Thursday, March 30, 2017

Giving the Studios the Bird : Fan Reconstructions of their Preferred Versions of Classic Films

In the past several years, there has been an increasing proliferation of the fan re-edit and the fan reconstruction of classic films.  One of the chief reasons for this was the Star Wars Special Editions.  But fan reconstructions have gone far beyond a Galaxy Far, Far Away.  Read on to discover another community increasingly devoted to reconstruction.  But before we get there, let us set the stage during the long winter of our discontent :

The Story Behind the Star Wars Special Editions and Despecialized Editions

Back in 1997, fourteen years after Return of the Jedi, George Lucas decided to reedit the original trilogy to reflect how he believed the films should be presented and enjoyed given the advances in technology between 1977, 1980, 1983 and 1997.  At first, these Special Editions (SEs) were met with some interest and were released on VHS and Laserdisc.  Given that the untouched versions (now known as George's Original Untouched Trilogy or GOUT) of these films were also available at that time on VHS and Laserdisc and the Internet was just becoming a part of everyday life, complaints were fairly muted at the time.




Star Wars Harmy Despecialized v2.7
Then in 2004, Lucasfilm decided it was time to release the original trilogy on DVD.  This time, however, only the SEs (reworked from the 1997 editions with 2004 technology) would be released. The fan uproar was intense and prolonged.  People accused George Lucas of destroying history. Debates raged over changes like "Han shot first", "digital Jabba the Hutt", the full-monty Wampa shots and the changes to the end of Return of the Jedi.   A compromise was reached in 2006 where the two disc set for each film would include its theatrical version, but in a non-anamorphic Laserdisc-derived transfer.  Only the special editions would include the anamorphic DVD enhancement and the restoration work.  Then when the Blu-rays were released in 2011, more tinkering to the SEs were apparent, but the GOUT was totally MIA.  As a result, the best official version of the GOUT today is  the DVDs of non-anamorphic 1993 Laserdisc transfers, even after Lucas sold all his intellectual property to Disney in 2012.

Star Wars Silver Screen Edition v1.6
While the development of digital tools has made creating CGI creatures and inserting them into a film has progressed hand-in-hand with the advances in computing technology, so has the development of video editing software.  The rise of professional Youtube personalities has been in no small part due to comparatively affordable and easy to use video editing software.  Apple's Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and MAGIX (previously Sony) Vegas are all very popular and powerful video editing software suites.  One man, Petr "Harmy" Harmáček from the Czech Republic, decided to use his video editing skills to do something about the long desired wish of millions of fans for high quality versions of the GOUT.

Star Wars : The Empire Strikes Back Harmy Despecialized v2.0
Fan-edits were nothing new, even when Harmy and his collaborators decided to try his luck, but unlike a fan-edit (the ones that minimize Jar-Jar Binks screen time in The Phantom Menace were popular), he would use what he could find to reconstruct the GOUT.  Using a variety of sources, everything from the Laserdisc and DVD of the GOUT to the Blu-ray and even film scans, the result was the Star Wars Despecialized Editions.  Each film has been carefully reconstructed to their original theatrical releases using the best sources available outside of Lucasfilm.  Harmy released Star Wars Despecialized Edition 1.0 in 2011, but like any perfectionist, Harmy has not stood still and declared himself done with a definitive version.  Each film has had incremental improvements and given version numbers.  Currently, Star Wars (A New Hope) is at v2.7, The Empire Strikes Back at v2.0 and Return of the Jedi at v2.5.  Harmy is working on a v2.5 of Empire and hopes to be able to do 3.0 versions of each film in the near future.  

