On Star Wars forums, he goes by Mr. Black. And he owns somewhere between 30 and 40 versions of the original film. He has the DVDs and Blu-rays, of course, but he’s amassed cuts in digital, celluloid, and other rare release formats, too, including Japanese imports, a short-lived laser photographic version known as CED, and a technicolor scan that few people have even seen before.
Yet Mr. Black doesn’t really want all of these rare versions of Star Wars. He wants exactly one.
"I want to watch this the way it was," he says. The way it was, specifically, in 1977—when at age nine, he saw the movie in the theater for the first time. The one where Han shot first, and George Lucas hadn’t added CGI characters. The one where digital sharpening hadn’t killed the natural grain of the film. But despite all of his acquisitions, Mr. Black couldn’t find it. "The feeling was kind of there, but it was missing like a soul." And so for the last eight years, he has spent $10,000 of his own money and countless hours of his own time leading a five-person squad called TeamNegativeOne—whose members range from trained film preservationists to dedicated fans—to restore a single, original 35 mm print of Star Wars: Episode IV.
It seemed an impossible task until this January, when he released it, with 174,155 frames, stabilized, color corrected, and cleaned.
It seems only fair to mention, before we get too far into the story first broken by Movie Mezzanine, that Black doesn’t consider himself a Star Wars fanatic. He can’t recite the film by heart, he’s refrained from reading all of the books, and he hasn’t even seen The Force Awakens yet. He just considers himself a fan like you or me, a person who’d like to pop in the movie every few years and, in his words, "kind of enjoy it," as he did in 1977, the first time he saw it in the movie theater.
Speaking on the phone with me, Black has the voice of an enthused teenager, but he’s in his 40s now, and works his own schedule as a computer programmer and business analyst. Without a wife or kids, he has a level of discretionary time and income that he reserves for hobbies.
He has a passion for music—particularly vinyl—and he’s created his own custom box sets from his collection of 1,000 records and 2,000 CDs. But most of all, Black is a collector. And around 2006, he came across a media collector’s dream on the Star Wars forums, where he discovered fans sharing clips of the countless versions of Star Wars that have existed since its first 1977 run—from commercial releases including 8 mm and 16 mm prints to VHS tapes and laserdiscs.
You see, George Lucas claims that no original master of Star Wars exists anymore, as he chopped it up to create the rereleased version in the 1990s. Whether this is true or not, there’s still no way to see the original Star Wars theatrical release, and there may be a thousand versions of the film, Black muses to me, if you count the smallest changes of scene cuts and audio dubs for television, or the fact that the entire film was simply sped up to fit on the two-hour limitation of early laserdisc.
Some of these changes are pretty major. In the rereleases of the original trilogy, Lucas added superfluous CGI aliens in the backdrop of scenes that were often distracting, and destroyed the balance of the original shot compositions. Other times, he wanted the scale to be larger, so he added in, say, more Storm Troopers to a scene.
The most famous change, following the theatrical run, affected how you perceive a major character in the franchise. The first time we meet Han Solo, he has a meeting at a bar with a bounty hunter named Greedo about his debt to Jabba the Hutt. In modern versions of the film, Greedo either shoots at Solo first and misses, or shoots at the same time and misses. This makes him a scoundrel, sure, but a guy who was acting more or less in self-defense.
But in 1977, Solo didn't wait for anything. He shot first (and last), to end the scene. He was a killer.
The controversy of this change has since become a rallying meme across the Internet: "Han Shot First." And rewrites like this one are why Black began joining in the forums, and building his own collection of Star Wars' many iterations. "Someone brought up the idea, what if we could find a print someday?" he says. "Then there are all these discussions back and forth. Even then it was, ‘How are we going to find a print? How much will it cost? Is it even legal? That got me thinking—it’s a crazy, off-the-wall idea, to find a 35 mm print."
So he did what anyone would do: He tried searching eBay. And there was nothing to be found. For a year.
And then, out of nowhere, he got a hit. The Empire Strikes Back was listed, in 35-mm Kodak Eastman stock. He didn’t know then how badly the colors would have faded, or that the film would stink of vinegar, or that cuts and splices would be in the film because it had been weathered by being projected again and again. Even still, "I ended up buying it—for $1,500 or something," he says. "It wasn't cheap but it was like, at that point, it didn’t matter. I just wanted to have it. Luckily enough, I won the bid. And it was, ‘Oh my god! Now I have a real 35 mm print.’ I was astounded."
Six reels of film showed up at his door. And he didn’t even own a projector.
For the next year or so, a lot of things happened in tandem. Black told the forums he had this 35 mm print, and he began sharing bits he digitized on YouTube via a desktop scanner. He met a projectionist named Cinch who shared a passion, and they began calling film houses looking for someone who might scan their film for them, so they could have it in HD format. Because of the nature of intellectual property law, no one would touch it. (Fan filmmakers exist in a legal gray area to say the least, in which they don’t actually have any rights over these films yet choose to recut and redistribute them anonymously for protection. To make matters more complicated, even the street cred attached to scans of these original Star Wars prints is of great debate. Black is currently embroiled in controversy regarding a separate technicolor print scan he acquired of Star Wars without buying the physical print.)
