This began as a simple bit of information I started putting together for those who asked. Then I quickly realized that I should reshape it to provide a nice information source for beginners and those new to the ongoing saga of trying to recover the original unaltered trilogy.
Abbreviations defined: SW-Star Wars, ESB-Empire Strikes Back, ROTJ-Return of the Jedi
The quick..or maybe not so quick rundown on Star Wars:
The original feature was primarily shown in Eastman 35mm, and is a bit contrasty and very grainy due to the heavy number of effects shots combined with both the 70’s stock used and heavy reprinting. The reissue in 1981 and some later ones generated LPP prints which are far more stable overall and better present the film as it was shot.
A handful, and I mean very few prints were struck in the UK using Technicolor’s IB three strip dye transfer process. These are absolutely breathtaking, and have much deeper levels and color saturations overall. The grain is lessened resulting in a much finer and completely more “filmic” image that is both warm and more pleasing to the eye. These were only done in the UK as the US labs had stopped after Godfather II in 1974, and SW was the last done at the UK labs. Also, due to the nature of the process no two prints in IB were ever exactly alike and the different labs made different aesthetic choices. The UK lab was generally more prone to favoring color range and a colder look, while the US was much more vivid and gained the moniker of “Technicolor red” etc. on their bolder looking prints.
All these got the 35mm Dolby stereo mix on the analog track, which was of course the film to break it to the masses. It plays very well matrixed out as designed. Some received the 35mm mono mix, discussed below.
The 70mm blowups were limited engagements and premieres. All these were Eastman and blown up to large format-cropped to 2.21:1. The 6 track magnetic audio for 70mm was converted to Dolby’s new process of taking the front Left-Center and Right-Center speakers and making them “baby booms” to accentuate and only playback the low end and in the process essentially creating the first .1 in any system. This is why people talk about the low rumble of the opening Star Destroyer or of nearby stores having their windows blown out. The 70mm mix from all we know is identical in content to the 35mm Dolby Stereo, but discretely presented without the constraints of matrixing and with the improved low end reproduction.
Last was the 35mm Academy mono mix, done by George Lucas and Ben Burtt while the 70mmm premieres were going on. This was intended as the definitive final mix, as it was believed that no one would adopt Dolby, and that the film would not be successful. So they put a large amount of effort into making the mono definitive, placing all sorts of tweaks, fixes to gaffes and mistakes etc. so that the film could play in the middle of nowhere or at a drive-in and work properly.
16mm prints stuck either have the mono or a folddown of the stereo mix. They come in a mix of cropped flat prints or scope ones.
ESB had a few variations in the 70mm premiere cut, but was conformed to the 35mm general release. Audio mix is largely identical for 35mm and 70mm but some reported a few things which turned up in the 16mm mono custom mix. The mono again has numerous tweaks and differences. The main 35/70 mix is largely stereo oriented and has less information going on in the center/surround. This was done so that in case the extra channels or matrix went out, the audience could still get a great experience in plain stereo without missing anything essential.
ROTJ should be identical in 35 and 70 for audio but there is no hard evidence as of yet. It is unknown whether there is a custom mono track.
In 1981 the Ep. IV A NEW HOPE title was added to the opening crawl and has been on everything released since.
Now..we get to video.
JSC-Japanese Special Collection. In 1985, the Japanese Special Collection Laserdiscs were released. This was the first widescreen release of the trilogy and all feature Dolby surround matrix PCM audio. All have good color and detail and were reputedly from good interpositives. ESB and ROTJ’s audio seem to be the theatrical mixes, but SW got a custom remix from Ben Burtt which took the ’77 theatrical stereo and reduced the dynamic range along with cutting back on the high end. It also adds 3P0’s tractor beam line from the mono audio. They are full CAV format with the 1985 home video remixes in Dolby surround PCM. Note: they do have hardcoded Japanese subtitles in the letterboxing.
SWE-Fox Special Widescreen Laserdiscs released in 1989-1991. These are ports of the JSC and were the first major widescreen release in the US. Their audio is also the 1985 remix, but appears to be better encoded than the JSC. Due to an error, Star Wars has a shrinking aspect ratio that isn’t terribly noticeable. This was corrected in a later limited pressing just before the Definitive Collection.
