The Best Way to Own the Original Star Wars Trilogy:
There are essentially 4 different cuts of the original Star Wars trilogy that are available to you as a consumer. In this article, I will break down each cut of the trilogy, and take a look at each version that is available to purchase on home video, weighing the pros and cons of each one.
Because this article is about owning, and collecting the various releases of the Star Wars films, I will only discuss Harmy’s Despecialized Editions of the original three movies very briefly – his work in recreating the unaltered original trilogy is astounding, although limited by the combination of 1993 standard definition material, and various other sources which limits the final product to a resolution of 720p. Uncompressed, they look excellent, and for those who have no drive to own copies of the Original Trilogy, these are likely to be the best looking copies of the original, unaltered movies for the near future.
Now, onto the official home video releases. For this breakdown, we will only be looking at Laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu Rays. There were several widescreen and fullscreen VHS tapes available, but due to the limited resolution of VHS tapes and the lack of digital stereo or surround sound tracks, I opted not to include them. Widescreen VHS tapes tend to have a very distinctly low definition look, because you’re taking an already small amount of analog picture area, and then using only the very center area to present the 2.35:1 aspect ratio image of the Star Wars Trilogy. As much as I appreciate the attempt to maintain the integrity of these incredible films, they hold up extremely poorly in 2016.
I have also determined that, because I have never owned a PAL video system, or any PAL DVDs or Laserdiscs, that I am completely unqualified to comment on them. For this round up, any non-high definition transfers are restricted to NTSC releases from America and Japan.
There are several distinct eras of the Star Wars Trilogy on home video, each having distinct quirks and elements added or subtracted. There has never been a completely perfect release of the Star Wars Trilogy, especially in the post-1997 time period. For this article, we will break things down into the 1986-1992 era, the 1993-1996 era, the 1997-2003 era, the 2004-2010 era, and the 2011- era, which we are currently in today.
This was the golden era for standard definition releases of the Star Wars films on home video. The analog tape master that was created for this release of Star Wars was never tampered with with any attempt to clean the image, or filter any detail. No new material was added, and there are no digital effects to be seen. An interpositive was scanned, and that’s essentially it. These widescreen masters were created in 1986, and served as the home video masters that were used up until 1993 for Laserdisc releases of the trilogy. They exhibit occasional print wear, with dirt and scratches showing up on screen. This was also the first time that the film was remixed for Dolby Surround, the home video equivalent of Dolby Stereo. Previous releases of the film were in mono sound only, assumed to be created from a stereo sound master used to make 35mm prints of the movies.
There are three different ways to acquire this version of the Star Wars Trilogy, and they are as follows.
CBS/FOX Video “Special Collection” Set (1986, 1987 CAV Laserdisc Release) – Japan Only
In December of 1986, Japanese Laserdisc collectors got the first ever taste of Star Wars in 2.35:1 letterboxed widescreen, courtesy of CBS/FOX using the 1986 home video master. Empire would follow in April of 1987, and Jedi was released in November of the same year, completing the trilogy set under the CBS/FOX “Special Collection” series. Each of the three Star Wars films are presented across 3 discs in CAV mode. CAV mode Laserdiscs run at roughly half an hour per side, and are typically slightly higher in visual quality to their CLV mode counterparts, which run at roughly an hour per side.
This is truly a prestigious release, and is one of the most sought after releases of the Star Wars Trilogy on Laserdisc. It is highly regarded for its clean, film-like look, and overall sharpness as far as Laserdiscs are regarded. Because these are Japanese releases, each of the three films has Japanese language subtitles burned into the image. They typically remain below the letterboxed frame, but on occasion creep into the film’s visible area.
