Yoda never said, “Geek out, you will,” but when you visit the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, it’s pretty much implied.
Home to Lucasfilm, LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Lucas Licensing, Lucas Online, and a rather impressive Yoda Fountain, the campus is nestled within the historic Presidio district, with breathtaking views of the Palace of Fine Arts, Transamerica Pyramid, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean.
The foyer reflects George Lucas’ design faves – squashy couches draped with Southwest-style blankets, with wall-to-wall bookcases filled with books he’s read, Star Wars master replicas and awards, a life-sized Darth Vader and Boba Fett, and small statues of R2-D2, Chewbacca and other iconography from a galaxy far, far away.
My guide for the day suggested we drive north first in case of rain (because San Francisco), and as we headed into the pristine countryside of Marin County where Skywalker Ranch sprawls across 5,000 verdant acres, the excursion started to feel surreal. On one side, the steel and the glass of the city, and on the other, the Redwoods and ravines of Endor.
Turns out some scenes from Return of the Jedi were filmed within the woods, which made the crossing of self-imagined planetary lines that much more electric, miles turning into parsecs with each passing minute.
A gated drive deep within Lucas Valley (coincidence), leads to a private filmmakers retreat, small fire department, sweet covered bridge and winding road surrounded by greenery. Then comes a barn with farm animals, vineyards, and a fruit-and-vegetable garden that soon gives way to a tumble of bucolic hills alive with vultures, wild turkeys, and swallows that dip and dive with ease.
The main house takes your breath away with its beautiful Victorian architecture and graceful sloping lines that lead to dormers and turrets dressed in scalloped green-and-white awnings, etched glass windows shining prismatic in the soft light.
Back along the main road, the Technical Building stands tall, nestled among vineyards and Cypress trees, its mix of warm woods, stone and bricks offering a juxtaposition of textures and modern angles. Skywalker Sound lives here with all its mixing stages, feature film dubbing stages, editorial services, scoring stages (one can even accommodate a 130-piece orchestra), and a 300-seat screening room called “The Stag.”
The quiet hallways are lined with Lucas’ collection of movie posters – the largest in the world – and along the outside of the building, bicycles bearing mini “Skywalker Ranch” license plates encourage guests and employees alike to wheel around the property (and Lake Ewok), designed with no above ground electrical poles or wiring, so as not to interrupt the property’s natural beauty.
Once back at the Letterman Digital Arts Center, my guide took me on an afternoon exploration of the cutting-edge Lucasfilm campus. The historic military base is where Lucas has proposed to build The George Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, a place where he can hang his Death Star-sized movie poster collection, replete with other works from Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. There are also plans to showcase costumes, props and a droid or two.
Photography is normally prohibited within Lucasfilm’s hallowed halls, so I was honored (and schoolgirl giddy) to discover I would be allowed to shoot – just a bit – within the inner sanctum. And while a lot was off limits, suffice to say the building is a living museum. Framed posters from every movie ILM has ever worked on line the walls, along with matte paintings from all the Star Wars films.
Bright hallways and airy stairways are filled with props, scaled models, life-size replicas, employee artwork, and what amounts to a veritable treasure trove of iconic geekery (Wicket and C-3PO may or may not handle reception on one of the floors) – switched out now and again to keep things interesting. Offices are equipped with state-of-the-art technology, and an in-house sound studio, a motion-capture studio and one of the largest render farms in existence are housed within the building as well.
A stop at Java the Hutt and the Lucasfilm Company Store signaled an end to the tour, and as I passed Yoda in the courtyard on my way out, my inner seven-year-old couldn’t help but fling stardust and glitter. I had become one with the Force, even if it was just for the day.
Disclosure: Many thanks to San Francisco Travel and Hotel del Sol for providing me a sunny space to edit the photos I captured while in California. And to Chris, jams and jellies. I’ll never be able to say those two words without laughing again.