Are Star Wars Fan Edits a Force for Good?

The history of the Star Wars fan edit, and where they came from...

Legal note: fan edits aren’t technically legal. We do need to point that out at the start. We’re not encouraging piracy, or copyright theft here, as the following article, we feel, makes clear.

It’s barely been a month since Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the home viewing market and already a wealth of fan-edited content has made the jump to YouTube, Vimeo, and other sites. Everything from re-scores (replacing Michael Giacchino’s music with a more traditional John Williams cue) to splicing the ending with the opening of A New Hope has ensured that the most recent entry in the series has fallen in line with the rest as a key piece of interactive media, ripe for manipulation. However, some fans hoping to understand the pre-reshoot form of Rogue One were left disappointed by a lack of deleted scenes, making anything close to a speculative assembly impossible.

Feature-length fan edits of the Star Wars series have become a staple of internet culture. The earliest and perhaps best known example is Mike J. Nichols’ The Phantom Edit, a version of Episode I with substantially less screen-time devoted to Jar Jar Binks. Receiving vehement praise, it circulated on VHS, DVD and torrent sites around Hollywood circles in the early 2000s.

Since then the practice of editing, re-structuring or flat-out removing certain elements of the saga has found its home on The site was founded in 2003 to petition Lucasfilm for a release of the classic films on DVD, for nothing quite strikes the nerve of Star Wars obsessives like a mention of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi in their unaltered form. The failure of many petitions and a request from America’s National Film Registry to secure such this holy grail has only increased the demand.

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In 2004, work began on one of the more famous edits: Adywan’s Star Wars Revisited, subtitled “What the Special Editions should have been.” This project fixes continuity errors, janky effects, color correction issues and more, while introducing updated effects shots and music from the prequels to give the saga a consistent aesthetic. Adywan has gone so far as to build all-new miniature effects for The Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth battle sequence, to blend in seamlessly with Industrial Light and Magic’s work from 1980. Revisited has received firm acclaim but also criticism for what some fans see as a continuation of Lucas’ meddling.

Approaching the same films from a totally opposite direction is Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, a version of the classic trilogy that has been painstakingly morphed to resemble the theatrical releases as closely as possible. Using a myriad of sources from the most recent Blu-rays to upscaled Laserdiscs, VHS copies, and more, Harmy has entirely removed George Lucas’ later digital additions and restored the original effects, in respect to those who worked tirelessly to create the Oscar-winning spectacle. This project is now a lynchpin of Star Wars fandom, usually cited as the best way to watch the original films.

The release and unrelenting online backlash against the prequels arrived just in time for the development of YouTube, creating a whole new niche. Just entering the search terms ‘Prequel edit’ into the search bar brings up a variety of different cuts. Some work on ‘improving’ elements from each film individually (much like The Phantom Edit), while others shed enough material to squeeze the entire triptych into a single 3-hour feature. All three have even been released separately in (and I promise I’m not making this up) an ‘Anti-cheese’ edit, an effort to remove any extraneous material and re-dubbing some of the flimsier lines of dialogue (this version is no longer online, having been hit with a copyright claim – a constant enemy in this arena).

Even the odd Hollywood high-up has been getting in on the action: actor Topher Grace has created his own 85-minute version of episodes I, II and III, which has been screened only to a select few (again, to avoid legal issues). Director Kevin Smith is still regularly credited with The Phantom Edit, despite the actual editor coming forward.

As for the present day, fan projects continue alongside the evolution of Star Wars, with the release of The Force Awakens. Amongst the usual re-scores and modification of sound effects, something more unique to modern film-making emerged. Viewers who experienced it in true IMAX cinemas will have been treated to a key sequence shot in the larger format. In IMAX, the Jakku escape scene occupies a 1.90:1 aspect ratio (or 1.43:1 if you made it to a 70mm showing), in contrast to the usual 2.35:1 frame. The home release was cropped to fit this letterbox format, causing some exasperation given that other high-profile films shot in the larger format (including Disney’s own Guardians Of The Galaxy in 3D) made it to Blu-ray with IMAX scenes intact. Shoddily captured in-cinema videos aside, the only version available with the correct footage is a Starz HDTV release, which has since been restored by none other than our old friend, Adywan.

Ten years on from the first official release of Revisited, the work of fans to create their own vision of Star Wars seems unlikely to fade and continues to straddle a line between creativity and controversy. The key issue is whether they’re an innocent response to that age-old ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’ question, or a problematic product endemic of fan entitlement.

Until recently, I fell on the side of confusion and annoyance whenever another warped version of the films appeared online: surely, if you love a piece of media that much, you wouldn’t dare go near it? Is it not the same confusing rhetoric that directors give when remaking a film they adored first time around? We all accept there are things we don’t like in the media we love, but does that give us the right to modify them purely to satisfy ourselves, regardless of the artists’ intention?

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Sure, I’d love to make the duel between Kenobi and Vader seem less like two men swinging foil-wrapped sticks around, or color-correct the battle over Coruscant to seem less yellow, but I wouldn’t. I’ve watched these movies so many times in their standard format that to see new cuts or inclusions would be weirdly jarring, like hearing the radio edit of a song you’ve heard countless times on an album.

The debate surrounding George Lucas’ vision is another story all by itself, but we know for certain that he considers the most recent versions as definitive. Lucasfilm has been reticent with any announcement regarding the unaltered original trilogy since a lackluster DVD release in 2006, so Harmy’s Despecialized Edition is likely the closest we’ll ever get. One imagines this would only heighten some fans’ animosity (if someone with a computer and some free time can completely reconstruct the films, surely it can’t be hard for Disney to restore the original prints?), but due to the DE’s easy download method, their bloodlust has been sated…and I’m weirdly okay with that. For all my eye-rolling whenever my dad brings up Greedo shooting first as an unforgivable heresy, I’m glad the original films exist in some version for him to enjoy until an official release eventually rolls around.

Yes, it may be catering to middle-aged fans who refuse to suffer a few minutes’ worth of changes, but people tend to overlook how the project gives younger fans a chance to see a piece of cinematic history in the same way their parents did (as well as honoring the original artists).

This works in for prequel edits, too: as a child of the early noughties, that was my trilogy, and I therefore consider them a valuable part of Star Wars history, never understanding the overblown hatred held by the older generation of fans. Though there are elements of the various versions that rub me up the wrong way (the ‘Anti-cheese’ edits come across as rather insipid), but there’s something to be said for giving disgruntled fans a way to enjoy these films. Anything that helps them connect with the stories I loved as a child is fine by me.

Similarly, with Revisited, newcomers who find the films in their original form dated and clunky can experience a version infused with the high-tech digital wizardry they’re accustomed to. The simultaneous existence of Lucas’ preferred versions, Despecialized, Revisited and the rest democratizes the experience, so anyone can enjoy Star Wars in whatever form takes their fancy. The stories, themes and characters remain the same (exclusion of poor Jar Jar excepted, of course).

But what really won me over was a realisation of the sheer creativity and potential these projects represent. Those fans who spend hours painstakingly building a new model of the Hoth shield generator or re-applying the Vaseline smear beneath Luke’s landspeeder are mastering filmmaking technology from the comfort of their own homes, honing skills that can be applied to legitimate feature work. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to suggest that one of them could end up making an actual Star Wars film, if Disney’s plan to continue the saga indefinitely comes to fruition.

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If Gareth Edwards can make the jump from playing with VFX on his computer to directing Rogue One in just a few short years, there’s no telling where the hundreds of diverse and talented fans who brought us something like Star Wars Uncut could end up. The Force – it’s calling to them…