CBS/FOX Video Special Widescreen Edition Set (1989 and 1990, CLV Laserdisc Release) – US
The first widescreen release of the Original Trilogy released in the US in 1989 and 1990, is somewhat problematic, particularly with its presentation of A New Hope. Each film is presented in CLV mode across two discs except Jedi, which has one CAV mode side, and all three of these releases recycle the specific Japanese master that was used to create the “Special Collection” set. As a result, during the final battle over the Death Star the letterboxing increasingly takes up more of the viewable image area in order to mask the Japanese subtitles that are visible in the frame. It creates something much closer to a 2.55:1 aspect ratio, and the transition happens gradually over time.
These releases of the trilogy are essentially the same as the “Special Collection” releases, except that they are noticeably softer in appearance. These releases are incredibly common, and can be had easily through marketplaces such as Amazon and Ebay here in the states.
Fox Video Special Widescreen Edition (1992, CLV Laserdisc Release) – US
In 1992, shortly before the brand new THX master of the Original Trilogy was finished and used to create the next generation of Star Wars releases on home video, Fox Video reissued A New Hope under their own brand, dropping the CBS/Fox logo. This repressing is slightly different depending on where it was pressed, as it was pressed at one of two different sites: Technidisc and Mistubishi. If you acquire a Mitsubishi pressing, it utilizes the exact same master was that used for the original Special Widescreen Edition US set. The Technidisc pressing allegedly uses a new master that fixes the aspect ratio issue present in the original 1989 release.
As far this version of the Original Trilogy goes, as long as you can stomach the subtitles that are burned into the image, and can foot the bill to import these releases, the Japanese “Special Collection” releases of the 1986 scans are the ones to acquire. The US releases are softer in terms of image quality, and the gamble you take on trying to acquire a copy of A New Hope with the proper aspect ratio is much too great.
Let’s take a trip back to 1993. Digital surround sound is just starting to become a thing in 35mm film projection, and the THX cinema standards are still relevant to theater owners. As a result, THX becomes a thing on home video. They start certifying video masters, ensuring that they are properly transferred to digital tape, and that the sound mixes are acceptable for listening in the home. The first Laserdisc home video release to carry this THX certification was the 1993 Laserdisc Box Set of James Cameron’s The Abyss, which I am sad to say that I do not own. The second release to champion the THX mastering brand? Star Wars: The Definitive Collection, which was released in September of 1993. The video master that was used to create this release of Star Wars would be used for multiple releases between 1993 and 1996, as well as the DVD presentations of the Original Trilogy unaltered for the Limited Edition 2006 DVD Standalone releases of the films.
This presentation of the Star Wars Original Trilogy was created from a fresh standard definition scan of a 35mm interpositive of the three movies. Unlike the earlier releases, which featured little to no filtering, the THX video mastering process used digital video noise reduction, as well as advanced digital color correction. As a result of the filtering applied to the movies, these transfers of the Original Trilogy are cleaner in appearance, but are also riddled with artificial sharpening artifacts, and smeared detail across all three films. The color of these releases of the film is somewhat healthier than the original 86 master. The soundtrack for each film was also remixed to meet THX quality standards, and presented in digital stereo and encoded for Dolby Surround processing.
The 1993 Version is available in these releases:
Star Wars: The Definitive Collector’s Edition Set (1993, CAV Laserdisc Release, THX Mastered) – US Release
This release of the Original Trilogy was the first time ever that the entire series was available in one, large, expensive Laserdisc box set. This set is absolutely massive, with each film presented across 3 discs in CAV mode. Each of the three films is split across 5 sides, and for the first time, extra bonus features are included as a part of the box for each film, with trailers, commentaries for specific scenes, interviews, and a large gallery of production photos. The box is made of sturdy cardboard materials, and includes a large hardcover book titled, “ George Lucas: The Creative Impulse,” which is a hefty 207 page book about George Lucas. A booklet, containing credits, chapter guides, and a small amount of material written about each film.
So, on paper, this release sounds incredible, especially for 1993, right?
