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A Memorable Visit to Skywalker Ranch
By Gail Grace Nordskog
Editor’s Note: With the release of the 3-D version of STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, Movieguide® sent our intrepid reporters on a press junket visit to the famous Skywalker Ranch of George Lucas, the creator of STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES.
LIGHTSABERS in hand, children from all over the country boarded three shuttle buses for an adventure to the land of a galaxy far, far away. . . from the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco to the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, about a 45-minute drive north of the city.
There was a buzz of excitement in the air!
As the representative of movieguide.org, I was thrilled to be part of the domestic TV press invited to attend a promotional tour to preview the first, soon-to-be-released “3D” Star Wars movie: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Attendees had been encouraged to bring “young reporters,” preferably between the ages of 6 and 18, for the special “behind the scenes” tour, and my 15-year-old daughter, Christyana, was specifically asked to attend. Our unique, shared opportunity was truly a special one: To see and hear, firsthand, from the incredibly talented people who make the movies produced by Lucasfilm, Ltd. – those ground-breaking, special-effect sensations for which they are world renowned.
The agenda was to tour the facilities, and then, on Sunday, to attend a private screening of the movie.
Fellow Travelers. . .
Due to the crowded bus, I was unable to find a seat next to my daughter, so instead I sat next to a gentleman from Chicago who has a Star Wars website that attracts many faithful followers. Even though he had the pleasure of having been at the Ranch the day before, he, like everyone else on the bus, could not contain his excitement.
Behind me, and next to Christy, sat a young dad and his 7-year-old, curly-topped, soon-to-be-reporter daughter. Like a child’s first visit to Disneyland, this guy could not stop talking and smiling! They were affiliated with a network in Denver. A few rows up, sat Valerie and her 13-year-old son Xavier from Kansas City. They were with a FOX affiliate station. Valerie was a beautiful, gracious lady who normally does not attend these events, but her husband had to be in Los Angeles for another screening. Xavier had done these types of things with his dad in the past and seemed like a “seasoned pro,” comfortable with his assignment.
Also joining us on the bus was Melissa from New York City. She had arrived the day before with her 10-year-old son, who had awakened her this morning at 3:00 a.m.! In spite of her lack of sleep, I found her to be a delightfully charismatic mom. She hosts a program called “Moms and the City” which can be found on www.nbcnewyork.com/shows/moms-city.
The Journey Begins. . .
It was a beautiful, sunny morning, around 8:30 a.m., as the bus turned off the highway in the direction of Skywalker Ranch. We soon started the climb up “Lucas Valley Road” – which I later found out was a coincidence, and not named for the famed director, but rather for a local 19th century rancher who inherited the property as part of an earlier Spanish land-grant.
Finally, we arrived at the guarded gate. Soon we were allowed to enter this beautiful, tranquil, 5-acre vineyard setting. As we piled out of the bus to enter the “Tech Building” that looked more like a vintage winery in Tuscany, Italy, we were greeted by the friendly staff and our guides for the day, and then escorted to the dining area. (To learn more about Skywalker Ranch, you can visit www.insideskywalkerranch.com.) Inside, there was a continental breakfast spread before us – lots of donuts and pastries! They must love super-energized children! After breakfast we were put into smaller groups to start our individual tours. Christy and I were in “Group 3” with about 20 other reporters, including parents and children. Our guide was a USC film school graduate named Connie. She was born and raised in the Midwest and had the charm and poise of a “Miss America.” It was obvious how much she loved being a part of the Lucasfilm company.
Stepping into the Light and Magic
Our Star Wars Episode 1 interactive demonstrations began with our group going to “Sound Editing”/“Character Voicing” and meeting with Sound Editor Matthew Wood. According to Matthew’s bio, he was invited to join Lucasfilm as a part of the “Sound-Droid” development team in 1990, and he joined “Skywalker Sound” in 1991 as a specialist in incorporating emerging technology into the traditional editorial model. Matthew was 17-years-old when he started working there, and he recalled fondly for us how one of his first jobs was throwing trash cans out of the back of a pick-up truck to record the sounds. They were working on “Terminator 2.”
Next, Connie took us to meet “CG” (“Computer Graphic”) Supervisor Joel Aron of the weekly-animated adventures of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Joel joined Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in 1991 as a technical assistant on “Hook” and other high profile films, including “Jurassic Park.” Joel showed us how important lighting is to enhancing the persona of the deep and complex character, Darth Maul, who is fueled by hatred. We also learned that all of the characters are hand-modeled.
