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Star Wars Fan Edits: Art or Desecration?
What's a 'Fan Edit'?
A 'Fan Edit' is a version of a major motion picture which has been edited and/or re-cut by a fan of the movie, rather than by the director, editor or studio.
For example, many Star Wars fans were disappointed in the Special Edition Digital Remasters of the original trilogy for various reasons. Many complaints center around problems with the audio and digital remastering of the visuals, while others complain about the re-done CGI aliens and special effects, so fans with the proper resources remastered the audio tracks, and coupled it with meticulously color-corrected and remastered HD versions of the original theatrical footage to create a 'fan remastered' (called 'De-Specialized' in the fan community) version of the films--it is their mission to create an exact reproduction of the original theatrical experience of the Star Wars films.
Many such editors also work to preserve rare versions of the films, such as the foreign-language versions, digital preservation of original 35mm and 70mm reels (as Lucas has gone on record with the rather disturbing hope that the original reels and tapes would rot, leaving only the Special Edition DVDs as the 'official' versions of Star Wars), the Star Wars Holiday Special, and even notable bootlegs, such as the infamous 'Backstroke of the West' version of Episode III.
On the other hand, some fan editors have made massive changes to the films, creating what one might argue are original works of art. One extreme example is the collection of six 45-minute long '30's Silent Serial' fan edits, in which all audio is completely removed, and replaced only with the John Williams soundtrack, with all dialogue handled in title cards. This approach allowed for the editor to tell almost any story they could imagine, as long as it reflects the action happening on-screen, and resulted in films many times shorter than the originals.
Most fan edits fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but all of them are done by individuals or small groups of fans using tools available to the public to edit their version of the films.
Why would someone make a fan edit?
Think back to the first time you watched Star Wars as a kid--the sweeping epic story, the shoot-outs, the spectacle of it all was immense. Whether or not you saw it first in the theatres in the 70's, or on Laserdisc or VHS in the 90's, the original trilogy was a film-making tour de 'Force'. But in George Lucas's own words, the theatrical releases of the 70's and 80's reflected "twenty-five to thirty percent of what [he] wanted to accomplish" with Star Wars. Even as soon as Episode V was green-lit, Lucas was tweaking the original film to make the trilogy more cohesive and smooth (starting with changing the opening crawl of Star Wars to include the new sub-title 'Episode IV: A New Hope'). These tweaks and edits would continue with every re-release of the film, starting in 1980.
The Star Wars series has had an incredible impact on culture, and has spawned every sort of fan-made product one can imagine: comics, novels, high-quality lightsaber replicas, paintings, tabletop role playing games, costumes, music, even churches. The Star Wars universe has even been opened up for others to officially contribute through the Expanded Universe literature, resulting in stories taking place long after the end of the movies, or a thousand years before. The Expanded Universe has even influenced Lucas's presentation of the movies in turn, starting with adding Boba Fett to the films (his first appearance was in the Star Wars Holiday Special as a cartoon character!). With every other possible creative avenue being explored, why wouldn't fans want to explore the possibility of retelling the existing story visually--especially since Lucas himself has been re-editing the films for the last 30 years, as well?
When exploring the Star Wars fan edits out there, one might notice the conspicuously large number of Prequel Trilogy edits. Given the critical reception of the prequel films in relation to the original trilogy, it should come as little surprise that many fan edit efforts are focused on re-imagining the Prequel Trilogy to match the quality and storytelling found in the Original Trilogy. Such fan edits usually focus on reducing the role of Jar Jar Binks, strengthening Anakin's portrayal, and cutting out extraneous dialogue to improve the pacing and storytelling in the film. Ultimately, all fan edits are made as labors of love, with fans stepping into the role of editors and sound mixers to produce the very best version of Star Wars they can.
Why wouldn't fans like these fan edits?
