Remasters, Recuts and Redubs
Director’s Cuts and Beyond
Does remastering make things better? Come with us into our in-depth look of graphics history and development as we examine remasters of popular media.
When you think back to old shows and movies you used to watch, you naturally remember them as they were. For older millennials like me, that means 4:3 television screens, lower pixel-per-inch counts, and bits of static on the screen. As we marched toward more advanced recording technologies and higher resolution displays, these old media began to show their age, and the idea of remastering started to emerge. Who wouldn’t want their favorite shows and movies from the past to be preserved in a high-quality format? As they say, be careful what you wish for.
Bringing older media up to the quality standards of the modern-day is a more difficult process than it sounds. Even when original negatives are well preserved, there is a lot to take into consideration. Any special effects need to be redone, as does color correction and shot framing. For feature films and live-action television shows, this is a long process. For animated shows and films you don’t exactly replace drawings, but color correction and special effects are still taken into consideration, and in some cases, audio from voice actors may be re-cut or replaced to better fit the artistic vision of the story. Not all changes in a remaster are created equal, and in several cases, a remastered version can end up being worse than the original, not just because of changes to the effects, but also because certain things that did work in older, lower quality film, do not work in high resolution.
In addition to remastering, we also live in a time of Director’s Cuts; the supposed, definitive vision of a film director that brings their original vision to a home audience. In some cases, with iconic films like Blade Runner, a director’s cut can represent a more complete and more emotive vision of that media. While a new cut of a film can indeed provide the audience with more context, thanks to the inclusion of deleted scenes, some directors can take this idea a bit too far, as we will see.
In this article, we’re going to take a few prominent examples from popular films and television, discuss the changes made to their remastered versions, and how one version or the other might actually be better.
Film Noir: Alien and Blade Runner
The classic and game-changing cinematographic experiences that are Alien and Blade Runner are certainly films worth preserving. They both encompassed an artistic vision that was unparalleled in their time and played their own parts in how films are visually presented. In Alien, the vastness of the mining ship Nostromo, with its dark corridors and highly mechanized spaces, made it one of the most paranoia-inducing settings in horror history. Once the namesake alien—the xenomorph—was on board the ship, there was no real way to tell where it was going to come from. The coloring and quality of the film, which is to say, its overall lower quality, enhanced this effect, even in the theater. On the higher resolution and newer color-corrected versions of the film, it’s a lot easier to see that the monster isn’t there [ 1 ][ 2 ]. So, while the whole of the film itself may look better, and you can see finer details in the expressions of the crew, down to the individual beads of sweat as Ripley moves about the ship trying to escape, you always have a direct sense that the monster isn’t anywhere nearby and that greatly reduces the tension of the scene. Arguments can be made for one or the other being a better interpretation of the film, and certainly being able to experience the vast artistic spaces in the production with a clearer quality can make some aspects of the film (or any film) better. But, as mentioned, the loss of atmosphere and suspense that comes with it might be a price too high to pay.
Moving on to Blade Runner, there are three versions that are in wide circulation today: U.S. Theatrical Release, Director’s Cut, and Final Cut [ 3 ]. The first and biggest difference in the Theatrical vs. Director’s cuts is the lack of a voice-over. The original movie release has Deckard (Harrison Ford) running an inner monologue of the film’s events. Some prefer this, and some don’t. I personally didn’t know about the narration at first, since the first version of the film I saw was the Director’s Cut, and I happen to think that it does add some relevant context to the story [ 4 ]. However, I do have to agree that the lack of emotion in the narration does also take a lot away from other scenes, particularly when it comes to the end of Rutger Hauer’s character, Roy Batty. Hauer delivers a dramatic ending dialogue about the things that he has seen in his lifetime, and how all of those memories will be lost, “like tears in rain.” The dramatic effect of that line is greatly undercut in the Theatrical Release, where the bland inner monologue comes in. Regardless of which version you prefer, it is a profound change to the tone of the movie [ 5 ]. Visually speaking, there are massive changes in quality between the original VHS releases of the film and the later Blu-ray. The visual quality shoots through the roof, and this film in particular benefits greatly from the new technology [ 6 ]. Being able to see the tech-noir vision of future L.A. is fantastic in higher resolution and doesn’t lose the original artistic vision. This is one of the rarer cases of the visual expression of an older film becoming truly enhanced, without losing the work of the original design team. The death scene of Roy Batty that I mentioned earlier gets a better scene transition, where a dove flies up from the shot of Batty and into the sky, which in the enhanced version looks like a proper tech-noir city skyline, rather than a shot from an alleyway.
