For each new shot, the Industrial Light & Magic team would digitally replace only as much of E.T. as was necessary for the performance. Sometimes it was only the face, sometimes the head and neck, occasionally it was the entire creature.
George says that care was taken not to over-animate. "We spent a lot of time studying the character," he says. "He is so charming and had such a quality about him that we wanted to match, but at the same time, because of the limitations of the puppet, we wanted to do things it couldn't do. We wanted it to be different, but not too different, and that's sometimes a hard line to follow."
The most dramatic change in the new version, in George's view, is the scene in which the spaceship leaves E.T. behind. The 1982 version contained a static shot of the character wistfully looking toward the heavens, which bothered George. "Why would he stop?" he asks. "He should be continuing to run after the ship." The new sequence shows E.T. nimbly running after the rising ship, stopping only when he realizes it is hopeless, then sadly dropping his head.
What really made the effects supervisor stop and think was the decision to redo the film's signature shot, the image that became the corporate logo for Spielberg's pre-DreamWorks company, Amblin Entertainment: the boy on the bicycle flying across the full moon.
Never in any previous digital spruce-ups had a shot so closely identified with a movie been completely redone. (When "The Exorcist" was being readied for a 2000 re-release, director William Friedkin reportedly refused to let effects artists digitally remove the visible piano wires that floated Linda Blair to the bedroom ceiling--he did not want the shot touched.)
"It was the kind of shot that caused me to pause and go, 'My gosh, what am I working on here?'" George admits.
The original shot was done with a mechanical puppet on a miniature bicycle. Although the model was engineered to move realistically, its molded clothing was immobile. For the redo, a real boy who looked like an 8-year-old Henry Thomas was filmed seated on a bike, which was attached to a pivoting platform on a blue-screen stage.
With a fan providing wind resistance, the boy duplicated the movements in the original. Those images were digitally assembled over the original background plates, and the scene was duplicated exactly, except that now, Elliot's Halloween cape billows in silhouette as he rides in front of the moon.
The reissue also provided the opportunity to change something that had always bothered Spielberg: the depiction of policemen chasing the kids with their guns drawn. "That was something that Steven regretted the moment he looked at the movie," Kennedy says, "so that seemed to be a really obvious change." The guns were removed by digital artists and replaced with walkie-talkies.
Both Kennedy and George hope today's audiences will not play "spot the fix," and simply accept and enjoy the new effects as an intrinsic part of the film, as invisible as the digital remastering of the soundtrack (though for the film's Los Angeles premiere today, a benefit at the Shrine Auditorium, the music track will be provided live by John Williams and a 100-piece orchestra, and mixed on the spot). The film opens in general release on Friday.
However, those who prefer the original--guns, stiff clothes, funky smiles and all--can take comfort in the fact that the original version of "E.T." will still be available even after the new version comes out.
"We're protecting the purists," Kennedy says.