The Definitive Collection initially was plagued with all sorts of different issues. Early pressings of the US box set were missing closed captioning signals, and had all sorts of strange trimmed footage and missing shots. On top of these issues, spelling mistakes were left in subtitles, as well as the included booklet. Side changes, which are frequent due to the half hour maximum time limit, are placed in convenient places, interrupting conversations and breaking the flow of the movie. The packaging for the discs themselves are essentially 3 fat cardboard sleeves, that frequently fall apart due to the cheap glue used to hold them together.
Visually, the films are sharper than their 1986 sourced counterparts, but the artifacts from the heavy handed THX processing are apparent in many shots, and many times detail disappears into the shadows and the analog noise inherent to the format.
NOTE: There is a Japanese release of this box set, which was released in 1994. The set is nearly identical, except that the written materials have been translated into Japanese, and Japanese subtitles are burned into the image.
There is also a second issue of the Japanese release of the this box set, which was released in 1995. It contains identical contents, but substitutes 3 making of features, “Star Wars: A New Hope: Making of: As told by C-3PO and R2-D2,” “Star Wars: SP FX: The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Star Wars: Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi” instead of the hardcover book.
Star Wars Trilogy: Faces Set (1995, CLV Laserdisc Release, THX Mastered) – US Release
Using the same exact video masters that were used to create The Definitive Collector’s Set, the Faces set was issued in 1995 as a budget alternative to the bulky box set, each one carrying a retail price of $59.99 and later reduced to $24.99 in the late 90s, compared to the $249.99 price tag for the 1993 box set. These releases are known as the “Faces” set, because A New Hope features a picture of Darth Vader’s head, Empire that of an Imperial Stormtrooper, and Jedi that of Yoda’s. These are each 2 disc sets, in nice gatefold sleeves.
These three releases are nearly identical in presentation to that of the Definitive Collector’s Box Set, in terms of color and image processing as well as sound quality.. Because of the fact that they are presented in CLV mode, I have always found them to be a tad bit softer overall when compared to the CAV mode presentation of the Box Set. The “Faces” set also lacks all of the features and audio commentary of the Box Set, instead opting for an interview with George Lucas. The interview is split into 3 parts, one for each of the three films.
This set at one point after the announcement of the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy, was advertised as the, “last chance to own the original version of Star Wars.” What an omen.
Star Wars Trilogy: Collector’s Set (1995, CLV Laserdisc Release, THX Mastered) – Japan Release
This box set, issued in October of 1995 is essentially the same exact style of presentation as the American “Faces” set, except that it features different artwork, as well as a sleek white outer box. Each of the films is presented in CLV mode across two discs, and instead of the 3 part interview, an extra disc is included, which contains the 1983 TV Documentary, “From Star Wars to Jedi” in its entirety.
The box set was also issued as separate, standalone CLV mode 2 disc releases, which were cheaper in price than the entire box set, but have the exact same technical qualities, and no special features whatsoever.
Even though the 1993 version of the Original Trilogy is troubled with distracting visual processing, and the occasional hiccup, it is by far the most accessible release of the unaltered Star Wars Trilogy. That being said, as long as you can verify that it is not an early pressing, the 1993 Definitive Collector’s Edition Box Set is by far the best release of this edition, in terms of presentation and special features.
Here’s where things get a little ugly. In 1997 George Lucas and his film restoration team created three brand new, revitalized version of the Star Wars Trilogy in order to not only save the films from destruction at the hands of age, but to help get the masses excited for a new generation of Star Wars which would hit theaters in May of 1999.
In 1994, Lucas and a team headed up by Rick McCallum set about to restore the Star Wars Trilogy, as the prints they had at their disposal were unacceptable for presentation in theaters. The process was laborious, and took millions of dollars and a joint effort of many different teams to create a brand new, printable version of the Original Trilogy for the 20th anniversary of Star Wars in 1997. Most of the work was done on a photochemical level, which involved cleaning the negative, reprinting optical transitions, and creating a brand new color timing for the eventual theatrical prints that audiences saw in 1997. The rest of the work was handled in the digital domain at 2K resolution, which involved re-compositing effects material such as space battle sequences in which many layers of film were combined to create what you saw on screen, and fixing transparency issues that came from effects composites. Many pieces of damage were cleaned to create a fresh experience for the next generation of Star Wars fans. In the audio domain, a brand new 5.1 digital surround sound mix was prepared from the original six track magnetic sound stems used to create the original soundtracks for the various releases of the films.