Massive Overhauls: The Original Star Wars Trilogy and Special Editions
Once upon a time, I couldn’t get enough of Star Wars. The expanded universe lore and the various video games kept me entertained for hours on end. Naturally, I was quite excited about a new, theatrical release of the films that promised enhanced visuals and special effects. If only I knew how much was going to change.
If you are an older fan of Star Wars, you have likely seen the original versions of the films. For those of you who aren’t, I’ll summarize as best as I can. The original release of these films, naturally, didn’t have the greatest special effects of all time, but they were nonetheless revolutionary for 1977. Using a mixture of matte paintings and miniatures, the legendary visual effects team at Industrial Light and Magic (or ILM), brought to life vivid space battles that weren’t thought possible by the average moviegoer. The company, founded by the director himself, George Lucas, went on to win many awards for their visual effects achievements [ 7 ]. It is strange and sad to think, then, that the special editions of these films that launched this company would have their award-winning effects completely replaced by new technologies. One can say that, objectively, the enhanced digital shots of ships flying around in space do look better, but there is something to be said for preserving the original achievements of the effects team [ 8 ][ 9 ]. In addition to this, apart from pirating older DVD copies of the films, it is almost impossible to get an unaltered or unspecialized version of the original trilogy. Preservation of old media is a long running idea among film critics and artists of all stripes. Being able to access the original, unaltered versions of films is not just a gripe had by a few unhappy film snobs, particularly when it comes to a franchise as big as Star Wars. Being able to see how good (or bad) the original effects and designs of a movie can inform our modern ideas about how to approach art and films.
On top of the smattering of digitally enhanced shots are the many changes to the film itself. Some of these could be called “digitally enhanced,” such as the introduction shots of Mos Eisley, which originally weren’t nearly as busy with giant alien beasts and robots, nor was the sequence nearly as long. We saw a few folks going about their lives, a couple of practical effect beasts and droids, and that was it. Other changes include previously cut scenes of Han Solo having a discussion with Jabba the Hutt, which Lucas had originally intended to be in the film but ended up sending to the cutting room floor. This scene was also filmed before the decision to make Jabba, and Hutts in general, giant slug-like aliens, so the scene features an actor in a big furry vest talking to Han Solo, instead of the well-known and well reviled alien crime lord. Putting this scene back in required a lot of digital editing, essentially placing a digital version of Jabba on top of the original actor. A noted problem with doing this is a portion of the scene where Han walks behind Jabba, which would be impossible because of Jabba’s long tail, and so an additional change of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail was added, achieved by “cutting” the figure of Han Solo out and having it move, very awkwardly, up and back down as he does so. Another scene where Luke and Biggs talk to each other before the fateful mission to destroy the Death Star was also cut from the original release and is included in the special edition.
This scene doesn’t feature any kind of digital enhancement that I can see, and just adds a bit of context to the relationship between Luke and Biggs. We do know from earlier dialogue that the two are friends from years back, growing up together on Tatooine, but aren’t given much other context than that in the original film. This scene, unlike the others I’m mentioning in the film, doesn’t do any harm to the movie. I, of course, have to mention the most controversial change, where Han Solo is confronted by a bounty hunter named Greedo. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo before the alien has a chance to even pull his trigger, despite having his blaster trained on Han the entire time. The scene was changed to having Greedo actually attempt a shot but miss and get blasted in return. The controversy of this change was how it portrayed the character of Han Solo. Was he defending himself against a bad guy? (and comically moving his head slightly to avoid being blasted). Or was he taking a preemptive strike, knowing he’d have to kill Greedo to get away, given that Greedo had made it clear he would kill Han? Was this change necessary at all?
The other two films in the trilogy have similar changes slapped onto them. The majority of it is just visual enhancements, making the various vehicles and spaceships look better with new computer graphics and enhancing the backgrounds of some scenes, such as the skies in Cloud City. There are minor changes in dialogue that are hardly noticeable, but in some scenes, such as when Darth Vader is on video chat with the Emperor, the complete replacement of the original visual effect can be quite jarring for those who know the first version [ 10 ]. Another controversial change is the removal of Sebastian Shaw as the Force ghost of Anakin, replacing him with a visage of Hayden Christensen, who played the character in the prequels (and fans not liking the prequels is a whole other beast that only added to the animosity of this change). Alongside this is the removal of the original celebration song of the Ewoks, replacing it with a more contemporary woodwind and percussion piece, which fans have specifically said they wanted back, as silly as the “Yub-Nub” song might be.
