Fan Edits and The Empire Strikes Back

There are few more rejigged, tweaked, re-released and given a facelift films than Star Wars (1977). Even in the earliest years of its existence, producer/director George Lucas made a habit of altering it – for instance, adding in the Episode IV: A New Hope subtitle to its first 1979 re-release to prepare the ground for a series of sequels and prequels.

20 years later, Lucas returned the original three Star Wars films to the cinema with the 1997 Special Editions. In addition to giving a whole new generation a chance to enjoy them on the big screen with multichannel digital sound, they contained a number of – often questionable – CGI and editing “enhancements”.

Just after Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) was released on VHS, a fan going by the name of “Phantom Editor” re-edited the movie. It cut 20 minutes from The Phantom Menace, mostly consisting of comic relief character Jar-Jar Binks, Anakin’s childish moments and droid chatter. “The Phantom Edit” gained acclaim, and the fan edit was born.

Powerful modern computers have changed the terrain. With easily available commodity software – fans can now do as Lucas and “Phantom Editor” have done. DVD and Blu-ray decryption programmes combined with digital picture and sound editing tools allow fans to remix movies to their heart’s content. Communities of nerds, geeks and cinephiles have sprung up, giving birth to a legion of fan edits.

The sequel to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is the latest to receive such treatment. Created and released by an artist (or team) called Adywan and released for free in the hidden, difficult to police corners of the internet – it’s a tasteful, well-done effort. Much of the work is using digital tools to embellish the art direction and visual splendour of the film. Techniques include rotoscoping (tracing, frame by frame) actors and foreground objects, replacing backgrounds, creating newly detailed miniatures, fixing visual and audio continuity errors, improving the colour grade, shooting new backdrops and removing film compositing matte-lines. Adywan’s “The Empire Strikes Back: Revisited” is a polished, subtle, enjoyable project.

Lucasfilm has adopted a somewhat liberal approach to fan creations and remix culture, rarely stamping down on “creative” copyright infringement – and often encouraging original independent Star Wars fan films with prizes and materials to create their own “in universe” stories. Since Disney’s buy-out, Lucasfilm’s approach has not changed – only stepping in with lawyers when money exchanges hands or outright piracy is encouraged.

There have been other Star Wars efforts – fan editors removing Lucas’ Special Edition “enhancements” using a multitude of sources: Blu-rays, painstakingly scanning and restoring faded archival film prints from collectors, laserdisc colour sources and digital painting and rotoscoping. These internet preservation efforts were an inventive, unstoppable protest against Lucas’ insistence on keeping the original unaltered films away from DVD and Blu-ray.

With fan editing, there are many open questions about copyright, preservation, culture and history. Do the public have ownership of the materials of its own culture? Lucas himself spearheaded a movement against the colourisation of classic black and white features. The post-hoc distinction is blurry.

It’s a dryly hilarious irony that a series of films entirely representative of Hollywood bubblegum capitalism’s excesses – with ubiquitous marketing deals, sponsorship, toys, stickers and video game tie-ins – has given birth to it all.

In his early life, Lucas was something of an obsessive fanboy. As a car-obsessed teenager, he wanted to be a racecar driver until an accident almost killed him. Moving into art and painting led to film school at the University of Southern California (USC). There, he made “THX 1138” – a short film about a futuristic world ruled by fascism and mind control. Developed to Hollywood feature length in 1971, it was an unmitigated disaster. An experimental, sparse, but inventive and arresting picture which no-one knew how to market. Lucas became frustrated with the Hollywood system, with distant producers having control over movies – not their creators. His friend and fellow USC graduate, Francis Ford Coppola had become independent, delivering The Godfather (1972) for Paramount, and Lucas sought to follow in his footsteps.

A pair of unexpected (by studio executives) hits, American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars – and Lucas’ share of the merchandise rights – made him rich. With The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to the biggest grossing film of all time, Lucas sought full independence – putting his own money on the line for full control.

That control is long gone, in both directions. The internet (at its heart – an infinite data duplication and transmission machine) allows fan editors and copyright owners alike to bypass those debates entirely. The control genie is out of the bottle – and Lucas galactic sandbox endures.

Just don’t mention the Star Wars Holiday Special – so toe-curlingly awful that even THX 1138 would welcome a mind-wipe.

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