During the 1980’s there was a significant backlash against the colorization of black and white films. Colorization was a practice that was popularized by Ted Turner, who defended his company’s actions in 1986 by stating, “I own the films we’re in the process of colorizing.”
This viewpoint was starkly rebuked in 1988 by director George Lucas who testified before Congress that “the public’s interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests” and “American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted and their reputation ruined.”
It is interesting to note that George Lucas later went on to release special editions of his “Star Wars” films with significant changes that go even farther than colorization.
I bring up colorization in order to add context to the modern act of restoration and remastering of film. Films are constantly being changed in various ways by directors and companies after they have been released to the public.
The film “E.T.” had the guns in the film replaced with walkie talkies. The 2019 film “Cats” even had a few minor changes made while it was still in theaters.
Disney has garnered negative attention due to its Blu-Ray restoration of “Cinderella,” along with other classic films. A popular change brought up by artist Stephen Duignan is that Cinderella’s dress appears blue and lacks linework in the Blu-Ray whereas the original is silver and has detail on the skirt. Duignan explained that in an attempt to improve picture quality Disney’s artists removed film-grain and recomposited characters into backgrounds using rotoscoping, a technique which copies the animations of the character for digitally placing on a fresh background. Due to these changes, there is noticeable change in line quality and color.
Although there are artists that work tirelessly and passionately on these restorations, I believe it would be better to preserve the original versions despite the low resolution so that the integrity and detail of the original work can be preserved.
The “Star Wars” films are perhaps the most prominent examples of significant changes to film along with fan backlash.
The original trilogy, under the supervision of George Lucas, received numerous changes for the special edition released in 1997. Entire scenes were added into the film along with various images recomposited and digital zooms.
Most famously, the smuggler character, Han Solo, had his blaster fire changed from the original so that he and his opponent, Greedo, fired at the same time. This small change angered many fans as it removed the darker nature of Han’s character. Another addition was the Jabba the Hutt character digitally composited into a deleted scene that was added to the first film.
The greatest issue with these changes to the film is that the original theatrical version of the films is not accessible through legal means. Lucas purposefully released the original version for the last time in 1995 on VHS and even this release features a few minute changes including a name change for the first film.
The issue I have with “Star Wars” and many other films is not that directors make changes and special versions but that the original versions are no longer supported or accessible.
“Star Wars” is a highly influential film that shifted the direction of cinema and it is a shame to not have ready access to original version that impressed audiences.
An excellent example of film preservation done correctly is Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” The film was originally released in 1982 and the theatrical cut featured heavy studio interference. There was awful narration over the film and a newly filmed ending that was not the director’s intent. Due to this, there are numerous iterations of the film that have been released featuring cut scenes and additions by Scott.
There are seven different versions of the film due to all these different cuts, with the final version aptly named “The Final Cut.” “Blade Runner” differs from “Star Wars” in that the theatrical version of the film has been included as a bonus feature along with other various versions of the film on Blu-Ray. Unlike “Star Wars,” the original film is still accessible to the public and prints of the film are preserved by the National Film Registry.
It is important to support a director’s original vision and bring it to new audiences with higher quality but not at the cost of historical preservation.
Some films can serve as a testament to the woes of studio interference while other film’s small mistakes or poor effects can give insight on production. They can also teach struggling directors who are working to make films today. The small flaws of a film give it context and character and to remove them is to remove some of that character.