Here’s a lecture I gave as Keynote Speaker at St. John Fisher College for Philosophy Day on November 21, 2103.
Han Shot First.
Good afternoon. I am Brian Steblen, and I’m here with my business partner Mike Champlin. We own DeBergerac Productions, and we write, shoot and edit documentaries and curate and restore archival films. I’d like to thank the college and Professor Sadono for the invitation to speak today.
On this digital philosophy day, let me begin with that I went to RIT to learn the most analog of analog media, multi image production.
This was essentially producing PowerPoint presentations using film and animation stands.
The slides would go into 2 or 8 or 24 projectors, allowing us to do a variety of special effects and animations.
However, right after I graduated, the actual PowerPoint arrived. I became an early casualty of the digital age,
but I was young enough to quickly switch to video production, where today I embrace digital in all its forms. Especially digital cameras which grow smaller and lighter as I grow older.
For today’s talk I will look at the journey two Hollywood directors took to what I consider the dark side of digital, and how that journey changed both of them as artists.
The title of my talk: Han Shot First. Or, How CGI Messed with My Childhood.
I’ve always been a fan of science fiction.
The first sci fi film I saw in a theater was “2001 a space Odyssey” in 1968. My aunt took me. She thought I, as a 5 year old, would like it. Why? Because she drank a lot.
Move forward to 1976. I’m at the movies watching the trailers, when one comes up for something called “Star Wars.”
I have to be honest… it looked really stupid. Space cowboys, a Sasquatch, and all the spaceships were beat up. But in the spring of 1977 Time Magazine declared it “the movie of the summer”. And now the whole world had to go.
Summer of 1977. I was 14. Star Wars was opening in two theaters in town, and I remember standing in a line that stretched around the theater in the hot June sun. The movie would end, the doors would open, and the line moved forward, and hopefully you would get in for the next show. Aaaaand no. So another two hour wait, but this time, thankfully in the air conditioned lobby. And then we were in.
The movie was cool. It was fun. It was big, and loud. It was like nothing I had seen. I was hooked.
In 1977, all the special effects were done with models,
motion controlled cameras, and in camera effects
like matte paintings, which were actual paintings, done by hand. There were no digital effects because digital effects didn’t exist. The film pushed to the limit what could be done with optical special effects, and won six Academy Awards, including the Oscar for best visual effects.
Now back in the 70’s, movies came, went, and maybe showed up on cable six months later. If you loved a movie, you went and saw it again, and again. I saw Star Wars I believe 8 times in the theater. And when you see a movie multiple times, and especially when you see it in the immersive experience of a theatre, it bakes into your memory. The scenes, the dialogue, all of it. It became a part of me, and our culture, our shared histories. And thanks partly to kids like me going back again and again it became the highest grossing film of all time, up to that point. Star Wars played in some theaters
for an entire year.
Yet, in spite of all this success and acclaim, Director George Lucas said that the 1977 version never matched his original vision for the film.
So in 1997, when he announced that Star Wars would be re- released to theaters for the film’s 20th anniversary, he wanted it to be the movie he had envisioned. And now there were the tools to make that happen: computer generated special effects.
Lucas decided he would, two decades later, change one of the highest grossing, most viewed, iconic films in movie history. He would expand some original scenes, add some new scenes and digitally clean up some of the original in-camera special effects.
Great the world said, a new computerized “Star Wars”. A Special Edition. That would be fun to see. But all along there was the assumption that while there was this Special Edition, there would always be the original. Except that was not Lucas’s plan.
This Special Edition was to become what the world knew as “Star Wars.” He was going to re-write history. While many of the changes were minor, such as adding a few aliens here and there, some changes were major. The character Jabba the Hut is seen on screen as a CGI creation, in a scene originally shot with an actor playing the role. This matter of fact introduction to the character would diminish what was his dramatic introduction in “The Return of the Jedi”.
But the scene that best illustrates he danger re-writing history, is this one:
That scene introduced the world to Han Solo, and in five minutes we knew this character. He’s a badass. He’s cool. You may be cool, but you’ll never be Han Solo flipping a coin to the bartender after blasting a bounty hunter cool.
But here is the end of the same scene in the revised 1997 version.
Greedo the bounty hunter shoots first. Now with this, Lucas is no longer fixing sloppy matte shots or adding extra aliens. He’s changed the narrative. He has re-defined a central character. Instead of Han Solo, man of action, we have Han Solo, man of re-action.
So this updated version was released as the “Special Edition.” And it was Lucas’s plan to never let the original 1977 version, the “rough draft” as he called it, ever be seen again. He gathered up as many of the original 35 mm prints as he could, to get them out of circulation.
Lucas would eventually release the original 1977 version on DVD in 2006, but it was as “bonus material,” an inferior transfer from a laser disc, not from the original negatives. The intention being that the new version, pristine in appearance, would be preferred by the world to the inferior laser disc transfer.
This is what the director said in 2004:
“The special edition, that’s the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anybody wants it…To me, it doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be.”
So was he finally happy? Well, when the original three films were released on DVD in 2004, he made additional changes to all the original trilogy, altering some scenes to match the recently released Episodes 1, 2 and 3, and there even more changes in 2011 for the Blu Ray release.
One fan made this, what a 2019 re-release might look like.
Today, and forever forward, the movie titled “Star Wars” is now the re-edited and CGI altered version. The film I saw as a child is gone. Or will be when the 1977 versions on VHS disintegrate with time.
Films are a product of their times. They reflect the culture and the technology of whatever era they are produced. Lucas could not accept that.
