Lost and Found: ‘Star Wars’ Pre-Show Short Film ‘Black Angel’

'Black Angel,' 1980
'Black Angel,' 1980

Well, here's a hot-ticket panel we'll probably be seeing at "Star Wars" Celebration next year.

A long time ago, in our own galaxy, there were short films screened before features. 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" (1980).

And then, inexplicably, it was gone, with no trace of a negative or bootleg VHS copy to be found. Lost to legend, obscurity, and the occasional reference at fan conventions.

Until now.

'Black Angel'
'Black Angel'

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

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The gig ended up going to Roger Christian, who had won the Oscar for Best Art Direction — Set Decoration for his work on "Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope" (1977). Christian was one of Lucas's trusted friends and colleagues, having found creative and cost-efficient ways to make the first "Star Wars" film look a lot more expensive than its tightly strapped $4 million budget.

Christian had finished working on set decoration for Ridley Scott's "Alien" (which also earned Christian an Oscar nomination) and was looking to take on directing. He wrote a script called "Black Angel," a fantasy film about a knight from the Crusades who's transported to a magical realm where he must rescue a princess from the title villain.

Roger Christian
Roger Christian

A chance meeting with Sandy Lieberson, head of Fox Studios in London, during post-production sound mixing sessions on "Alien" allowed Christian the chance to pitch "Black Angel." The script got to Lucas and it was greenlit two days later with a budget of $50,000 and on two very Lucas-ish conditions: Lucas would be the first person to see the final cut, and Christian should be granted complete creative freedom.

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"And that's George," smiles Christian during a recent interview at Urban Post Production House in Toronto.

Christian and his crew of 11 were then off to Scotland to make a movie with some leftover rolls of 35mm film from the "Empire" shoot and access to Eilean Donan castle. The director himself admits he spent most of the budget on "proper huge heavy horses."

'Black Angel'
'Black Angel'

Hey, at least he didn't have to make the exterior of a certain Corellian ship out of airplane scrap metal again.

Christian's knack for low-budget troubleshooting proved to be helpful during post-production when he was informed by his editor informed that there wasn't enough footage to meet the 25-minute contract. To lengthen the film, they implemented a process called "step-printing," in which a slow-motion effect is created by printing one frame repeatedly.

Lucas was so impressed with this process that he used the technique himself in the surreal nightmare sequence in "Empire" in which Luke confronts a vision of Darth Vader on Dagobah.

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Lucas liked the rest of the film, too, and showed it to his pal Steven Spielberg, whom, per Christian, said it was "one of the most enigmatic films he'd ever seen." "Black Angel" was then screened with "The Empire Strikes Back" in parts of Europe and Australia, as the U.S. was no longer showing short films with features by then.

And then it got lost... somehow. Christian had an original negative and print copy that he kept at London's Boss Film Studios, but when the facility 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 seem to have a copy, either.

Then, in December 2011, Christian got a call from an archivist at Universal who claimed he had a negative. How a copy of "Black Angel" ended up at the rival studio is anyone's guess, but word got around, and 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.

'Black Angel'
'Black Angel'

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

So... are "Star Wars" fans going to be able to see this anytime soon? Christian says he plans on releasing "Black Angel" later this year, possibly on Netflix and iTunes or perhaps 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.

Well, hopefully it's better than Christian's other sci-fi fantasy film... "Battlefield Earth" (2000).