My Feelings on “Remasterings”

About a month ago, there was a video clip making its way around that generated a lot of chatter among, shall we say, my people. The clip was a demo reel created by a visual-effects master named Adam “Mojo” Leibowitz to show how the 1978 Battlestar Galactica could be freshened up by integrating modern computer-generated imagery into the old episodes, much like what was done with the original Star Trek series a few years ago.  The emergence of the clip just ahead of the announcement that Battlestar is coming to BluRay in 2015 fueled speculation that the series had, in fact, been “remastered” — or more accurately, revised — with new effects as Star Trek was. That turned out to be untrue. But the demo offers a tantalizing glimpse of what such a revision might have looked like:

Now, I’ll stipulate right up front that this is very well done, and a lot of fun to watch for people like myself who remember how that scene originally looked. Mojo is publicly known to be a fan of the original Battlestar, and he took great care to make his new footage seem organic to a 35-year-old production, unlike, say, many of changes made to the Star Wars Special Editions, which stand out like sore thumbs, in my opinion. I’ll even concede that this revised version actually makes more sense than the original, in which Commander Cain’s actions were far less clearly illustrated through spliced-together bits of stock footage (that was a real problem for Battlestar ’78, especially as the series ground on and the effects department ran out of money). So, from that standpoint, I must grudgingly admit that this kind of revision does, in fact, improve on the original. It helps to tell the story, which is what good special effects are supposed to do; more importantly, Mojo’s new effects do not alter the story, or even the tone of the story as we’ve always known it. (The biggest lightning rod in the Star Wars Special Eds is, of course, Han vs. Greedo, with some people arguing that the revision changes Han’s character arc substantially, and others saying that it does not. Personally, I’m equally as troubled by the more cosmopolitan Mos Eisley, as it alters our understanding of what that place was. In the Special Editions, it suddenly doesn’t seem all that “hind end of the universe” after all… of course, given that five of the six Star Wars movies have included scenes there, maybe that’s the point…)

Anyhow, this demo is well done and a revised Battlestar could actually be a better series… but I’m still glad it didn’t happen. Because deep down, on some fundamental level, this sort of tinkering simply rubs me the wrong way. I feel that things ought to be allowed to remain what they are. Or were. Whatever the proper tense is. And I have exactly zero patience for the (mostly younger) viewers who refuse to watch something simply because it’s old.

My fellow traveler in these matters, Christopher Mills, recently wrote something similar on his Space: 1970 blog:

One of the charms of these shows and movies for me are the handcrafted practical effects, and Galactica‘s were groundbreaking at the time, and worthy of preservation. I genuinely pity people who can’t abide by classic (or “cheesy,” as they call them) special effects and want everything to be slick and shiny and soulless. In my opinion, it’s an insult to the talented and hardworking craftsmen who created them.

My feelings exactly.


Incidentally, the old Galactica series may have escaped having its special effects swapped out on these new BluRays, but if you read the press release closely, you’ll see this: “Newly remastered in 16:9 widescreen presentation for the very first time…” Widescreen? For a series made decades before widescreen TVs were even thought of? That’s as wrong as adding digital dinosaurs to Mos Eisley, in my opinion. Look, to make a 4:3 (square) television image widescreen, you’ve got to do one of two things: you either “matte” the square image, i.e., putting black bars over it to fake a rectangular image, which will of course cover up part of the scene, or you digitally “stretch” the image horizontally to fill the modern 16×9 television display, which makes everybody in the scene look really weird. Neither option is appealing. Again I ask, why can’t things just be left as they were originally made?! And didn’t we already fight the “original aspect ratio” battle 20 years ago, near the end of the VHS era? I guess enough time has passed that people need to be re-educated on something I foolishly assumed was settled.

There’s a similar controversy going on over Fox’s “remastering” of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is much more recent than Battlestar ’78, but still came along just before widescreen TVs became commonplace. Fox is tinkering with a lot of things besides just the aspect ratio — the square vs. rectangular shape of the image — but the “widescreenization” is creating some truly ridiculous errors, like suddenly introducing random crew members into shots that originally were matted in a way that concealed them. It’s utterly asinine…

At least in the case of the Battlestar BluRays, there will be a “definitive” edition that includes both versions. But really it shouldn’t be necessary. Just leave movies and TV shows the way they were made. Clean up the dirt and scratches, obviously, repair damaged elements and such, but stop second-guessing artistic choices or issues that were done a certain way because of the technology of the time. Why is that so hard?



2 comments on “My Feelings on “Remasterings”

  1. mike chenoweth

    As for the “widescreen” presentation. If the film for the series was shot 1.78 and they had original negative they could theoretically restore a version as shot which would have been only framed and cropped to fit a 4:3 aspect for delivery. Just mean more ends up on screen in a widescreen presentation but not necessarily anything that adds to the image. Chances are they’re going back to delivery prints which would have to be cropped. Hard to say.

  2. jason

    I think I’ve read the pilot film was shot 1:78 so they could release it theatrically in Europe, but I don’t know about the episodes themselves. My guess is Universal wouldn’t go back to the negative either way, though. Wouldn’t that be more expensive than working with the delivery prints?

    In any event, I stand by the basic principle: it was a TV series that aired in 1978; why do we expect it to look like anything other than what it is?