BitDepth 543 - September 26

Old science fiction ages badly, but new special effects technology can spruce up the classics...
Restoring the future

Science reality. Computer restoration technologies are applied to old movies to make them shiny and new. Old effects are spruced up, like the lame meteor in Star Trek's Balance of Terror (right) and sets are reimagined around Princess Leia and Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back.

The great irony of science fiction movies is how quickly they become dated. What was once hailed as the cutting edge of special effects in these movies is soon dismissed as dated and the future depicted in these fables soon begins to look quite old.
Some creators aren't content to let things slide. George Lucas took his first Star Wars Trilogy back into the shop for a retune in the mid 1990's, reissuing the three films in cinemas with re-engineered special effects and whole new scenes.

Purists, the kind of folks who sneer at the garishly colorized black and white films that populate the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, will be disturbed by anything but a pristine original..
What the director made is the way the film should remain is the theme song warbled by such theorists. But what happens when the owner and creator of the property decides that technology has finally caught up with what he had in mind in the first place?

These probably aren't questions that Lucas pondered for long. His investments in Industrial Light and Magic, one of the key special effects houses of Hollywood, were a signal from early on that what matters to him is not what's shot, but what gets printed.
The 1997 re-release of the Star Wars films, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was a triumph for the salt-haired producer of all three films and a licence to proceed with the prequels, three of the most anticipated and least satisfying films that may ever have been made.

At LucasFilm's website for Star Wars (see full link below) there is a full and detailed list of all the work that's been done for the 2004 re-issue of the original trilogy's second episode, 151 specific scenes with details of how the failings of early technology were corrected.
If you aren't a special effects buff, the terminology may baffle you, but as a viewer, the end result is subtle but resonant. Most special effects techniques involve layering one image over another and removing the bits you don't want using some readily found target, such as a blue (or green) screen.

Early effects were done optically, so some images either have obvious "matte" lines, a black fringing where the objects overlap, or appear ghostly, with a subtle see-through effect. ILM tore the most troublesome of these shots apart and reassembled them, sometimes recreating the scenes where they took place. Solid walls now have windows; blank white spots now have airlock doors closing behind them.

Now Mr Lucas has company in his modern-day re-invention of his properties. Paramount, which owns the Star Trek franchise, is returning to the original voyage which sparked decades of Klingons, phasers and warp speed to refurbish the ageing special effects that decorated the five-year voyage of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
There may be an uproar among Trek purists over the prospect of even cosmetic retouching of the original series (or TOS, as it's called) and concerns have been raised over Paramount's decision to do the work in-house.

But a project of this scale isn't being done for old fans. This kind of money gets spent to win new ones, who will find the old effects unwatchable.
The first two episodes, Balance of Terror and Miri, aired in syndication on September 16.
Little has been revealed about the project, but it is being helmed by some well regarded Trek veterans, including Mike and Denise Okuda who have worked on all the post-1980's incarnations of the series.

These digital touch-ups have tended, on both science fiction entertainments, to be limited to sets and effects, leaving the human performances true to the work of actors.
But is there any doubt that long before the future imagined by Gene Roddenberry, some digital re-imaginist will lose patience with Shatner's halting, hyphen-ridden speaking style and fix-the-damned-acting-Scotty.

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What's being "fixed" according to the Trek website...
Space ship exteriors – The Enterprise, as well as other starships, will be replaced with state-of-the-art CGI-created ships. The new computer-generated Enterprise is based on the exact measurements of the original model, which now rests in the Smithsonian Institution.

Show opening – The Enterprise and planets seen in the main title sequence will be redone, giving them depth and dimension for the first time.Alexander Courage's theme music is being re-recorded in a new performance and Shatner's voice-over is being restored from the original recording.

Galaxy shots – The graphics of the galaxy, so frequently seen through the view screen on the Enterprise's bridge, will be redone.
Exteriors – The battle scenes, planets and ships from other cultures (notably the Romulan Bird of Prey and Klingon Battle Cruisers) will be updated.

Background scenes – Some of the iconic, yet flat, matte paintings used as backdrops for the strange, new worlds explored by the Enterprise crew will get a CGI face-lift, adding atmosphere and lighting.
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