A Visit to Lucasfilm & ILM for Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace 3D
Chris and Benjamin Mason
February 6, 2012
Twentieth Century Fox recently held a press junket for the re-release of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace 3D Skywalker Ranch in Marin County and to ILM. Not only did they invite press, but they also asked journalists to bring their kids. On this press junket, the kids, from ages 6-18, would serve as the main reporters, doing all the interviews with the various Lucasfilm and "Episode I" talent.
Here is a chronicle of our two day visit to Lucasfilm…
Let me preface this article with the fact that I am a huge "Star Wars" fan. I was 14 in 1977 when the original Star Wars came out - I saw the film opening weekend at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre. I walked out of that screening in 1977 like many other people, I was blown away. I went home that afternoon and started building my own Darth Vader mask out of paper mache (I still have it). Like many modern day filmmakers who cite "Star Wars" as the creative flashpoint that made them get into what they do today, I was no different! So the idea of being flown up to the land of LUCAS was hard to pass up. The bonus would be that I would spend it with my son, Benjamin!
Day One: We boarded a press shuttle bus from our hotel for the drive up to Marin County, about 40 minutes outside of San Francisco. After almost running over two wild turkeys on Lucas Valley Rd (no relation – the road is named after a turn-of-the-century landowner) we entered the gates at Skywalker Ranch. The ranch has been operating since 1987. It was built by a filmmaker for filmmakers, and is one of the largest, most versatile full-service post-production facilities in the world.
Inside we were greeted by R2D2 and C-3P0, given our special VIP press badges and treated to a nice breakfast featuring various plays on "Star Wars" characters - YODA's Yogurt and NUTE Fruit GUNRAY fresh berries. Inside the rustic lobby and entertainment room, I was in awe of where I was, I was a total geek and found myself reverting back to my 14-year-old self! But we had a job to do, after we took a few photos of the screen-used costumes of Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn and Queen Amidala in the lobby. We were given a great tour of the facilities including The Akira Kurosawa Stage, the 300-seat Stag Theater, George Lucas' private screening room, the Scoring Stage decked out with young Anakin's podracer. After the tour, the press were broken up into groups as Benjamin would be reporting for ComingSoon.net. We had prepared a few questions for the talent, and before we knew it he was on the Front Porch overlooking the vineyards and Ewok Lake doing his very first reporter's stand-up, he did great for someone who had never done anything like this before. He did his intro cold and in three takes he was now a real reporter! As a father, I couldn’t be more proud.
After getting his feet wet with his stand-up intro, Ben was off to interview one on one with the various Lucasfilm talent. First up from "Episode I" was Concept Model Artist John Goodman on the scoring stage, then with Matthew Wood, Skywalker’s Sound Editor and voice of General Grievous. Ben kept his cool especially since Grievous is his favorite "Star Wars" character. Next he interviewed CG Supervisor Joel Aron. Aron is responsible for the designs on the animated TV series "The Clone Wars." He was on hand to discuss the addition of Darth Maul to the series; again Ben was awesome, firing off questions like a pro. Ben ended his interview gig with Lightsaber Stunt Coordinator, Shawn 'ObiShawn' Crosby. Dueling it saber to saber with the Jedi Master/cosplayer and dishing out interview questions. You can check out the intro and interviews using the player below!
After all the interviews were completed, our official job now done, we were treated to a Lucasfilm lunch with Bantha Beef sandwiches and Palpatine Pasta Salad. We had free reign to walk around the facilities, our only warning was NO PHOTOS allowed of the priceless vintage film posters that hung throughout the ranch. George Lucas owns one of the largest collections of 'vintage’ movie posters in the world. Most of the huge posters are from the foreign markets with their bold colors and unique designs. They were all beautiful and it was so cool to wander the halls and see posters for everything from Giant to The Crimson Pirate to Singin' in the Rain and countless others.
Ben also got to play the new (in development) 3D Kinect Star Wars podracer game. He was really blown away by the Rancor Rampage level - and scored big smashing the innocent people of Naboo!
