Lost Short Film Shown Before “Empire Strikes Back” Found After 30 Years

March 6, 20140 Comments

A long time ago, in a better era of filmmaking, short films were shown before feature films in theaters. One such short film, a 25-minute fantasy epic called BLACK ANGEL, was shown before certain overseas prints of Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back. And then it was gone without a trace. It had been reduced to a mere legend at fan conventions until now!

Black Angel was produced in 1979 by Star Wars creator George Lucas as a short film to accompany The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas ordered 20th Century Fox to create something that would complement the tone of the darker, more mature Star Wars sequel.

The short was directed by Roger Christian, who had won the Oscar for Best Art Direction — Set Decoration for his work on Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. Lucas believed in Christian because he found creative and cost-efficient ways to make the first Star Wars film look more expensive than its tiny $4 million budget.

Christian had finished working on set decoration for Ridley Scott’s Alien (which earned him another Oscar nomination) and had a desire to direct. He wrote a script called Black Angel, a fantasy film about a knight from the Crusades who is transported to a magical realm where he must rescue a princess from the title villain. After reading the script, Lucas greenlit the project two days later with a budget of $50,000.

Christian and his crew of 11 shot the film in Scotland with leftover rolls of 35mm film from the “Empire” shoot and access to Eilean Donan castle. Christian’s knowledge for low-budget troubleshooting proved to be helpful during post-production when his editor informed him that there wasn’t enough footage to meet the 25-minute requirement. To lengthen the film, they used “step-printing,” in which a slow-motion effect is created by printing one frame repeatedly. Lucas was impressed by the process and used it when Luke Skywalker confronts a vision of Darth Vader on Dagobah.

Black Angel was screened with The Empire Strikes Back in parts of Europe and Australia, since the U.S. no longer showed short films with features anymore. And then somehow the short film was lost. Christian had an original negative and print copy that he kept at London’s Boss Film Studios, but when they went bankrupt in the ’90s, it got tossed. Fox lost its copies as well when its storage facility, U.K. Studio Rank, shut down around the same time. Lucasfilm Archives didn’t have a copy either.

So, who found it? In December 2011, Christian got a call from an archivist at Universal who claimed he had a negative. How a copy ended up at the rival studio is unclear. Last year Christian got a call from David Tanaka, a visual effects editor at Pixar, and Brice Parker, a producer at Athena Studios, who wanted to digitally restore Black Angel and screen it at the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival in California.

Thirty-three years after its debut, Black Angel returned to theaters last October as the closing film of the festival. It was also screened recently at the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland.

So, when can YOU watch it? Christian says he plans on releasing Black Angel later this year, possibly on Netflix, iTunes or on a DVD re-release of The Empire Strikes Back“I would like it to be with ‘Star Wars,’ because it’s history. It belongs there,” he said.

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