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Harmy Despecialized v2.5
The Despecialized Editions can be found on publicly available torrents but they may be a version or two behind the current Despecialized releases.  Private torrent trackers are the ideal way to obtain these versions.  Of course, being admitted to a private torrent tracker and the need to maintain a good Upload to Download ratio is enough to deter all but the most determined away.  For many people, myself included, the quality of the Despecialized Editions were well worth the trouble.  Compared to the official GOUT DVDs, the quality of the Despecialized Editions are extraordinary.  Also, if Harmy's Despecialized Editions of Star Wars (Episode IV) feels a little to antiseptic for you, the very film-like Silver Screen Edition (currently at v1.6) from Team Negative 1 gives a very good presentation as well.  The Silver Screen Edition was scanned from a high quality theatrical 35mm print.  See here for some comparisons :


Reconstructions of the Godzilla Series U.S. Theatrical and TV Release Versions


Star Wars fans have been known for their deep pockets and incredible resources, but let us take a look at a smaller fandom, the Godzilla series!  When I was growing up and first discovered this series in the late 1980s to the early 1990s, I had two sources available to me for watching Godzilla films.  The first was TV, where Godzilla films were shown with maddening infrequency.  The second was the video rental store, where I could rent VHS "tapes" of whatever the store had in stock.  Between these two sources, there were many gaps in my Godzilla-film watching, and what I could not watch I supplemented with Ian Thorne's Godzilla book from Crestwood House.



By the mid-90s, I had discovered Movies Unlimited's video catalog.  This catalog, which is still published to this day : http://www.moviesunlimited.com/musite/catalog, was essentially the movie version of "Books in Print."  In it, they had every Godzilla film available on VHS and I was able to essentially fill almost all the gaps in Showa Godzilla series.  (Destroy All Monsters eluded me until it was broadcast on the Sci-Fi channel in 1997.)


But what I had were Pan and Scan releases of the English theatrical releases of the Godzilla films, and for a while I was content.  But in this period, the Toho films of the Heisei era post-Godzilla vs. Biollante were unavailable on home video.  I read about these films through G-Fan Magazine and wanted to see them.  Fortunately there was a Japanese comic book store & anime I discovered that sold bootleg but subtitled copies of Japanese VHS releases.  Eventually most of the Japanese original cuts of these films would find their way to DVD.



With the newer crop of DVD and later Blu-ray releases, the Godzilla films have looked better than ever before.  With one exception, (King Kong vs. Godzilla), you can hear the Japanese original voices and soundtrack for every film in the Godzilla series legitimately without having to buy pricey Japanese DVDs and Blu-rays.  The versions available on DVD and Blu-ray may not be pure Japanese versions or pure International versions, and some may be out of print, but you can get a reasonably comprehensive overview of the Godzilla series from U.S. distributors without having to blow the down payment saved up for your next car.


One thing that has been somewhat lost in the tape to disc shift were the original U.S. theatrical release versions of these films.  While some early DVDs did contain theatrical editions, often they were Pan and Scan or non-anamorphic transfers.  Consider the situation today :

Godzilla, King of the Monsters (GKotM) - Criterion Blu-ray/DVD contains an HD scan of the film, print complete with Transworld logo and Ending credits
Gigantis the Fire Monster (GFM) - Title card changed to a video generated Godzilla Raids Again on DVD
King Kong vs. Godzilla (KKvG) - Released by Universal on DVD and Blu-ray
Godzilla vs. the Thing (GvtT) - Released in a 2.35:1 ratio by Scimitar in 1998 on a non-anamorphic DVD and a 1.78:1 ratio by Classic Media in 2006
Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (GtTTM) - U.S. Theatrical version reconstructed by Classic Media for DVD in 2006.
Monster Zero (MZ) -  Released in a 2.35:1 ratio by Scimitar on a non-anamorphic DVD in 1998 and U.S. Theatrical version reconstructed by Classic Media for DVD in 2006.
Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (GvSeM) - U.S. TV version not available on disc
Son of Godzilla (SoG) - U.S. TV version not available on disc
Destroy All Monsters (DAM) - U.S. Theatrical soundtrack synced to Japanese print on 2011 Media Blasters Blu-ray/DVD, removed from 2014 Media Blasters re-release.
Godzilla's Revenge (GR) - Released in a 2.35:1 ratio by Scimitar on a non-anamorphic DVD in 1998 and U.S. Theatrical version reconstructed by Classic Media for DVD in 2006.
Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (GvSmM)- U.S. Theatrical version not available on disc
Godzilla on Monster Island (GoMI) - U.S. Theatrical version not available on disc
Godzilla vs. Megalon (GvM) - U.S. Theatrical version not available on disc
Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (GvCM) - U.S. Theatrical version not available on disc
Terror of Godzilla (ToG) -  Released in a 1.33:1 ratio by Scimitar in 1998 and Classic Media on DVD in 2002 with title card changed to Terror of Mechagodzilla, Reconstruction of U.S. TV version by Classic Media for DVD in 2006
Godzilla 1985 (G85)- U.S. Theatrical version not available on disc
Godzilla 2000 (G2K) - U.S. Theatrical version available on DVD and Blu-ray, "THE?END" title removed.