If only George and his team had stopped there. This would have ended nearly 20 years of fighting before they even began.
Instead, George and his team of digital effects specialists used their nearly unlimited budget from 20th Century Fox to experiment with using the original film negatives as plates to animate on top of with new augmentations, or create brand new scenes that George felt fulfilled his vision of what the Star Wars films looked like to him. He used this second chance to slightly alter sound effect placements, such as adding Emperor Palpatine’s scream from Return of the Jedi over Luke falling into the depths of Cloud City, and many other unwarranted editions. He used digital technology to completely change the ending of Return of the Jedi, creating a more definite ending, and added a CGI song and dance number to the same film, arguably weakening the film’s already slightly diminished reputation when compared to A New Hope and Empire. Long story short, George Lucas created a new, definitive restored version of the Star Wars Trilogy, which served to enrage long time fans, and permanently tarnish his reputation as a filmmaker.
More information on the creation of the 1997 Star Wars Original Trilogy Special Editions can be found here.
A 35mm interpositive created for the 1997 Special Edition release of the Original Trilogy was scanned and used to create a digital master for home video. This master, much like the 1993 version of Star Wars, was THX certified on Laserdisc. Unlike the aggressive video processing that plagued the presentation of the 1993 master, this video master exhibits far less aggressive noise reduction and filtering. Color and contrast are greatly improved in this video transfer, as is the amount of detail visible in the 2.35:1 image, to the extent that the Laserdisc format can reproduce. The analog noise inherent to Laserdisc is far less obnoxious in this release of the Original Trilogy. The new sound mix is presented in both Dolby Surround, as well as in discrete 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound for the very first time on home video.
It is important to note that there was never a DVD or Blu-ray release of the 1997 version of the Star Wars Trilogy, as the final color timing, optical work, and general restoration work done was only ever contained in an interpositive for each of the three films. For reference, restoration work starts with the original camera negative, which is then printed using select chemical processing to create an interpositive with correct color. For the 2004 version of the film, George Lucas returned to the original camera negative, and had the films reconstructed in 1080p by Lowry Digital to emulate the changes made by the team that created the 1997 version.
The 1997 version is available in these releases:
Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition (1997, CLV/CAV Laserdisc Release, THX Mastered) – US Release
The only ever American release of the Special Edition of the Original Trilogy, this Laserdisc box set hit shelves in November of 1997 following the theatrical re-releases of the films. This box, packaged in a much more minimalistic presentation, which is simply a picture of Darth Vader with the title on the front, and the titles of the three films included on the back. Each of the five discs included in the box are presented in identical paper sleeves with a “Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition” logo on each sleeve. A large, full color pamphlet is included with a full chapter guide, and a piece of writing that describes all of the work put in to create the Special Editions. Each film includes the theatrical re-release trailer, as well as a selection of special features based around the creation of the the 1997 edition of the films that run after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi.
As far as technical qualities go for this box, the excellent clarity and contrast work from the restoration is evident in spades, and yet, the color suffered in this THX mastered video transfer. Right away, with the opening crawls for each film, the bright yellow text comes of as a pale, almost sickly yellow. The rest of the films look slightly more blue-ish than previous versions of the film, and while for the most part it looks unnoticeable, on occasion it becomes distracting. Bright scenes look a little blown out under this new color timing, while dark scenes are somewhat darker and have heavier shadows. The sound mix, presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital, is just incredible. The directionality of the sound is remarkable, and subwoofer activity is non-stop, in traditional Star Wars style.
Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition (1997, CLV Laserdisc Release, THX Mastered) – Japan Release
Even though the sources for this, and the US release are identical, this 1997 box set of the Special Editions features a fixed color timing, immediately apparently with the opening crawl of A New Hope. Otherwise, detail, contrast, and analog noise levels are just about the same, and my comments about them above are echoed. The only major difference of course, is that these films all feature Japanese subtitles, which are kept below the image frame.
The major difference however, is in the packaging. In 1997, DVD was on its way in, and Laserdisc had all but been abandoned in the United States, whereas in 1997, Laserdisc was still a huge market in Japan. The outer box features the identical picture of Darth Vader, except mirrored, and this time it is a velcro sealed flap. Opening the flap reveals three individual sleeves for each film, each one with artwork that matches the theatrical posters for the Special Editions, as well as a full color insert that features a breakdown of the new material in each chapter of the film, in Japanese language of course. The box feels more sturdy, and the artwork is absolutely gorgeous. Instead of a selection of features at the end of Return of the Jedi, each film contains a small making of feature at the end.
Unlike the American release, which was exclusive to the box set, each of these three films could be purchased separately. Each of the separate releases features identical content, without the comfort of the box packaging.
Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition (2000, CLV Laserdisc Release, THX Mastered) – Japan Release
Released in November of 2000, in the twilight days of the Laserdisc format, which would be over in a commercial sense by 2001, this is the last issue of the Original Trilogy on the Laserdisc format. The video transfer uses the same exact base that was used to create the 1997 US and Japanese box sets with identical subtitles to the 1997 Japan box, but takes advantage of three years of innovations, such as a lowered brightness level that increases contrast, and a slightly more natural color timing. Skin tones look remarkably better than their 1997 counterparts. The soundtrack presentation is exactly the same, with both Dolby Surround tracks, and discrete Dolby Digital tracks as well.
In terms of packaging, the outer box is slightly more compact than that of the two 1997 boxes, and features artwork that mirrors the US VHS tape box set that was also issued in 2000. Each film is packaged in its own individual sleeve, with brand new artwork to reflect the new box art, which is stunning for each of the three films. Other than an 11 minute behind the scenes look at the then upcoming release of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones placed at the head of A New Hope, there are no special features whatsoever.
The 1997 version of the Original Trilogy represents not only the best looking Laserdiscs of the Star Wars films, but the most controversial. They were the first releases to ever include the brand new CGI additions to the films, as well as the slightly altered sound mixes, which have driven fans nuts insane ever since, as Lucas has added and subtracted new additions with each future release. Because the US box set of these versions features a slightly off color timing, it is hard to recommend for any reason except that it has the largest selection of bonus features. The 2000 box set, although visually striking in terms of packaging and presentation, does not feature a transfer that really sets it miles ahead of the 1997 Japanese box set. Because of the incredible packaging, rock solid video transfer, and moderate selection of features for each film, the version of the 1997 Special Editions of the Star Wars Trilogy is definitely the 1997 Japanese Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition Box Set.
To prepare for the initial DVD releases of the Star Wars trilogy, prepared in time for the theatrical release of Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas tasked Lowry Digital with the task of creating a 1080p master to create widescreen DVD masters from. These DVDs not only featured new alterations to the films, such as the addition of Hayden Christensen at the end of Return of the Jedi, and new extended footage of the wampa in Empire Strikes Back, but feature a heavily altered color timing, as well as visual processing that create a visually distinct version of the film. This master heavily favors magentas and blue-ish colors. Many times, lightsabers look ugly, and greenish in hue, and many digital manipulations look goofy, such as incorrect placement of lightsaber hilts. The image has been processed and filtered to remove grain and make the image sharper. Weird framing issues are also present, mostly due to strange cropping during Empire Strikes Back, as well as audio mix issues with swapped surround sound channels. Because of the digital nature of the master used to generate these DVDs, they all feature identical video and sound quality.