The most common negative reaction to the fan edit community is that anyone who would try to change the original works is not a true fan--if they don't like what George Lucas has made, then they are by definition not a fan of that work. It seems hard to fault their logic! After all, if someone claimed to be a fan of Leonardo da Vinci and expressed their love of his works by painting a replica of the Mona Lisa, but made her an old woman because 'this is how it should have been painted in the first place', it might be hard to see how the person in question is a fan of da Vinci's work.
A fan editor might argue that George Lucas has been fiddling with Star Wars since the moment the first film was in the can. Of course, George Lucas is the creator of Star Wars, though--any changes he makes are automatically sanctioned by virtue of the fact that it's his story, and he'll change what he wants to. To assume that a fan is better equipped to tell the tale of Star Wars than the Oscar-nominated director who conceived of the story is arrogance in the highest degree, a purist might argue. One wouldn't go back and re-cut Schindler's List, would they? (Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Schindler's List is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, and managed to win on its own more awards than the entire Original Trilogy did--including the Oscar for Best Director, which has eluded Lucas through the entire series.)
A fan editor would likely reply that no, one would be crazy to re-cut Schindler's List--and the craziest person in the world to do so would be Steven Spielberg himself. Since 1993, Spielberg has not released a 'director's cut' or a 'special edition with additional scenes' or anything of the sort. But Lucas can't leave well enough alone, and has made additions and subtractions and alterations to every Star Wars movie since 1977. If even Lucas can't stop making (sometimes highly questionable) changes, why shouldn't the fans step in and try to make a high-quality, coherent version of the story without being fiddled with every two and a half years?
Would you want to watch a version of Star Wars re-edited by a fan?
Let me take a wild guess...
I'm a fan edit fan, myself. Editing is just as integral to the storytelling as the directing, the acting, and the writing, which is why there is an Academy Award for Best Editing. In my mind, a fan edit is no different than writing fan fiction, or drawing fan art. By re-creating the film and telling the same basic story in a new way, I am making a new work of derivative art which celebrates the existing work.
Just because faneditors make changes to the films doesn't mean they don't love the source material, they just want it to be better. Often, executive meddling can result in good scenes and sub-plots being cut before the script is finalized (or even after entire scenes have been shot), or a director with a poor sense of humor can result in terrible jokes being left in, inflicting their un-funniness on viewers year after year. Cutting out such a groaner, or reintroducing a deleted scene can make an already good movie even better, and as fans, all we want to see are the best version of the movie possible. That is, after all, why we will buy the HD Widescreen Limited Director's Cut Special Extended Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-Ray, even if we already own that Special Edition DVD (and the non-special edition DVD, and the Letterbox Special Edition VHS, etc.).
Is it a bit presumptuous to think that we, mere fans, can tell the story of Star Wars better than Lucas can? Perhaps. But sadly, Lucas is no Stanley Kubrick. In some cases, people have a tendency to think their work is much better than it actually is, and unfortunately, George Lucas seems to be one of these victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect. But the efforts of dedicated faneditors have shown that even beneath the questionable 'artistic choices' made by Lucas, there is a very serviceable and even enjoyable prequel trilogy.
What Fan Edits would you recommend?
'The Phantom Edit'
The 'original' Star Wars fan edit, produced by The Phantom Editor (originally rumored to be Kevin Smith, of Jay and Silent Bob and Dogma fame, but eventually revealed to be Mike J. Nichols, a professional film editor in Hollywood). Released in 2000 on VHS and distributed by fans who diligently copied and re-copied their VHS bootlegs, The Phantom Edit removed scenes with Jar Jar Binks, and reduced Anakin's lines to remove his incredibly poorly acted 'Yippee's and 'Oops'es. The dialogue was tightened up by cutting extraneous explanations and dialogue related to intergalactic politics. This fan edit is solely a reduction of the existing film; the cuts that were made reduced the film's run time by 18 minutes. The Phantom Editor also made a sequel, Attack of the Phantom, notable for its 'editor's DVD commentary'. The Phantom Edit is the inspiration behind many other fan edits, and many other fan edits have a similar list of cuts to Phantom Edit.
