Last week, Big Picture, Big Sound was one of a handful of media outlets invited to Lucasfilm headquarters at The Presidio in San Francisco for a hands-on/eyes-on/ears-on demonstration of Star Wars The Complete Saga on Blu-ray. So would the discs live up to the hype?
As previously reported, all six films in the series will be released in DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 channel surround, but we finally had the opportunity to listen to the end product under ideal circumstances, that is in the studio with Matthew Wood, Supervising Sound Editor at Skywalker Sound. He's the man responsible for taking the company into the digital realm, and he also knows these movies so well, he can spot potential mistakes by memory and sheer instinct. Matthew worked extremely hard to preserve the integrity of the movies' audio while also crafting the new 6.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mixes. Why 6.1?
"We did have the chance to go back and do (the remixes however we wanted), and we chose 6.1 as the format because that was for us on the prequels... 5.1 EX was what we used, and it had that back center surround and that for us is a nice 360-degree feel, and we wanted to have everything sort of match that. And this is just personal with me, but with 7.1, the separation in the back and the sides kind of diffuses the back, so I kind of like having just a discrete feel in the back with 6.1."
As a reminder, The Phantom Menace was the first movie released in Dolby 5.1 EX, with its rear center data (particularly noticeable in the podracing sequence) encoded in the left and right surrounds as an additional channel. That audio can now be presented discretely in modern home theaters, and so the entire series is being made consistent. 7.1-channel home theater systems will present the rear channel as a dual mono image which will place it at the rear center of the soundstage as was desired by the sound designers. As a result of this audio overhaul, we can experience the legendary opening Star Destroyer flyover in a whole new way, and other "6.1 moments." Star Wars (a.k.a Episode IV: A New Hope) represented a complete re-editorial project requiring the most work, but all six were elaborately remixed and remastered from scratch, a process begun way back in 2007.
Director (of four of the six) George Lucas and Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt were extensively involved in the project. Lucas always seemed to have new changes in mind, but his general mandates included maintaining the proper balance between the music and effects, as well as ensuring that the dialogue was clear.
We confirmed that missing music has been restored, reversed music channels have been corrected, and the podrace will surely challenge even the beefiest of subwoofers. Some of the fixes are as small as a footstep or a line of background dialogue. And now that the hiss has been removed, moments that were supposed to be quiet (not the first word we typically think of to describe the Star Wars soundtracks!) like R2's lonely nighttime trek through the canyon on Tatooine are finally properly quiet.
Video-wise, the masters of the Classic Trilogy created for the 2004 DVD release served as the starting point, which is to say that the negatives were not rescanned using more modern telecine technology. However, many changes were made to these masters to make them more attractive for Blu-ray -- to make them fully exploit the 1080p resolution and color saturation capabilities of the format.
The color timing was considered to be a bit too amped up on the 2004 DVDs, and while I can't say for sure that the entire series of films is now more subdued (read: more accurate), overt color intensity issues, such as the unfortunately dull appearance of the lightsabers, have definitely been addressed here. The blades have been returned to their proper brilliance but also, stylistically, their white-hot cores have been brought back as well. "Flubs" such as the Wampa puppeteer's arm visible in the shot where it snaps the Tauntaun's neck, have been digitally corrected. Even the Prequel Trilogy promises to look better than ever. For example, improvements in technology over the past several years have made it possible to show more of the exposed frame of The Phantom Menace for Blu-ray, which was unavoidably cropped eight percent for DVD.
One of the most persistent problems with the Star Wars film image on video has been the exaggeration of the "garbage mattes," those rapidly-changing, oddly-shaped outlines of uneven brightness around spaceships, a common issue with special effects of the era. So where should a director or anyone else draw the line in correcting problems that appear more prominently in HD? Should flaws inherent to the image be removed if they were "part of the art?" We posed that question to eight-time Oscar winner Dennis Muren, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic.
"Garbage mattes, definitely. That really messed up the original VHSes of Star Wars. And everybody thought that it was that way when it came out in theaters, and of course it wasn't, just the transfer wasn't done quite right. So I'm all for getting it the way you saw it in the theater. As long as the original version is always available, then beyond that, you can do whatever you want."
[Fun Fact: Dennis Muren has his TV at home set to 120Hz with motion interpolation turned on because he believes this gives him a more lifelike image. To each his own...]
Kayleen Walters, Senior Director of Marketing for Lucasfilm Ltd., was the driving force behind the design and creation of the extras for Star Wars The Complete Saga on Blu-ray. We were able to explore further the deep, rich Archives sections but we couldn't resist spending most of our time with the deleted, alternate and extended scenes, arranged by both the movie and the planet where they take place. The thing about the deleted scenes--and we were asked not to go into specifics of what's in there--is that this is the first time some of these have ever been seen, and the first time that they have been presented so accessibly.
Fans might remember a LucasArts CD-ROM that had a couple of cut scenes, and a couple were glimpsed in the course of the documentary on the special edition DVD, but this set takes it all to a whole new level. There are over 40 scenes in total, including animatics and previsualization versions. In addition to previously announced extras, there will be New Easter eggs hidden on the discs. Keep in mind that we will need the full eight-disc Complete Saga boxed set in order to check out all the extras.
We're more excited than ever about what could be the Blu-ray of the Year, so please check back for our official review once the final discs arrive from Fox/Lucasfim.
Our thanks to everyone at Lucasfilm, especially Chris Argyropoulos and Connie Wethington.
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Please note: in the interest of full disclosure, the author's travel expenses for this event were covered by Lucasfilm.