In 2017, Kathleen Kennedy of Lucasfilm said on record that she wouldn’t touch Lucas’ versions of the classic trilogy [ 11 ]. The implication of this is that, at least while she was running the company, she did not intend to re-release the unaltered versions of the film, which was a big blow to the fans of the classics. It would seem, at least for now, the only option to view these films unaltered is to already have the originals on VHS or DVD, or, to pirate the media, and neither of these are ideal solutions. The takeaway here is, while we should want to enhance the quality of older films, we should be respectful of the achievements that the original films had and try not to make too many extra changes to old and treasured media. And if we must make a change (and what must be done is quite negotiable), we should at the very least ensure that the original cuts of the media are available.
Classic Anime: Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon
Oh the glory days of Toonami on television, bringing fantastic shows like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon to the West for the first time. When media is imported from other cultures, there is naturally a translation process to go through, but this also can be accompanied by what is called localization—the process of changing pop-culture references within that show to reflect a different culture. For the most part, this practice is harmless, as trying to inform the audience of all the cultural nuance of another land would really break up the telling of the story, and there are plenty of parallels between cultures to draw from.
With translation comes dubbing, the process of recording new voiceovers for animation that already exists. Some people prefer subtitles in their imported media, as they feel nuances of emotion can be missed when a new actor is brought in to portray these roles through voice. Still, watching dubbed over animation remains a popular way to consume foreign media, particularly anime. With the classics of DBZ and Sailor Moon, western audiences have become attached to certain voice actors who first brought these stories to life on television. So, you could imagine that when Funimation decided to remaster and re-dub DBZ—a project called DBZ Kai—with their newer actors, that it would fundamentally change the viewing experience for long-time fans [ 12 ]. Re-interpretations of the original Japanese actors are normal and expected, but a total re-dub on top of a remastered edition is not. Apart from it being a lot of work, the original dub audio can be seen (heard?) as part of the experience of the show.
The biggest and most noticeable changes to the cast are for Bulma (Tiffany Vollmer/Monica Rial) and Freiza (Linda Young/Chris Ayres). While Vollmer retired, and naturally wouldn’t want to re-record, her original voice tracks should still have been available, and her iconic portrayal of the character, whatever you might think of Bulma, is historically significant for the media. In similar fashion, changing from Young to Ayres, Freiza’s voice is completely different than the original television broadcasts. Young’s performance was, in my opinion, iconic for that character, and replacing it was quite unnecessary. While Chris Sabat has always voiced Vegeta in the dub, he decided to change the voice later on in the show, after it had gotten some distance from the old Ocean dub [ 13 ], and the re-dub of old episodes uses Sabat’s new interpretation of Vegeta. While I do enjoy the newer imagining of the voice, there was something to be said for Sabat’s original portrayal as well. The voice changing as time passed in the show could be seen as reflective of Vegeta’s change of general attitude, going from villain to anti-hero to just slightly reluctant hero with a lot of pride. This desire to return and re-dub these iconic scenes is indicative of a certain shift in the culture of making media. The idea that, eventually, we could always go back and make changes to a piece of media that we made and shared with the world, has become so mainstream that massive changes like this are starting to become the norm.
The second and possibly bigger issue with DBZ Kai is the complete replacement of the original animation. Yes, complete replacement. The “remaster” isn’t a remaster at all, but a remake of the original show. Naturally this remake comes from the Japanese parent company that first made the show, Toei Animation [ 14 ], and it was billed as a commemorative series for the 20th and 25th anniversary of the original. This remake also has re-recorded voice tracks from the original Japanese cast. While the new animation and voice recording is up to current standards of what Toei produces, it can be easily interpreted as tone-deaf, pun not intended. Fans fell in love with the original, old-school animations of the show, flaws and all. Replacing such iconic scenes with brand new animation was completely unnecessary [ 15 ]. It’s hard not to see this as a capitalistic re-monetization of something that was already completed, cashing in on nostalgia, or even the fear of missing out, in order to re-sell the same product under a new coat of paint. An actual remaster of the original series would have been much preferred to an entirely new rendering, if for no other reason than to help preserve that classic animated series for future generations. For all the flaws of the manga and the anime, Dragon Ball Z was the very first Japanese show many western fans were exposed to, and it holds a place of honor among the older fans of anime, as being the reason they started watching other anime in the first place. Such an influential piece of media should be treated better than this.
