The drive from ILM into the countryside of Marin County must have taken 15
to 20 minutes. The meandering road circumnavigated ancient property lines, crossed small
rivers, and veered to avoid the largest ancient redwoods and deepest ravines. According to
a Wall Street Journal article published just before my visit, Skywalker Ranch consisted of
over 4,700 acres and cost Lucas up to 100 million dollars. Lucas' estimates at the time
were reported to be closer to 50 million. Either way, the investment represents a
significant portion of George Lucas' income from the first three Star Wars films. The
reasons for such a large investment will become more clear before the end of my day at
|Ronald Reagan, then President of the United
States requested a tour of Skywalker Ranch but was denied.
When entering the gate we were politely
reminded that no photographs could be taken. At the time of our visit in 1986, no members
of the press had been admitted. Our tour guide for the drive related that Ronald Reagan,
then President of the United States requested a tour of Skywalker Ranch but was denied.
Lucasfilm lost a court battle to have the U.S. government refrain from calling the
Strategic Defense Initiative, "Star Wars." I suspect this ruling didn't help
President Reagan's chances for a visit...
Framed by a lake and two lush green hills, the ranch house
is a strikingly beautiful building of Victorian design. It has a gray roof interrupted
periodically by chimneys and the peaks of dormers surrounding windows on the third floor.
As you approach the house, ribbons of color burst from the etched glass windows which
dance like a dozen prisms in sunlight. The entrance hall features a grand staircase on the
right which gracefully curves left as it rises to the second floor, and Mr. Lucas' private
office. A staff member confided that George had the hand assembled redwood staircase
re-done three times before he was satisfied. Much like the storyboards back at ILM
preceded films, George felt that the ranch he was constructing should have good story. He
decided that the estate would have started as a monastery, but was later converted into a
mansion and vineyard for wine-making. As the vineyard's family grew, new homes and
cottages were built. Last, as the story goes, Lucas purchased the estate and adapted it to
become his creative headquarters for artists and technicians alike.
In reality, George had a wood shop and a glass shop set up
on site during the construction of the ranch house. He salvaged a large amount of sizable
and rare redwood supports from trestles and bridges that were being modernized in the
western United States. These shops produced the beautiful redwood lumber and etched glass
used in much of the construction of the main ranch house.
The breakfast room, located to the left of the entrance
hall was our first stop. Decorated in Colonial Williamsburg style (hey I know this when I
see it, Williamsburg is a 30 minute drive from my home), the room was tastefully furnished
with antiques and featured a very large table in the center. Our guide informed us to
expect many different themes throughout our tour.
We again passed through the entrance hall and entered a
large and lofty reception room. This room was approximately 30' wide by 60' long. It was
furnished with ample furniture for sitting and lounging and a large fireplace. The room
was paneled in rich redwood, and numerous windows prevented the room from seeming too
dark. Tall, open cathedral ceilings were framed with beams milled on the ranch. Several
minutes later we were joined by several of the LucasArts computer specialists we met
earlier at the apartment-like complex.
We exited the reception room through a doorway at the
opposite end of the room and passed into a very long hallway that wouldn't be out of place
in a old Victorian mansion. The hallway must have spanned much of the center length of the
ranch house and provided access to numerous rooms and more stairs to the upper floors.
|One notices a different quality to the light
in this room and a glance skyward explains the reason. A forty foot stained glass dome is
set in the ceiling casting down its component colors of golds, reds, and purples.
Next stop: the Skywalker Ranch library, a
breathtaking stop on the tour. The room features isles of bookcases, thousands of books,
and tables and chairs to make research sessions more comfortable for the library's
patrons. One notices a different quality to the light in this room and a glance skyward
explains the reason. A forty foot stained glass dome is set in the ceiling casting down
its component colors of gold, red, and orange. A second level accessible via a spiral
staircase is home to more books and original paintings. At the base of the staircase, I
asked a LucasArts designer a question on my mind. In the mid 80s word was circulating that
George Lucas, frustrated by the decade the Star Wars New Hope trilogy took to produce,
canceled any plans for future episodes. "Will there be more Star Wars films?" I
asked. While the Prequels are common knowledge today and you can even glimpse behind the
scenes at www.starwars.com, www.starwarz.com, and www.theforce.net,
there was no hint that they would be produced in the popular press of 1986. Therefore, it
was very exciting when the staff member asked me to reflect on the new technologies I had
viewed earlier in the day. He indicated that everything George Lucas was doing was to make
films faster and easier to make using digital sound, video, and editing. "There will
be more [Star Wars] films," he confided.
A little past noon, our group was led to the rear of the
ranch house and into a Victorian style solarium. The three exposed walls and ceiling
provided a view of part of the Ranch including the two large green hills that frame the
ranch house. The view isn't cluttered by parked cars, since parking garages are located
below ground. Thirty foot trees rise from a lower level and pass through the center of the
solarium and nearly to the glass ceiling. I was told that vaults for Lucasfilm treasures
including film and props are housed below around the base of the trees. However, without
the climbing ability of a Wookie you wouldn't gain access to the vaults from this room!
Today a large building housing the Lucasfilm archives has been constructed on Skywalker
Ranch, so the basement vaults may no longer exist. The solarium was filled with iron
patio-style tables and chairs. Here we dined with Skywalker Ranch staff on traditional
California cuisine prepared and served by George Lucas' chef. Staff at the table next to
me were discussing work on a scene for Howard the Duck. They were planning a strategy for
deploying hundreds of duck decoys during a scene in the film. As lunch was completed, we
were told of an observatory George had constructed on the Ranch to house a large telescope
given to him by an ardent Star Wars fan. Sadly, rain showers prevented us from taking the
short hike to the observatory for a visit.
Rather, we headed below ground to a basement level of the
Ranch. There we entered George Lucas' private theater. The room, approximately 25' wide by
50' long was filled with about 15 comfy recliners. Each chair was accompanied by a marble
end table with a touch-sensitive bankers lamp. Theater style, three walls were draped with
rich, burgundy fabric and all of the chairs faced a large screen on the remaining wall. We
were informed that the theater housed a new technology offering superior sound and named,
THX. I also learned the room sits on a special foundation that apparently offers the
unexpected benefit of shielding occupants from earth tremors. Guests have left the theater
surprised to learn that tremors were experienced elsewhere on the property. Moments later
the room dimmed and we were treated to film footage not available outside of Skywalker
Ranch with outtakes from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the
Temple of Doom. Here, thanks to the magic of audio dubbing (and creative Lucasfilm techs)
we find Indiana Jones not in search of the Ark of the Covenant or lost Shankara stones,
but seeking to find the best pot in the world! In another scene we see Harrison Ford knock
on a door, that is answered by Stephen Spielberg. Surprised, Spielberg reacts and catches
Ford as he leaps into his arms and swoons, "Honey, I'm home!"
As I left the theater I was given several gifts including a
Star Wars New Hope patch, pencil set, and a collection of ten glossy posters from Return
of the Jedi. I bid goodbye to my new friends at Lucasfilm and prepared to leave. Luckily,
my driver made a wrong turn and treated me to one additional stop on the tour: the
Skywalker Ranch fire station. The station housed a freshly washed, red fire engine.
Satellite image captured
by Chris Pope.