In 1977, and even by today’s standards, Star Wars was a masterpiece of visual creation. It influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. The American Film Institute ranked Star Wars as the 13th most important American film ever made.
I re-watch a film because I want to revisit characters and events I remember and enjoyed. When a film like Star Wars, a film so deeply engrained into my memory, is changed, it’s like visiting your childhood home; you expect the comfort of the familiar. But then you walk in and the furniture is moved around, the walls are a different color, things are missing, and brothers and sisters have been added to the family pictures.
When I am expecting something to be familiar, and find it’s not, then it’s not the excitement of discovering something new I feel. It’s disorientation and confusion. I have enough of those in real life; I do not need them from movies.
But do I as a moviegoer, as someone who has paid money to view a filmmaker’s work, do I have a right to be able to see the version I want to see? If a movie is so socially significant and so woven into the fabric of our culture the way Star Wars has been, does the filmmaker have the right to alter it even if millions object?
Here’s another example, from a different director, Steven Spielberg, and his 1982 film “ET.” In the film, there is the iconic scene where kids on bikes escape gun wielding government agents by taking to the sky.
And again, for a 20th anniversary re-release, Spielberg used CGI to update some of the film’s special effects as well as this change:
Guns are now walkie talkies. The sense of menace is gone. While updating the visuals for the new century, he, like Lucas, also felt the need to adjust the story.
So now, what is the film called Star Wars? The 1977 release? The 2004? The 2011?
What film will people think about when I say “ET?” It depends on their age. But from the altered films release date forward, for all ensuing generations, those are now the films.
So, does the filmmaker have the right to alter their work even if the public objects? Do they have the right to essentially travel back in time, and change their work and our memories?
Yup. They do.
Whoever owns the copyright to a film can pretty much do what they want with it. Because there is the artistic side of filmmaking, the writing, acting, visual effect, and there is also the business side. Movie making is a business. And getting people to buy the same movie over and over is a really great business model.
The fact that the copyright holders can do as they please with their films came into sharp focus in the 1980s when Ted Turner bought the libraries of MGM and RKO Studios,
and began to colorize black and white movies. Many people objected to this practice, including the actors and directors who made the now altered films. They argued that the directors, writers, and actors, the artists who created the films, had a “moral right” to have their work preserved.
In 1988, congress held hearings, and debated a law called the Film Integrity Act, which would have amended copyright law to state that films could not be altered after release.
One of the most impassioned speakers was: George Lucas. He expressed that historic films are our cultural heritage and need to be preserved for future generations:
People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians… Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires.
Ironically, just ten years later, Lucas became the “barbarian” of his speech, doing exactly what he spoke out against, almost as if he used his speech as a guide to what he should in fact do.
The Film Integrity Act failed. Ted Turner, or anyone who owns a copyright, could do what they wanted to the films they owned, over the objections of the artists that created them. But while the law failed, the idea of “moral rights” was not dead.
As a result of those hearings the United States National Film Preservation Board was created, to collect and preserve important films in a special branch of the Library of Congress. Every year thousands of films are nominated, and 25 films, which are judged to have significant artistic or cultural value, are selected for inclusion to the National Film Registry. The Board obtains and stores archival prints of those films.
Star Wars was one of the first 25 films to go on the Registry.
The films on the registry are now frozen in time. Future generations will be able to watch them as they were released, as artistic expressions of the people that made them and the era they were made.
And this archiving of films will become even more important as eventually every film is “born digital.” There will no longer an original negative to reference. If a digital film is altered, then those bits of information are gone.
A group of archivists this year have written the first guidelines on archiving “born-digital” materials. It is an acknowledgement that the legacy of today’s writers and visual artists will exists only as digital files, and for them to be saved for future generations, our generation has to invent a way to preserve and protect the artist’s work.
It is important that films reflect the era they were made, and not changed to fit the ideals or vision of someone in the future. Because films are not only snapshots of their time, they are snapshots of how we saw ourselves in each era, how we felt about the real world was expressed the worlds created on film.
Now, looking from an artistic point of view, it is interesting how the two directors now view changing their past works, and how that experience changed them as artists.
Spielberg said this in 2011:
There’s going to be no more digital enhancements or digital additions to anything based on any film I direct…. When people ask me which E.T. they should look at, I always tell them to look at the original 1982 E.T. If you notice, when we did put out E.T. we put out two E.T.s. We put out the digitally enhanced version with the additional scenes and for no extra money, in the same package, we put out the original ’82 version. I always tell people to go back to the ’82 version.
Compared to, again, what George Lucas said this in 2004
…this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be.”
These two men collaborated on several films, including the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park. But while Spielberg continued to direct films, eventually winning three Oscars, Lucas focused more on the business side of the movie business with his Industrial Light and Magic, the pre-eminent special effects house, and Skywalker Studios.
Spielberg gave us “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindlers List.” Lucas gave us “Howard the Duck” and the star wars prequels. I believe Spielberg learned from his tampering with history, that like in a time travel movie, changing the past can have terrible consequences on the future. He learned to move on.
And that is important for an artist, to not get stuck. We learn from our previous works, and make the next piece better. When I see work I did ten years ago, I can, from the vantage point of today, see what I would change, how I would have framed or lit or edited something differently. But I only have that insight because I moved on from that work, built experience upon experience. Rather than change my old work, my old work allows me to see how I’ve grown as a filmmaker.
I will leave you with this quote from Ira Glass:
“… All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions… It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
— Brian M. Steblen