qualms with addressing technical errors. If only those "flawed" originals were available in high definition as well. Maybe someday they will be.

Tomorrow I'll report on the new sound mixes for Star Wars: The Complete Saga as presented to us by Matt Wood in a Skywalker Sound mixing booth. As a little bonus treat to help pass the time, enjoy a series of 1920x1080 (compressed) stills from the Prequel Trilogy below.

- Dan Bradley

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