Sailor Moon, also a property of Toei, got a similar treatment to its animations in the remake, Sailor Moon Crystal [ 16 ]. This remake was for Sailor Moon’s 20th anniversary, and naturally, the newer animation techniques employed by Toei are present. There was, however, a bit of controversy when the episodes first aired on television, as the animations were sub-par, with characters’ faces and eye shapes being horribly disproportionate [ 17 ]. For the DVD release, it appears that Toei corrected these early animations to have the characters more closely reflect the original animated show, which is a good thing. Still, completely remaking the original show seems unnecessary. I know Toei is a business and wants to make money, and I know fans of both series might enjoy seeing their old favorites done up in new art styles, but a simple remastering of the old animation would have suited, rather than rebuilding the animations entirely. I have to imagine there was some cost-benefit analysis that we are not privy to, about enhancing old footage versus creating new animations from almost scratch, and the people who manage the money at Toei decided the latter would be cheaper and more efficient than the former, but obviously they ended up spending even more money and time correcting their first half-assed attempt at it. How they could have botched the handling of Sailor Moon’s remaster even more so than that of DBZ, I don’t know. It’s hard to fathom Toei taking such care as to recreate one show in their new style with great detail, and then just allowing sub-par animation and illustration for another iconic series. While it can be quite cheesy at times, Sailor Moon has been a landmark anime for female representation in the medium and knowing this, it should have received much better treatment for its remaster. It’s an odd case of the company seemingly wanting to respect their old properties by bringing them back for the old fans but missing the point when it comes to the preservation of the original art style.
In what other media format would something like this be acceptable? Not that I consider this acceptable, mind you. But in earnest, where else would we see a “remastered” version of a show instead be a complete, shot-for-shot replacement of that show. Certainly not in any live-action show or film; while those do get enhancements, remasters, and director’s cuts, what we are seeing is, more or less, still the same show or film we saw before. A total replacement of animation is akin to a graphic rendering of an actor replacing the actual actor in scenes they originally appeared in. It would be a bizarre rendition of any live-action show or film and would certainly be critically panned.
The Spirit of the Past, The Techniques of the Present, and Bringing It Together
In these examples, we’ve seen how easy it is to misstep when it comes to bringing old films and television shows back and converting them for modern media formats. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to employ new techniques and technologies to preserve older media, there is a point at which it can be taken too far. One should want to keep the original feel of the film or show in question intact, minding the necessities of color corrections and scaling for higher resolutions, and also to be respectful of the original achievements of that media. It’s not so much a question of “Should we replace this bit,” but how you would go about doing so if you deemed it necessary.
Enhancements to older media can, in fact, enhance the viewing experience rather than dramatically change it or interfere with the original production, but when you go overboard and replace whole swaths of work, you end up erasing original artistic achievements, which you should not want to do. Like any piece of art, you could always come back, see a flaw, and want to change it, but then you would never finish. Even the flaws in art forms have their place and make the viewing experience more memorable because of them. This remastering of older media has also contributed to the proliferation of what we’ll call “expected director’s cuts.” The idea that nowadays, all major successful films will eventually have a director’s cut released that contains more features and missing scenes that were not present in the theatrical release. The special editions of Star Wars are, themselves, a form of a director’s cut, as George Lucas has said they are the “definitive” cuts of the film. Definitive to him, perhaps, but Lucas is not the only person with an attachment to the films he directed, nor is he the person solely responsible for their success. It used to be that a director’s cut was the director’s definitive vision for the film that the studio just wouldn’t allow outside of a home release—although there are plenty of examples of director’s cuts that actually make a film worse. Now, director’s cuts have become another part of the commercial cycle, being something we expect to eventually happen, and it allows film studios to double-dip on sales.
Despite this, I wouldn’t say that remasters or director’s cuts are all bad. Certainly, a proper remastering of any film or show would be welcome, as it enhances and preserves the original media. As I have stressed, where we should take caution is when too many changes sneak into an original piece of work, or indeed as is the case with DBZ and Sailor Moon, the work is completely replaced.