When ported to LD stateside, they had to crop the Japanese subtitles from the bottom letterbox. On SW they goofed and the image ratio actually shrinks very slightly across the feature. When notified they quietly fixed it in 1993 and reissued it. One of these hard to find corrected pressings was issued by the smaller Technidisc plant. For some unknown reason they made their own transfer and did not simply reissue the old one corrected. Their source is superior and produced the best official release of Star Wars on home video to date. Unfortunately the disc suffers from some crosstalk issues and is CLV only. That said it is absolutely worth searching out if you have a good player. Note: the only way to find one is by identifying the disc stamper codes on the inner ring.
Note: All video copies across formats were sourced from this master until the Definitive Collection in 1993.
Definitive Collection: This set was done in 1993 for Laserdisc. All three films in full CAV fully remastered with extras. Only downside is that this was done by state of the art technology…circa 1993. These were struck from Interpositives that may have been a bit faded. In any case they are nearly drained of color and that is nowhere near the end of their problems. Grain was smoothed out by early processes-particularly an early form of DNR which also results in horrible motion smearing artifacts. Additionally the sound was remixed on all three and features both new and missing effects. It is presented in PCM Dolby surround, but information suggests that the source for SW was in fact the fabled 70mm Dolby mix. And they suffer from heavy rotting across pressings. The first copy had to be recalled for cutting a few seconds of Leia welding onboard the Falcon in ESB.
Faces-Reissues of the Definitive, with the covers featuring the faces of Vader, Stormtrooper and Yoda. They are CLV copies without any rot issues. Later copies pressed by Kuraray may have been encoded for SuperNTSC video.
Note: All video copies from 1993 to the 1997 Special Edition were from the Definitive across formats.
SE-Special Edition. The 1997 SE came from a photochemical restoration and then additional CGI effects were done at 1K and 2K. SW was intended to match Lucas’s own Tech IB print. The audio remixes were very dynamic and matched the intent of the original mixes. They went to the master tapes and remixed in elements from some of the mono tracks as well. The eventual VHS and LD releases though had several fluctuations and do not fully represent the 35mm prints made. They are on the whole very good and have better color than the Definitive master. But they do have some DNR and edge enhancement. Also SW has many of the Tatooine sequences pink shifted in the telecine. The sound mix was a fresh remix done in both 2.0 and 5.1 from the original elements and adding differentiations from the monos. Only issued on LD and VHS.
In 2004 a 1080p master was stuck from the 97 SE and then completely destroyed by apparently some who either were unknowing of the eventual result or who simply did not care. It appears that many hands were on deck but the transfer wasn’t given the care and treatment it truly deserved. The process was reportedly not the most refined or properly timed, but numerous changes were implemented across all three that virtually wreck the films. Even further changes were made for the DVD issue, and the matrixed 6.1 audio is a horrendous reworking of the otherwise perfect 97 mixes.
The 2006 “original edition” bonus DVD release was merely a copy of the Definitive collection LD master. So the video quality was better than LD but still stuck in that era. Additionally it was non-anamorphic letterbox and the remixed audio was heavily compressed to DVD standard Dolby Digital 2.0. However, someone did go back and scan the original SW crawl minus the ANH title and insert it into the DVD. How or why this occurred is anyone’s guess.
This became known as the GOUT or “George’s Official Unaltered Trilogy”.
Later HDTV airings began appearing using higher res versions of the 1080p scan. The reveal even more flaws of the 2004 work.
The 2011 Blu-rays use this same master, but with EVEN MORE changes, alterations and general mucking about, in addition to ruining the audio even further. They are slightly better than the previous DVD/HDTV in terms of proper contrast/saturation levels in some ways but then just as bad if not worse in others.
So there you have it. If you are to enjoy the films at all officially…buy a Laserdisc player or go back in time. Dead serious.
If so inclined the Fox SWEs are dirt cheap and can be had for a few bucks each. The 1985 mixes are largely great and very close if not largely identical to the original theatrical stereo matrix counterparts.