Our next stop was to meet John Goodson, Digital Artist with ILM. According to John’s bio, he has always been fascinated by miniatures and special effects, hoping one day to work in film. It is obvious that his job with Lucasfilm is a dream come true. He joined ILM in 1988 and has served as Chief Model Maker, Model Project Supervisor, Art Director/Designer, and Concept Modeler.
John showed us one of his models for the “Pod Race” in Episode 1, explaining that Star Wars is a “fabricated universe,” and therefore all the “Pods” are unique in their design. It was interesting to learn that the crowd of people seen from a distance at the “Pod Race” was made by using over 100,000 Q-tip-like sticks tied together and painted different colors!
John was a Viewpaint Artist (a term developed for Jurassic Park” by ILM, that lets an artist paint color and texture directly onto the surface of a computer model) for the new release, “Red Tails.” This is an excellent movie based on the true story about the famous Tuskegee Airmen during WW II – who were fighting in two wars, one overseas, and the other, racial prejudice here in their own country. The movie has all the action that an avid Star Wars special effects fan could want, while learning about these great men of bravery and integrity. (Please see the review on www.movieguide.org.)
Christy Engages in Battles
Last but not least, we met ObiShawn, the Lightsaber Stunt Coordinator. This was fun!!! Each one of the young people, with Lightsaber in hand, took on the master stuntman very seriously, trying to “win.” I saw Christy throw in some ballet moves that would later prove to be a challenge for this master of the Lightsaber!
After their duel, ObiShawn told Christy that he never knew what to expect when he challenges the children, since some have taken karate classes and turned into Ninjas, while others just want to poke him in the face with their Lightsabers. It must be all those donuts! He also told Christy how much he loves doing stunts involving wires that allow him to feel he is. . . flying.
Now that the groundwork had been laid, the youthful reporters began to meet one-on-one with each of the four specialists, asking them about their life and career at Skywalker Ranch and with George Lucas. Each was given the opportunity to do an “opening” for their TV network/website, with a shot of the rolling hillside and the beautiful buildings in the background.
The cameras were rolling. . .
It was finally time for my intelligent, articulate, and all-around awesome daughter to present herself to the world. Could it be time for Greta Van Susteren to move over?
Christy was well-prepared for the “interviewing” component, but was unprepared to give an “opening,” and to my surprise, I saw that she suddenly was frozen with fear! Oh, why didn’t she want another donut for breakfast?” I thought, and then whispered a quick prayer asking God to help her compose herself.
At just that moment, an adorable 9-year-old reporter from www.TimeforKids.com got up and showed all the others what needed to be done! With the poise and skill of a seasoned newscaster, Elise Jonas-Delson captured the attention of all those standing by. A round of applause followed.
Then, I got a great idea. I realized that if Elise could do the “opening” with Christy and me, maybe Christy would relax and feel more confident. With Christy’s and Elise’s approval, and with Elise’s Dad’s permission, we set out to make that happen. . . and it worked! Christy stood on one side of me, with Elise on the other, standing on a crate. I introduced the three of us representing MOVIEGUIDE(r), then Elise explained where we were and why we were there: “Skywalker Ranch, Marin County, to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in 3D.” Teamwork had done it! Christy was now smiling, and comfortable to move forward as her characteristic bubbly, friendly, outgoing personality returned. She began her engaging interviews.
Interviewing the Pros
Christy asked each expert what I thought were really great questions:
- How old were you when you decided you wanted to work in film/sound/special effects/computer graphics?
- What is your favorite scene in the movie, and who is your favorite Star Wars character?
- What is your most favorite movie you’ve ever worked on?
- How long have you been working at ILM?
(You can go to www.movieguide.org for Christy’s awesome interviews.)
Let the Shopping Begin!
We all then returned for a very much appreciated lunch at the Skywalker Ranch Entertainment Area. All of the food was fresh from the self-sustaining organic farm.
Next came a “tour” of the Skywalker Ranch Gift Shop. . . uh, oh. . . the gift shop . . . this is where I lost it! I totally forgot that we had been given gift bags with all kinds of Star Wars toys, along with Christy’s own, personal Lightsaber! I proceeded on, buying t-shirts, ball caps, and several books for the boys in my life. . . hoping to inspire them to get an education in film, special effects, graphic design, model making, journalism, sound, lighting, and to follow their dreams and imaginations so that they, too, can play like these guys do when they grow up. Hopefully, like George Lucas, they can even make millions of dollars having fun and making other people happy. Looking back, I still think it’s a good plan.
With two large shopping bags in tow, Christy and I walked back to the main building where the shuttle buses were waiting to take us back to San Francisco and the Ritz Carlton Hotel. All of the people on our bus were talking about the great and memorable day we had at Skywalker Ranch.