Objectively, this is worst of the post-Special Edition cuts of the original trilogy. This release features not only the controversial changes that Lucas implemented with the 1997 Special Edition releases, but implements newer, arguably worse changes to the films. This, on top of the terrible color and destructive filtering used to artificially sharpen the film make for a terrible viewing experience. I’ll admit that I was absolutely thrilled with these DVDs when they released in 2004, as it was the first time I’d ever seen Star Wars in widescreen, but then again, I was also 9 years old.
The 2004 cut of the Original Trilogy are available in these packages:
Star Wars Trilogy DVD Set (2004 DVD Release, available in both Widescreen and Fullscreen)
Star Wars Trilogy Limited Edition Standalone DVDs (2006 DVD Release – 2 discs each, with both the 2004 cut of the film as well as the 1993 cut of the film, described in detail above)
Star Wars Trilogy DVD Set (2008 DVD Re-release of the 2006 Limited Editions with new packaging, no new material)
Because of the inclusion of both the original and 2004 cuts of the Original Trilogy, the Star Wars Trilogy Limited Edition Standalone or 2008 DVD Set releases are the most recommended for the 2004 cuts of the Star Wars films.
These are the most recent cuts of the Star Wars films that have been made available to consumers. Allegedly sourced from the same 1080p scan that George Lucas had created in the early 2000s to prep for the DVD releases of the trilogy, these cuts are essentially the 1997 Special Edition prints of the film, with various new digital modifications and sound edits. Many of these additions are holdovers from the DVD release of the trilogy, such as Hayden Christensen’s appearance as Anakin Skywalker as a force ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi, and the extended footage of the wampa in Empire Strikes Back.
Other additions made are the inclusion of some digital rocks during one of the Tatooine sequences in A New Hope, the digital implementation of blinking eyes for the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and the use of James Earl Jones’ “No” dialogue during the final throne room battle between Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Emperor Palpatine at a critical moment in the film.
The 2011 cuts of the film feature the most ridiculous of the changes that George Lucas has ever had made to the film, combining the worst additions from the 1997 Special Edition restoration and modification, as well as some of the strangest additions from the 2004 DVD cuts of the films with some brand new additions, further diluting the integrity of the three original trilogy Star Wars movies. However, this brand new presentation of the 1080p masters created by Lucas in 2004 largely resolves all of the picture quality issues that plagued the DVD releases. Colors are far more stable, with lightsabers appearing with the proper colors, and the kind of ugly color timing used for the DVDs has been corrected to a much more pleasing look. Grain resolves nicely, and although these prints of the film are not perfect, detail is nice, and the presentation is of higher quality than the previous releases of the film, due to their high definition nature.
The 2011 cut of the Star Wars Original Trilogy are available in these packages:
Star Wars: The Complete Saga (2011 Blu-ray release)
Star Wars: Original Trilogy (2013 Limited Steelbook Blu-ray release)
Star Wars: The Complete Saga (2015 Blu-ray Re-release)
Star Wars: Episode IV-VI (2013 Blu-ray + DVD release)
Star Wars Individual Steelbooks (2015 Blu-ray release)
With these releases, the content is essentially the same, as they all utilize the 2011 1080p master. Where they differ is in terms of packaging, and special feature content. If you have a need for these films in 1080p, these are the only way to acquire them. However, because of the 3 discs of special features, I would, without question, recommend that you buy one of the Complete Saga releases above all else.
There is a release of the Original Trilogy for every man, and a large selection of options for each of the 4 distinct version of the film. With the help of this article, I hope you will have a much easier time determining which version of each is the right one for you.
I used a vast variety of pictures to fill in for the Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray releases that I do not have.
Sources used were as follows: LDDB.com users: takou, admin, joe, recobanchou; amazon.com store pages; starwars.wikia.com; /u/exharrison