Magnoliafan's 'Balance of the Force' and 'The Clone War'
Of all the Star Wars fan edits I have seen, these are my favorites. Magnoliafan is a very skilled film editor (also rumored to be Kevin Smith, though the identity and whereabouts of Magnoliafan are currently unknown), who not only made cuts to Episode I (such as removing extraneous dialogue), he also reintroduced several deleted scenes and completely remixed the alien and droid dialogue to be in alien languages. This has the effect of not only bringing back some of the original trilogy feel, but allowed for subtle, yet significant changes to the story. In Balance of the Force, the overall story is darker and edgier. The Trade Federation is attempting to enslave the people of Naboo (making Padme's interactions with Anakin and his mother more meaningful), the Gungans are more threatening, Jar Jar is a boisterous yet clumsy character who thinks he's the hero of the story, the podrace has been extended, and some classic musical cues from the original trilogy have been added. The plot changes made in this edit reflect earlier scripts for Phantom Menace--truly, this is the film that could have been!
The Clone War continues in the same vein as Balance; alien dialogue was re-dubbed and re-subtitled, and subtle yet effective plot changes have been made to help connect the prequel films more fully to the original trilogy while also giving a darker tone to the films. These changes include making Count Dooku a more sympathetic antagonist (primarily by making him not a Sith--even the color of his lightsaber has been changed by Magnoliafan to reflect this change in portrayal), and connecting the Separatist Movement to the Rebellion we know and love from the original trilogy. The relationship between Anakin and Padme has been addressed to feel more organic through the re-introduction of deleted scenes and the removal of some of Anakin's whinier moments.
The Man Behind The Mask's '30's Silent Serial'
One of the more unusual and most drastic alterations to the Star Wars films, the 30's Silent Serial is a complete recreation of the entire Star Wars saga. The films have been cut down by a considerable amount by removing sub-plots and handling dialogue entirely in title cards. Without Lucas's attempts at witty banter or cutesy accents, conversations move much more quickly, and entire characters (such as Jar Jar and young Anakin) can be cut almost entirely from the film. The 30's Silent version of Episode I clocks in at just under 45 minutes! Each of the following films is similarly abbreviated; the entire saga can be watched in under 5 hours. As silent films, the only sounds which can be heard are those written and conducted by John Williams. (Indeed, the only sound one might miss is that of Darth Vader's breathing.) This fan edit comes in two versions: Regular (black and white) and Dusty (sepia-toned with additional scratches and 'damage'). I personally prefer the Dusty Version for atmosphere.
There are many other excellent fan edits; some particularly well-received edits include Q2's 'Fall of the Jedi Trilogy', L8wrtr's Prequel Trilogy edits, Slumberland's Prequel Trilogy edits, and HAL 9000's '9000 Saga'. If you merely want a properly restored HD version of the original trilogy without suffering any of the coloring errors or audio mistakes found in the official versions, then the De-Specializations of the original trilogy by Harmy, ADigitalMan and Adywan will likely be up your alley.
Woah, hey, are these things legal?
Technically, the Copyright Act gives the copyright holder of a work the exclusive rights to derivative works; this protects an author's right to publish sequels to their novels, for a comic book company to sell lunchboxes and mugs with their characters on them, for a movie company to license the rights to make toys based on their film to one specific toy maker, etc. This technically means that ALL fan art, fan fiction, etc. can be restricted. You may have heard that you're not allowed to publish Anne Rice fan fiction anywhere--this is because Anne Rice has exercised her right to exclusive control of derivative works.