Sunday morning, the “Press Shuttle” arrived at 8:30 a.m. sharp to take us to “The Presidio” in San Francisco for a full-course buffet breakfast, with pancakes. All of the food was organic, coming fresh from the Skywalker Ranch. We were greeted by “R2-D2” and other Star Wars characters for photo opportunities. While Christy declined, I at least got her to take a picture of me with the cute little “Droid!”
“The Presidio” is located just before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and is a former active military installation of the U.S. Army. This is where Lucasfilms corporate offices are now located. Breathtaking views of the intriguing city which is San Francisco can be seen from most windows.
We took a tour of “The Presidio,” which is as interesting as any museum I have visited. Also, at the Lucasfilm property, Mr. Lucas has quite a collection of old movie posters, as well as paintings and models from the many movies made at ILM – all of which were both fascinating and beautiful (in their eerie way).
We were then led into the “Premier Theater” for our private screening of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace in “3D.”
Even though, in 2002, director and writer George Lucas first began “exploring” the idea of presenting all of the Star Wars movies as “3D” theatrical releases, the company did not start the active conversion work until 2010. Now, it all is beginning, with Episode I.
An interesting side note is that the first Star Wars movie, released in 1977, was actually Episode IV: A New Hope. This initial Star Wars movie went on to receive ten Academy Award nominations, and has been proclaimed as one of the most successful and influential films of our time.
Our “3D” Experience
As we entered the theater, each of us was handed our special “3D” glasses. Christy and I found seats in the middle of the theater, not too close to the screen but not too far back, either. As it turned out, we ended up sitting in front of Elise and her dad and I was next to the man from Chicago. A 13-year-old boy, sitting next to Christy, uttered the only sour note . . . complaining to his dad that his “3D” glasses were “for kids” and he felt he should have gotten the adult size! For all of us “kids” of all ages, I could only smile.
The lights went out, and right before us George Lucas appeared on screen, sharing with us what he believes will be the beginning of a “Third Generation” of Star Wars fans. Many who were sitting around us (and myself included) were among the “1st and 2nd ” generations, and I could sense them all nodding in agreement. Now, it was time for Christy and me to put on our glasses, sit back, and. . . watch the movie! “May the Force be with you!”
With Lightsaber back in Christy’s hands, after the TSA agents had thoroughly inspected it, we smiled as we walked to our gate at SFO to catch our flight to Santa Barbara. “How Wude!” I said to Christy with a chuckle, quoting “Jar Jar Binks,” the annoying, but lovable character who, to my dismay, attaches himself for the duration of the movie to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.
For the short one-hour-twenty-minute flight home I began to ponder what message I wanted to share with you, the reader, and especially to my dear friend, Lili Baehr, who had sent me and Christy to represent www.movieguide.org at this TV/press junket to Skywalker Ranch. How glad and grateful both Christy and I are for this trip!
As a Christian, I believe that the Bible shows us that God gives gifts and talents to all of us. I love to encourage people to find their God-given talents and use them for His Glory and to bless others. Certainly, George Lucas has used his gifts to bless others through his amazing theatrical journeys of imagination and creativity, and to open up a “galaxy” of possibilities for movie viewers throughout the world. He has also built a business that has created an ideal working environment for others to use their gifts and talents as well.
All-in-all, Christy and I had a wonderful experience at the Ranch. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace in “3D” is worth seeing. . . and, when you put on your “3D” glasses, put on your imagination, as well. That is a gift from God, too.
GAIL GRACE NORDSKOG is the Host of Hearts of Purpose TV and had the pleasure of working with Dr. Ted Baehr on his Movieguide® TV program for many years. She is Co-Publisher, along with her husband, Gerald C. Nordskog, of Nordskog Publishing, Inc., Ventura, CA and editor of “The Gail Grace Nordskog Collection” producing inspirational and reflective prayer journals as companion pieces for selected books. The Nordskogs live in Ventura, California where Gail is a full time wife and mother, spending the majority of her time raising their four school age children (adopted from China). Contact: [email protected]. Website (in development): www.heartsofpurpose.org.
CHRISTYANA JOY NORDSKOG is a passionate figure skater. She started ice skating at age five, and competes at the Intermediate level. She is presently training with Russian World Figure Skating Championships Gold Medalist and Olympic Pairs Figure Skater Andrei Bushkov and his wife Galina, in Lake Arrowhead, California. Besides skating, she loves to dance, play the piano, read, hang out with friends, and go to good movies that Dr. Baehr recommends. She is presently studying the Russian language.