Black kept searching eBay, and more films were popping up. Someone posted a listing for Star Wars, but they were milking it, only listing a reel at a time. Black only scored five of six. "So here I am, stuck with five reels of Star Wars," he says. And so he kept searching—until, eureka, the holy grail. Star Wars. 35 mm. The whole film. In Spanish.
He bought it for $1,800 anyway. He could always rip the soundtrack off of another source. "Suddenly, I have all these movies that are coming in boxes! I take the day off to work, jumping around my apartment. I have Star Wars!" he says. "For me it was monumental . . . my childhood dream. That movie had changed my life."
But he still didn’t have any way to watch it.
Black and company never found any professional house to digitize their films. In 2012, they bought a 35 mm projector and began digitizing it themselves. Cinch, with technical know-how and some projection equipment of his own, rigged up a camera system in which a digital camera photographed each frame of film, backlit by a film projector that would auto-advance the film frame by frame. "We could capture about two frames per second," Black laughs. "So it was very slow. But it worked!"
They uploaded their first full minute of film, which brought a color correction specialist out of the woodwork. And all of the sudden, Black had every component he needed to turn the film into his digital print. He had a digitization workflow. He had a people with restoration know-how who could wield Photoshop to repair any damage or fading on the film.
The restoration would be defined about what they wouldn’t fix: The film’s natural grain. The burn marks that designate reel switches. And any errors that lived on the film, as a result of bad copying when the negative was originally produced, were okay. That included a mysterious strange dirt smudge, four frames of with a big orange crack in the film during a scene with C3PO and R2D2, a hair on the Fox logo in the beginning of the film. Because that’s what they were going for—a restoration of what you would have seen, were this film projected on a real screen in a real theater.
"We wanted you to be transported back to that era," Black says. "[Like] the color palettes—it’s not going to be this eye-popping brilliant palette [others] would have used." Ironically, only one other member of TeamNegativeOne was young enough to have seen Star Wars on the big screen in 1977, but that didn’t deter them from manual labor to recreate the effect. Each frame has to be fixed for dust, dirt, and scratches, requiring the restoration artist to flip back and forth between a repaired frame and a new frame to see what’s noticeable, and occasionally bump the brightness to spot errors in dark spots. Each frame averaged about a minute.
Now all the team needed was time. Lots of time. "Then a year would go by. And two years would go by," he says. "I didn’t realize what a time crunch it had become for these people. This one guy would come home after work, sit there for a few hours, and be like, I just finished three seconds of film. After all that hard work, you get these few frames of footage done. After about a year, he’d almost made it through one reel."
A lot can happen in eight years. People move. They change jobs. They have kids. For each extra year the project took, its probability of completion went down. Even the Star Wars forums had started to doubt that TeamNegativeOne would ever finish the job. Eventually, one team member reached a breaking point. "He said, ‘We need to get this thing done. We don’t want to do this forever. And we realized, even if we pushed another year, it’s only going to look so much better," Black says. "I was [still] like, ‘Whoa whoa, it’s Star Wars! And the reason we’re holding out on it is that we want to present it the best we can."
But best is a relative term. In the meantime, another Star Wars fan named Petr "Harmy" Harmecek was working on a competitive project called the Despecialized Edition. Meanwhile, new, credible-sounding rumors suggested that since Disney owns the rights to the film, it might finally do what Lucas always refused to and release a new restoration of the original film from the master.
And then there was the even bigger problem—of Mr. Black, the collector. Aside from all sorts of other Star Wars side projects he wanted to complete, he purchased prints of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Aliens. If he couldn't get this one restoration done, how could he seriously consider that his newer acquisitions ever see the light of day?
So somewhere around early 2015, the team convinced Black to stop fawning over the source material, to load a copy of Photoshop, and to start pitching in with repairing frames. "The next thing you know, days started going by, weeks start going by. Sometimes it’s 5 hours, sometimes 10. Next thing you know it’s 15-hour days," Black says.
Most of us will, luckily, never watch a movie frame by frame. Through the process, Black ceased to see the film, and it instead became an abstract burden. "I’m sitting there day after day, night after night, my arm is falling off it’s so tired. And you’re not paying attention to the scene," he says. "This isn’t the Death Star. It’s a big blocky thing. And frame after frame after frame. Something blew up? Finally!"
In January, TeamNegativeOne’s fully restored Star Wars: Episode IV print finally launched with the moniker Silver Screen Edition. No cease and desist letters have arrived, nor have FBI agents knocked down Black’s door. The most zealous of you can find it on BitTorrent. It's been downloaded maybe a few thousand times, by his casual estimation.
Still, Black got his happy ending. "It was such a relief when we put the whole thing together, and all of us were watching the final cut, and we’re actually enjoying the film, not a sequence of images. We’re enjoying the film as it was meant to be," he says. "It was such a relief. An emotion. This feeling had come back to us that we were looking for—that we’d lost."
All Images: Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox