While defaced "special editions" and numerous re-releases are the way many have experienced Star Wars, a group of dedicated fans have taken matters into their own hands, recently releasing a digitally restored version of the film pulled from 35mm prints dating back to the original release in 1977. Dubbed "The Silver Screen Edition," the project was completed by an anonymous group going under the name Team Negative1, and is largely taken from a Spanish-language low-fade 35mm print, with certain sections — including the original title crawl, which had neither "Episode IV" nor "A New Hope" when first released — filled in by a faded vintage print on Kodak Eastman film stock.
There have been various fan-made restorations of the original Star Wars trilogy over the years, most famously the "Despecialized Edition," which just released an updated Return of the Jedi earlier this year. But that project was made up of bits and pieces assembled from a variety of different sources, whereas the new Silver Screen release was pulled primarily from that single Spanish print — a bit of a coup given that the film prints aren't technically supposed to be floating around in the wild at all. "They all had to be destroyed after they were shown. So the ones that still exist, somebody just dug them out of dumpsters and managed to hang on to them," a representative from Team Negative1, going by the name Mr. Black, recently told Movie Mezzanine. "Even the best one, even the one that was used as a reference for the Special Edition was in terrible shape. The colors are there, but the damage is just insurmountable."
Han shoots first, Jabba doesn't show, and not a scrap of CG
To combat that damage, the scanned elements underwent digital restoration to stabilize the images, color-correct them, and remove damage and dirt — and while the end result is impressive, it's not going to be what you're used to from a modern Blu-ray release. That's largely due to the elements used; back in the days of film releases, prints wouldn't be struck from the original conformed negative due to the high probability of damage. Instead, an intermediary print called an internegative — essentially, a duplicate of the final, color-corrected negative — would be used to strike the release prints that ended up in theaters. But given that this was an analog, photochemical procedure, each generation away from that original negative introduced softness and grain into the image, making the source material for this new version softer than the negatives used for official releases. (It's the same reason why when you watch digital restorations of old movies certain wipes, transitions, or special effects suddenly leap out as grainier than the rest of the restored footage; producing those effects back in the day required compositing images on film, baking in added grain.) But the result is Star Wars as it was when it set the world on fire nearly 40 years ago: Han shoots first, Jabba doesn't show up, and there's not a scrap of intrusive computer-generated imagery to be seen.
Of course, none of this is exactly legal, so things like the Silver Screen Edition aren't available for sale (but if you read The Verge, you've probably already got a pretty good idea of where you should go online to track it down). And it's just the first step for Team Negative1. According to the team's site, they're already work on a second release of Star Wars, which will be using even better source materials for reduced grain and increased sharpness, and also have various versions of the other films in the works — including a 70mm scan of The Empire Strikes Back.
The noise is getting louder for a proper, historically accurate release
The noise is getting louder from fans to see the original films as they were first released, not only as a historical artifact, but because that's the way people first fell in love with them. George Lucas famously vowed that the original cuts would never be released, and that a true restoration would be impossible due to the changes made to the original elements for the Special Edition releases. With Disney having purchased Lucasfilm, however, fans are hoping for that to change. Another unreleased restoration project, by composer Mike Verta, is said to be highest quality version yet, and a significant improvement to the oversaturated colors of the Blu-ray release. (This comparison video from Verta sums up his issues pretty clearly.) He's so passionate about the issue, that Verta told Movie Mezzanine that he is scheduling a meeting with Disney and 20th Century Fox executives to screen the film and pitch them on the potential of a true restoration. "I think the more vocal people are about supporting these projects, the better," Verta said. "Have faith; more to come."