A U.S. Theatrical release always dubbed the film, but sometimes they would also add or change music cues (KKvG, GtTTM).  Theatrical releases would come with their own title credits and sometimes would fail to give crew credits (GvSeM, SoG,GvM) or shift the credits from the beginning of the film to the end (DAM).  A theatrical release could add in newly shot footage of U.S. actors (GKotM, KKvG, G98), shuffle around scenes (GKotM, GtTHM) or add shots of documents and maps in English (MZ, GvSmM).  Many of the 1970s films were cut for violence or language to obtain a G rating (GoMI, GvM, GvtCM, ToG).  Most U.S. theatrical versions cut a little or quite a bit of Japanese footage, but GvtT adds in a scene shot by Toho for western audiences and not included in the Japanese version.  Toho approved the edits to G2K, which have been well-regarded.


GKotM and KKvG do not need any kind of fan reconstruction, they are as pure as you can get for U.S. Theatrical releases.  I could see a fan edit for GKotM to give it a "widescreen presentation" which would have been the way most people would have seen it in the theaters in 1956.  This would require cropping the image to 1.85:1.  I could also see someone brightening up the image of KKvG's Blu-ray transfer, it is really dark for the night scenes.  In some cases (GFM, G2K) the available versions have only minor edits compared to the original theatrical releases.  GFM is in rough shape generally and the U.S. additions survive only on tape.


You may think the situation is not so bad with the Classic Media 2006 DVDs, but they have issues. GvtT has a cropped image for reasons unknown and the picture quality leaves much to be desired. GtTHM, MZ, GR and ToMG are essentially reconstructions using Japanese sources for superior picture quality and other sources for U.S. additions.  These additions are usually cropped or zoomed in and do not reflect the full camera print image.  The ToMG TV prologue was cropped from 1.33:1 to 2.35:1, but it should be noted that this footage had already been panned and scanned, so it is doubly cropped.  It is important to note that these versions had to share a DVD with the Japanese versions, so the bitrate is less than it could have been.


While many of the classic Godzilla series have been released on Blu-ray, the presentations may be lacking.  GvtSM and SoG's TV versions had dubbing from Titra Sound using professional voice actors.  The English-language track found on the DVDs and Blu-ray of these films uses the International version dubbing from Frontier Enterprises in Tokyo, which only had amateurs to voice the roles.  DAM and GvSM also had quality dubs from Titan Sound (renamed from Titra), but the dubs found on the DVDs and Blu-rays are from Frontier and Hong Kong respectively.  Hong Kong dubs have something of a poor reputation given the harsh version of the mid-Atlantic accent used, but have become more appreciated over time.  Titra/Titan's dubs are considered first class by many because they tried to match lip movements and to use Asian-sounding accents when appropriate.


Unlike the Star Wars films, where Harmy and his fellow reconstructionists could obtain scans of 16, 35 and even 70mm (blow-up) prints from private collectors, non-professional Godzilla reconstructions have had to make do with what had been previously transferred to video.  Some restorers have recreated titles where they could not find ones with sufficient quality.  The best quality reconstructions will use Blu-ray material, even from the Japanese version, wherever possible.  This of course assumes that the author of the reconstruction has a Blu-ray or wishes to distribute a much larger file than a DVD-sized version.


Making a reconstruction is thus not unlike sewing together a patchwork quilt.  Often times title credits will need to be recreated by airbrushing out Japanese credits and modifying an existing typeface to match the look of the original U.S. credits.  The soundtrack source, which may come from a VHS release, will have to be carefully restored as much as possible and synchronized to a film scan taken from a DVD or Blu-ray source.  English-language inserts like newspapers will have to be edited in.  U.S. distributor logos will have to be taken from other sources.


