Strange Magic at Skywalker Ranch

On Tuesday, I spent the day at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, where I watched the new Lucasfilm animated musical Strange Magic and took a tour of the grounds. More accurately, we toured a portion of the grounds, since the property is too vast to cover on foot in a single day.

The Technical Building, home of Skywalker Sound, reflected in Lake Ewok. Photo by the author.
The Technical Building, home of Skywalker Sound, reflected in Lake Ewok.
Photo by the author.

image001We began our day in the lobby of Skywalker Sound, where we were greeted by Elijah Kelley, who plays Sunny. After a round of hugs and selfies and the quiet arrival of George Lucas, we were ushered Stag Theater, a 300-seat Art Deco auditorium that features what Lucasfilm claims is the best audio system in the world, where we watched the film and then enjoyed a musical performance by Kelley, followed by Q&A sessions with the producers, and then a tour of the ranch. Those interviews and my review of the film (it’s quite enjoyable) will be the subjects of future posts.

After Star Wars became a box office giant, George Lucas decided he wanted to make movies outside the studio system. He found a perfect spot on the coincidentally-named Lucas Valley Road, 40 minutes north of San Francisco, and set about creating Skywalker Ranch. A few years ago, much of the Lucasfilm operation was relocated to the Presidio, so today Skywalker Ranch is primarily used by clients at Skywalker Sound.

Statues on either side of the Stag Theater stage, Sistros (L) and Braata (R), two of the Four Sages of Dwartii, seen in Palpatine's office in Episode III. Photos courtesy of Sassy Mama in LA.
Statues on either side of the Stag Theater stage, Sistros (L) and Braata (R), two of the Four Sages of Dwartii, seen in Palpatine’s office in Episode III.
Photos courtesy of Sassy Mama in LA.

The building that houses Skywalker Sound (formerly the Technical Building) was designed to resemble an Italian vineyard, complete with a wrought iron gate emblazoned with “Viandante Del Cielo” (Italian for “Skywalker,”) which is also the name of the pinot noir made from the grapes grown on the ranch. Despite being named after the hero, there is very little evidence of Star Wars to be found on the ranch; some of the original lightsabers are on display in the main house, and the Stag Theater features the statues that formerly graced Chancellor Palpatine’s office in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. In addition to the Stag Theater, Skywalker Sound features a world-class scoring stage, six mix studios, ADR and Foley stages, and 34 editing suites.

Between the Technical Building and the main house lies Lake Ewok, a man-made lake that also serves as a reservoir for the on-site private fire department. It is also stocked with fish.

The main house at Skywalker Ranch, built in 1980. Photo by the author.
The main house at Skywalker Ranch, built in 1980.
Photo by the author.

The first structure built was the massive main house, a 50,000 square foot Victorian farmhouse that contains offices, a restaurant, and a gigantic research library, along with several areas intended to be places for creative minds to seek inspiration. The interior features exquisite woodwork, all of it the product of the wood mill which formerly stood on the property. We weren’t allowed to take photos of the interior, but it’s pretty amazing, and all of it was designed by Lucas himself, right down to the light fixtures.

Looking down onto the research library. Photo by the author.
Looking down onto the research library. Photo by the author.

The research library is a throwback to the pre-google days when studios maintained their own collections of books and art for use in developing films, writing screenplays and designing sets and costumes. When Universal and Paramount sold off their libraries, Lucas bought them and added their collections to his own. the majority of the holdings are stored on the bottom floor, which is visible from the courtyard, with the most prominent and useful books occupying the central room in the house. We couldn’t take photos inside due to the large number of very valuable paintings inside, which includes several Norman Rockwell works and at least one Maxfield Parrish (I only saw one), but Lucasfilm graciously supplied a wide-angle view for us.

The library at Skywalker Ranch. © & TM Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
The library at Skywalker Ranch.
© & TM Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Library’s most distinctive feature is the massive stained-glass skylight, custom-built on location. The massive spiral staircase was brought in through the window behind it, threaded in like a corkscrew. The whole place is amazing and inspiring, but I’m mostly amazed that anybody gets any work done, since it feels like the world’s most luxurious summer resort. There’s an inn with about 30 rooms where guests and clients stay while working on projects, but we didn’t get to see it.

The majority of the property is a working ranch; there are cattle, horses, fruit and vegetable gardens that stock the two restaurants with fresh produce, and wide swaths of open space. When we asked our tour guide how big the ranch is, she told us “It keeps changing because George will buy property and then give it back to open space…right now about 7,000 acres.”

Tik-Tok, the Clockwork Man, stands guard in the courtyard. Photo by the author.
Tik-Tok, the Clockwork Man, stands guard in the courtyard.
Photo by the author.

My personal favorite thing? In a little courtyard off the Sound building, I found Tik-Tok, the Clockwork Man, a major character in the mostly-forgotten 1985 film Return to Oz. The movie was considered a flop, mostly because it was a lot closer in tone to the original books and not enough like the MGM musical, with Dorothy played by an 8-year-old Fairuza Balk. But I liked it a lot, and obviously, so did George Lucas.

Most people will never have the opportunity to visit this amazing place, so I’m glad I was able to share a little of it with you.

Disney provided me with an all-expenses-paid trip to visit Skywalker Ranch, but all opinions expressed are my own.

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Jim MacQuarrie is a comics and animation geek, a professional cartoonist and graphic designer, professional balloon animal twister, a certified archery instructor (and yes, his arrows are green), former homeless person and occasional gadfly. He has three children who are all grown up, and an incredibly patient wife who is waiting for him to do likewise. Together they co-write the lifestyle blog Blue Collar, Black Tie.