Before our day at Skywalker Ranch was over, we headed to the company store. Passing through the vineyard overlooking Ewok Lake we could see the Main House. Lucas no longer lives there. We loaded up on cool Lucasfilm LTD, Skywalker Ranch t-shirts and hats - the only place you can get them!
It was strange how peaceful the place was, surrounded by a 4000 acre working ranch with cows littering the hillsides. Ben was fascinated with finding frogs hiding in the reeds of Ewok Lake, he's 13 and so into reptiles and amphibians!
Day Two: We once again boarded our press shuttle for our trek to ILM (Industrial Light & Magic). Founded in 1975 by George Lucas, ILM is the leading effects facility in the world. ILM relocated from the ranch to the Presidio campus in 2005 called the Letterman Digital Arts Center.
Once off the shuttle we were greeted by Stormtroopers from the legendary 501st, and the famous YODA fountain statue. We were escorted across the campus to the massive dining hall with a spacious view overlooking the famed Palace of Fine arts. We feasted on a Boba Fett breakfast with our gracious host R2D2. He entertained all the guests posing for photos and chirping happily as he patrolled the bacon platter at the buffet.
Once done with our breakfast, we were again broken up into groups for our grand tour of the ILM facilities and offices, and again we were warned NO PHOTOS allowed! The hallways adorned again with more of Lucas' vintage movie poster collection. Walking through the hallways, we saw many of the awards and special gifts presented to Lucas and the crews at ILM. We saw an original E.T., the busts of Davy Jones, Imhotep and Draco from Dragonheart. Every hallway was littered with all manner of geek lore - the mini-subs from Innerspace, the Scoleri Brothers from Ghostbusters 2, Elliot’s bike from E.T., everywhere we turned it was another gush of HOLY COW LOOK AT THAT!
In the main lobby desk we saw the original YODA puppet from The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo in carbonite flanked by a Jar-Jar in carbonite. Apparently George Lucas saw this at a "Star Wars" convention and had to have it - who says the man doesn't have a sense of humor? A wall lined with original matte paintings was particularly stunning. It was sad just knowing that these massive paintings on glass have now been replaced by digital rendering, but knowing they were presented not only as beautiful works of art but also a window into special effects history now considered old-technology.
Once our tour was completed we were all ushered into the main lobby of ILM, where we saw Boba Fett and one of the original Darth Vader costumes. Then it was time for the 3D screening...
With our special digital 3D glasses in hand, we took a seat in the Premier Theater. Our host and master of ceremonies ObiShawn would remind us that there was no better venue to see this film than in this theater in the very location that the film was made! A slight chill ran up our spines, the kids in the theater all cheered and raised their lightsabers as the lights dimmed and the curtain raised to transport us to "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."
Say what you will about "Star Wars: Episode I," it is what it is, a film as Lucas says was made for children. Certainly the film has its share of flaws which have been documented and blogged about to infinitum since the film's 1999 release. I saw it opening day like many other fans in May of '99, and while I haven’t seen it on the big screen since, it was great to share it for the first time with my son (who was one at the time) in digital 3D on the big screen. I leave the reviews to others, but I was blown away by the 3D. I never thought it interfered with the film, I didn't have a headache 20 minutes into it and there were no HEY THIS IS 3D IN YOUR FACE moments. The film is presented as it was in 1999, with the exception of the new digital Yoda, added last year for the Blu-ray release. I found myself enjoying the film with only a mild disappointment of what it could have been, but overall we really enjoined the film in all its 3D glory!
As we heading to the airport, I couldn’t help but think back on the weekend. I had been to the Holy Land of all "Star Wars" fans, LUCASFILM! It will be a time that I know Benjamin and I will not soon forget.
Special thanks to Samara Malkis and the fine staff at Twentieth Century Fox, and to the gang at Lucasfilm and Skywalker Ranch for their spectacular hospitality.