Here is the list of reconstructions I know of with the title of the film, the distributor, the restorer and the restoration done :

Gigantis the Fire Monster
Warner Bros.
Space Hunter M's Theatrical Aspect (1.85:1) Ratio Reconstruction


Rodan
Distributors Corporation of America
MustafaD's Theatrical Aspect (1.85:1) Ratio Reconstruction

viewtopic.php?f=19&t=26020

The Mysterians
RKO Radio Pictures
Space Hunter M's Reconstruction
TylerPreston20's Reconstruction
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=25515

Godzilla vs. the Thing
American International Pictures
AngryOpossum's Reconstruction


Red Menace HD Reconstruction MKV/MP4
https://www.tohokingdom.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=27199


Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster 
Continental/Walter Reade Sterling
Red Menace HD Reconstruction MKV/MP4
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=25909

http://originaltrilogy.com/topic/Ghidrah-the-Three-Headed-Monster-US-version-HD-reconstruction/id/52311
Space Hunter M's Reconstruction

Monster Zero
United Productions of America/Benedict Pictures Corp
Red Menace HD Reconstruction MKV/MP4
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=26040

http://originaltrilogy.com/topic/Monster-Zero-HD-reconstruction/id/53066/

Invasion of the Astro-Monsters
United Productions of America/Benedict Pictures Corp/Toho Co. Ltd.
Red Menace HD Reconstruction MKV/MP4
http://www.tohokingdom.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=26658
http://originaltrilogy.com/topic/Invasion-of-the-Astro-Monsters-International-version-HD-reconstruction/id/55075

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster
Walter Reade Sterling TV
goji1986 Widescreen TV Version Reconstruction v1.0, v2.0 SD & v2.0 HD
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=5561
Space Hunter M's Reconstruction

Destroy All Monsters
American International Pictures
Red Menace HD Reconstruction MKV/MP4 v1.0, v2.0
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=25447

http://originaltrilogy.com/topic/Destroy-All-Monsters-AIP-HD-Reconstruction/id/51171

Destroy All Monsters
Toho
Space Hunter M's Anamorphic International Version Restoration


Yog Monster from Space
American International Pictures TV
TylerPreston20's Reconstruction
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=25608

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster
American International Pictures
Space Hunter M's Reconstruction
Godzilla vs. Megalon
Toho
MustafaD's Restored International Version
Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster
Downtown Distribution Co., Inc./Cinema Shares International Distribution Corporation
MustafaD's Theatrical Version Reconstruction
Terror of Mechagodzilla
United Productions of America TV
MustafaD's Widescreen TV Version Reconstruction
Godzilla 1985
New World Pictures
Red Menace Reconstruction v0.5 720p, v0.6 720p & v1.0 1080p MKV/MP4 & Bonus Features MKV/MP4
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=25350

http://originaltrilogy.com/topic/Godzilla-1985-Reconstruction-Project/id/50888

Versions in green have their title card included in this blog entry.  I have included links to the relevant thread of the Toho Kingdom or OriginalTrilogy forum discussing the reconstruction at issue.  Unfortunately many of the other reconstructions are available only on a certain private torrent tracker site, so their availability is rather limited.

Before I end this blog, a word must be acknowledged about the legality of these reconstructions.  The law is clear, making or distributing a reconstruction of a copyrighted original work is illegal.  However, it is up to the copyright/trademark holders to enforce their rights.  To date and to their credit Disney and Toho have been lenient about the distribution of these fan works so long as they are not sold and distribution is limited.  Harmy's efforts have been well-publicized for years and no one has sent a cease and desist letter to him.  Some of the Godzilla reconstructions have been well discussed at and easy to find through the Toho Kingdom forums.  The site has complied with Toho's modest requests over the years (chiefly about the site's logo), otherwise Toho doesn't bother the site.  In late 2015 some idiot announced that he was going to make a Blu-ray of Godzilla 1985 even though he had absolutely no rights to either Godzilla 1985 or Return of Godzilla (Japanese or International).  Toho's attorney sent a cease and desist letter and the project was abandoned : http://www.tohokingdom.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=10962&start=560#p1344194

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