Restorer of the /Star Wars Trilogy/ and /THX 1138/: John Lowry

[This is an extended version of the interview that appears in the October 2004 Sound & Vision to accompany Carrie Fisher's exclusive interview with George Lucas.] John Lowry designed his first image-processing system to clean up the live TV pictures from the Apollo 16 and 17 lunar landings. He went on to develop a technique for restoring films by using computers rather than the conventional hardware that was used throughout the industry. With his associate Ian Caven, he restored North by Northwest for Warner Bros. and then Gone with the Wind, Now Voyager, and Citizen Kane. Since then, Lowry Digital has grown to a staff of 60 and has been involved with many major restorations, including the entire James Bond catalog. This year, Lowry finished two projects for George Lucas: THX 1138, his first film from 197, and the Star Wars Trilogy.

Did George Lucas actually let you borrow the original camera negatives of his Star Wars films to do your high-resolution scan for the restoration?No. We sent one of our 6-terabyte servers up to Skywalker Ranch in San Rafael , California, where they loaded it with full RGB [red, green, and blue] data without having to go through the component output that tape masters would demand. We processed those images, cleaned them up, and sent them back in little packages of discs. The net result was that we never lost a bit in the process of moving all the data back and forth, and we were able to work on full high-definition-bandwidth imagery. It was an unusual approach, but we got some pretty stunning results.

So the Star Wars films were processed at high-def, but not at the 4K level - four times high-def resolution - that you've been using for some other films?At high-def, yes.

Why was that?The challenge with these films is the amount of special effects in them. Our concern was whether the effects were done to true 4K standards. Whenever anyone lit up a lightsaber, it was done with an optical effect, and all of the opticals at the time were done on film - there were no digital effects. So every time you go to a lightsaber scene, bang, you drop two generations of film. It gets grainier and, as it's going through an optical printer, you have different characteristics in terms of contrast. And those are things we have to match up with the scenes immediately before and after. It took a lot of effort to match precisely the granularity, the contrast, and the sharpness. They flow very nicely now and, frankly, in the original movies, there was a distinct change. We were able to eliminate that change, and to me that's a very strong contribution to the storytelling process - removing something that prevents an audience from being drawn in.

But the high-def digital material was fine for the standard-resolution DVD release?Yes. My guess, knowing George, is that maybe he'll be back when they do the HD-DVD.

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