- “Ridley Scott’s Alien, held in incredibly high regard for launching not just a franchise but an entire genre of science fiction-horror films, is as close as you can get to a perfect film.” “Alien Theatrical Cut Vs Director’s Cut.” Alien Vs. Predator Galaxy, 4 Aug. 2019, www.avpgalaxy.net/alien-movies/alien/theatrical-vs-directors-cut.
- “If an argument can be made for the merit of director’s cuts, then ‘Blade Runner’ is the most convincing. The theatrical cut of the film is notoriously far from the director’s vision, with many crucial scenes left on the cutting room floor.” T, Sicky. “Blade Runner Blu-ray Comparison | Director’s Cut Vs Final Cut.” YouTube, 3 Aug. 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocx-Ch3Pzg8&feature=youtu.be.
- “Easily a modern application of ‘the shot heard around the world,’ George Lucas’ decision to have Han Solo retaliating instead of getting the drop on Greedo in A New Hope has caused no end of strife among fans.” Tassi, Paul. “Disney Plus Has Another New Star Wars ‘Han Shot First’ Edit From George Lucas Himself.” Forbes, 12 Nov. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2019/11/12/disney-plus-has-another-new-star-wars-han-shot-first-edit-from-george-lucas-himself/?sh=2702541642c3
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
- My moonization. “Comparison of Alien 4k HDR10 vs Alien Anthology.” YouTube, YouTube. 12 Apr. 2019. youtube.com/watch?v=2ufoBy0tqOU.
- Hbomberguy. “The Power Of VHS | SCANLINE.” YouTube, YouTube, 30 Sep. 2017. www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbZMqS-fW-8. (Start at 11:15).
- “Blade Runner Versions.” Off-World: The Blade Runner Wiki, FANDOM. bladerunner.fandom.com/wiki/Blade_Runner_versions. Accessed 27 January, 2020.
- Slate. “Which Blade Runner Cut Should I Watch? A Visual Explainer.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Oct. 2017. youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=n70PtKIhitA
- Wilkinson, Alissa. “Which Blade Runner Is the Best Blade Runner?” Vox, Vox Media, 4 Oct. 2017. vox.com/culture/2017/10/4/16413732/blade-runner-version-original-explained-choose-2049.
- Ncc4000. “Blade Runner VHS vs Bluray (Deckard’s first scene).” YouTube, YouTube, 30 Jul. 2016. youtube.com/watch?v=yT9DLbSCRjo.
- “Awards.” Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm, Ltd. ilm.com/awards/. Accessed 27 January, 2020.
- Zuniga, Marcelo. “All Changes Made to Star Wars: A New Hope (Comparison Video) PART I.” YouTube, YouTube, 4 May. 2015, youtube.com/watch?v=RNbzSH84mj0.
- Zuniga, Marcelo. “All Changes Made to Star Wars: A New Hope (Comparison Video) PART II.” YouTube, YouTube, 4 May. 2015. youtube.com/watch?v=uvbrVFP_f0w.
- Zuniga, Marcelo. “All Changes Made to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Comparison Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Mar. 2015. youtube.com/watch?v=FmWjPoqEhzg.
- Britt, Ryan. “Original Version of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ Could Return to Theaters.” Inverse, Bustle Digital Group, 22 July 2019. inverse.com/article/57917-original-star-wars-a-new-hope-theatrical-release-unaltered.
- “Dragon Ball Z Kai.” Dragon Ball Wiki, FANDOM. dragonball.fandom.com/wiki/Dragon_Ball_Z_Kai#Recasts. Accessed 27 January, 2020.
- “Ocean Group Dubs.” Dragon Ball Wiki, FANDOM. dragonball.fandom.com/wiki/Ocean_Group_dubs. Accessed 27 January, 2020.
- “News Releaseニュースリリース.” TOEI ANIMATION, TOEI ANIMATION, corp.toei-anim.co.jp/en/. Accessed 27 January, 2020.
- Animebrother. “Dragon ball Z Kai Vegeta Great Ape Transformation Comparison (90s version Vs Remastered Version).” YouTube, 2 Nov. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=id_pfSprF58
- “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal.” Sailor Moon Wiki, FANDOM. sailormoon.fandom.com/wiki/Pretty_Guardian_Sailor_Moon_Crystal. Accessed 28 January, 2020.
- Hernandez, Patricia. “The New Sailor Moon Anime Has Changed.” Kotaku, G/O Media, 12 Dec. 2014. kotaku.com/the-new-sailor-moon-anime-has-changed-1670373950.