In practice, however, few copyright holders exercise this right. For one, fan works are often seen as free advertising by many creators; in the same vein, telling your fans to stop participating in the fan community is a poor business decision. Number two, many fan works are also protected under the Fair Use clause of the very same Copyright Act, so most creators aren't willing to spend time and money fighting against works which are clearly not 'official', such as fan fiction or fan art. Finally, most fan works are distributed for free on the internet, so there is no chance of the copyright holder losing revenue based on the existence of fan works. The only time most of them will move their legal machines into action is if someone actually does start selling their derivative fan works, and then only if they aren't sufficiently transformative--thus, if you go to, say, Jime Litwalk and ask him for a New School Slave Leia pin-up tattoo, you and Jime most likely will not receive Cease and Desist letters (the argument would be that out of all the tattoo artists in the country, you chose Jime to do this tattoo because of his specific artistic style, which is protected as 'transformative').
Where does this place fan edits? Well, owning a recording of something is protected, and is why we have a home video industry in the first place. Derivative works are protected in other media, such as fan fiction and fan art (consider the long history of Star Trek fanzines, and the countless Twilight parodies on the market not to mention Fifty Shades of Grey, which began life as a Twilight fan fic), which is good news for us. The transformative nature of fan edits further suggests that they would be protected under Fair Use--in the end, you're fairly safe if you possess a copy of a fan edit. This is, however, an area which is still being hashed out in the courts regarding the intersection of digital media, derivative art, and copyright law. There's not very much solid legal ground yet, and this is an underground fan community to begin with.
As long as you aren't selling fan edits or screening them for money, you aren't going to draw attention by breaking any currently well-supported laws (e.g. the laws against publicly screening consumer videos that you are warned about at the beginning of every film, copyright laws regarding the fan edit itself as a protected work of art on the part of the faneditor, etc.).
If you have not purchased official copies of the Star Wars films, you should NOT download a fan edit. It's very poor form to not pay the content creators who made the original movies, and could be considered piracy.
I hate this whole 'Fan Edit' idea. What official version should I buy instead?
Lucas has stated that the Special Edition DVDs released in 2004 are the most official versions of Star Wars to date. These versions were apparently superseded by the 2011 Blu-Ray releases, which had further edits. Just goes to show you how much the word 'official' means these days.
The Laserdisc editions of the films released in the early 90's are highly sought-after among Star Wars collectors and aficionados; these editions are said to have the best audio mixes of all the home releases. Of course, you need a Laserdisc player to watch these, and hardly anyone has one of those laying around anymore. (Laserdisc remained popular in Japan throughout the 90's, however, and high-quality Laserdisc equipment and films can still be obtained in the Japanese market.)
The VHS editions of the films which came out in the mid-90's featured some changes, notably the opening crawl of Episode IV, but most of the work was done in audio. The 1997 VHS editions are the first to feature heavy changes from the original theatrical versions--including introducing the controversial issue of 'Who Shot First?', the changes to the music played in Jabba's Palace, and alterations to the sarlacc scene. These details are mostly academic, though; most people don't have VHS players around anymore.
The DVD editions of the Prequels in the early 2000s are fairly close to what was presented on screen in theaters. The 2004 Special Edition DVDs of the Original Trilogy, however, are the biggest offenders, and are not recommended for anyone who remembers seeing these films in theaters.
In 2006, Lucasfilm released a 'Limited Edition' run of the Original Trilogy, with an extra bonus disc featuring the original theatrical versions of the trilogy. (They're not--they're Laserdisc transfers, but they're the closest to the theatrical versions that Lucas is willing to give us.) These 2006 Limited Edition DVDs are the preferred edition among Star Wars fans merely on principle due to the inclusion of the original theatrical versions. If you have a Star Wars purist in the family, buy them the 2006 Widescreen Limited Edition DVDs and watch their faces light up.
The 2011 Blu-Ray releases are desirable for their additional special features, such as deleted scenes, but each of the six films has again been edited. Who can keep up at this point? Well, Wikipedia, of course. If you don't care one way or another about the revisions Lucas has made over the years, the Blu-Rays are the way to go--you'll surely get the most bang for your buck that way. I'm holding out on buying the films of Blu-Ray, however. With Disney's recent acquisition of Lucasfilm, there will almost certainly be another release of Star Wars on Blu-Ray--here's hoping a proper remaster of the original prints is part of that!