The strange case of Star Wars Rai Tre broadcast…

In 1997, George Lucas decided to release a Special Edition of the Star Wars Trilogy (at the time, Episodes 4, 5, 6); the “ultimate version” (even if we all know, now, that it was not the truth…).

So, every subsequent TV broadcasts of Star Wars probably used the 1997 SE master, until the 2004 DVDs eventually repaced it. Until now, only few recordings of this 1997 SE version appeared on the net; they are the G’kar (German TV) and TB (Canal+ Scandinavia), available for the whole trilogy, and Reivax and Flunk, just for Episode 4; they were recorded all, as far as I know, using a DVB card, hence they “should” be 1:1 copy of the original broadcast transmission, apart Flunk; it seems to be sourced from a Digi Beta tape, directly from a TV station; indeed, its quality is superior in comparison with the others; it’s a pity that only Episode 4 is available…

It seems that all these recording were done in 1999; they share all the same color grading – the same found also on PAL and NTSC lasediscs and VHS tapes; there is sometimes a pink shift, that is notable in particular on the added shots in Mos Eisley.

At the time, I was not aware of these versions; I remember I bought the DVDs in 2004, just to discover the versions included in the boxset were not 1997 SE, but further modified ones…

So, in January 2005 (monday 4, 11 and 18, to be extremely precise), when I knew Rai Tre (an italian TV broadcaster) would transmit “Guerre Stellari”, the whole 1997 Special Edition version of Star Wars trilogy “for the last time ever” (and this was the truth, sadly) I decided to record them! I used the best available technology (read: what I could afford); so, no fancy DVB computer card, but instead a “top of the line” Philips DVB set top box, connected with a good SCART cable to a Mustek DVD recorder, set for the best video and audio quality (HQ setting, VBR video, 720×576 MPEG-2 around 4500kbps, CBR audio, 48KHz stereo AC-3 384kbps); final sizes were 4.11GB for EP 4, 4.15GB for EP 5, and 4.96GB for EP 6 (on two TDK DVD+RW discs, all are still playable nowadays!)

So, how good are them? Well, when I recorded them, and watched all together some days after the last recording, they were astonishing, despite the fact they were cropped at around 2.0:1… watched today, the quality is less than good, in particular compared to the other DVB recording now available; still, a lot better than VHS, and the only digital source for the 1997 SE italian audio track – the only other one is from VHS Hi-fi.

So, what’s special in this version? Isn’t it as all the other ones – DVB recordings, laserdisc and VHS tapes? Well… yes and not! Sure, the movies are the same – I mean, no added or missing scenes (apart few frames lost just at the commercial breaks); but color grading is totally different! Take a look at the next pictures…

Episode 4 – top Flunk, bottom RaiTre:

There is no other untouched source with the same, or similar, color grading (except one; I’ll tell you more later); let’s take for example the first shot, binary sunset; in every commecial releases, or broadcast recording, including VHS tapes, laserdiscs, DVDs, Blu-rays, digital downloads, DVB and HDTV, of theatrical, 1997 SE, 2004 SE or 2011 SE, the lower sun is always orange, while in Rai Tre is clearly yellow! (don’t know about CED or VHD, but I bet they are the same)

So, there are two possibilities: Rai Tre has the “wrong” colors (plausible, as all the others have different ones), or the contrary is true, and Rai Tre has the “right” colors (difficult to believe, don’t you think?)

Well, I thought the same for almost ten years, leaving the DVD+RW discs lying around, unused. Then, few weeks ago, during one of my usual futile tests, I discovered the other source with similar color grading: DVD menus!

Without further ado, let’s see few comparisons – top Rai Tre, bottom DVD menus:

According to this thread, the DVD menu colors “bear strong resemblance to Mike Verta’s tech scan. It is very different from the GOUT, and even from the ACTUAL DVD IT CLAIMS TO REPRESENT!” So, I made some speculations; they are ONLY my personal thought, so take this with a grain of salt… OK, follow me.

The DVD menus, made by the great Van Ling, didn’t used the final (2004) DVD footage; instead, they were made from scratch: “high-definition footage and reference photos were obtained from Lucasfilm’s archives for use in recreating the scenes… Using stabilized high-definition transfer footage and reference set photos…” No talking about eventual color corrections, so it is plausible there are no (major) color corrections at all, apart, I think, reference photos, to have colors closer to the film print, that, I suppose, is the main reference.

So, taking for granted (again, it’s just a supposition) that the DVD menus are reflecting the actual colors of the film print, the Rai Tre recording is really close to them; why, frankly I don’t know; maybe there was an intermediate master, prior to the 2004 DVD release (with same colors used in the DVD menus), used just for some broadcast (including Rai Tre, or only for it), but immediately retired and corrected… speculations, I know, but there is no other reasons I could think of, at this moment; and, thinking about the whole Star Wars history of changes, refiniments and so on, it isn’t incredible to believe.

Again, let’s say now that Rai Tre has the “right” colors; its quality is really low, is cropped, so it cannot be used “as is” for an eventual restoration project; but it’s possible to use it as color reference, and regrade another (better) source, like HDTV or Blu-ray, to have its colors; this is what I’m testing right now…

Episode 5; color grading preliminary test – top HDTV regraded using RaiTre as reference, bottom HDTV untouched:

As you can see, Hoth snow is not blue anymore, like also the other shots, where there is quite always a blue cast; now, the colors are similar (but not exactly the same) to the GOUT – which is recognized by many persons to have a quite good resemblance of the original film print colors.

It’s difficult to think that Rai Tre has a color grading so close to the DVD menus – in particular the previously mentioned binary sunset shot, and the two imperial ships, where the bigger, in background, is blue – they are the only known instances of this color, where in all the other versions the ship is gray – more or less, but certainly not this intense blue!

Final words: if the automatic process of regrading an HD source, using Rai Tre as color reference, will lead to a satisfactory result, even if the colors are not the “proper” ones, it will be always another, interesting, version, among all the other ones, both officials and not!