Any diehard Star Wars fan knows that revisiting the magic of the original trilogy isn't always as simple as putting in a DVD or hitting play on a streaming service. There are more than a handful of different versions of films like A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The VHS versions of the films aren't the same as the theatrical cuts, and there have been several iterations since then. Some of the changes are minor, like adding CGI aliens in the background of shots in A New Hope once the technology was available. Others have major impacts on the franchise and its characters, and those have often left fans in heated debates. Did Han shoot first?
It's all because George Lucas has a habit of editing his films after their release. Lucas feels an intense dedication to his artistic vision. While working on THX 1138, Lucas stole film from Warner Bros. out of fear they'd make changes to his movie before sending it to theaters. Unfortunately, Lucas's artistic vision is a moving target. He's continually changed Star Wars to keep it in line with how he feels in the moment.
Many fans are familiar with Lucas's endless changes to A New Hope. He's added some characters and removed others. He's adjusted the title crawl and a handful of key scenes. Lucas more than likely thinks that he's improved the film from its original version. Star Wars fans are less likely to agree with him, but after decades of dealing with Lucas's changes, they've more or less forgiven him. What most people don't realize is that Lucas has been adjusting the Star Wars films from the very beginning. He made changes to The Empire Strikes Back while it was still in theaters.
The Empire Strikes Back came to theaters on May 21st, 1980. Anticipation was high, and audiences were thrilled by the new Star Wars film. George Lucas, however, had a problem with it. While at one of the earliest public screenings, he got the impression that the ending of the film was unclear. Luke Skywalker and his friends made their escape from Cloud City and reunited with the Rebel forces out in space. The Rebels gave Luke a robot hand while he and Leia recovered with them. Meanwhile, Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca hopped aboard the Millennium Falcon and took off to rescue Han Solo.
In Lucas's opinion, the ending didn't clarify where all the characters were in relation to each other. He worried that audiences would walk away thinking that Luke & Leia were going with Lando & Chewie, or that they would have no concept of where any of the characters were at all.
To Lucas's mind, the solution was simple: they needed to create a few new shots for the film. At that point, only about one hundred different theaters were screening the 70mm cut of The Empire Strikes Back. It would be three weeks until the film saw wider circulation in its 35mm format. Lucas believed that was plenty of time to make the changes he felt were necessary.
George Lucas called up Tom Smith, the manager of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). He explained the need for new shots to a skeptical Smith. What Lucas wanted would amount to a few dozen seconds within the film, but the work those seconds required was monumental. The Star Wars team needed new models for ships and new plans for shots. They needed to extend the film's score to cover the added footage, and they had to adjust some of the dialogue to more accurately depict where the characters were in relation to each other.
Most people would have told Lucas no out of hand. Smith and everyone else at ILM stepped up to the task. They quickly went about implementing Lucas's changes. The team constructed a new model of the Rebels' medical frigate. They also worked some camera magic to create a panning shot showing that Luke & Leia were on a separate ship from Lando & Chewie. The editorial department worked their own magic to adjust Luke's dialogue and the film's score.
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