A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…
These ten words have set me on a journey that has spanned more than three decades.
Like any Star Wars nerd, I felt I needed to watch Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope countless times. Repeating each dialogue in my mind until I could recite them like a Jedi. And when I watched Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, my universe collapsed with the utterance of five words: Luke, I am your father.
At the tender age of 8, the concept blew me away. If I was not hooked before, I now belong to George Lucas.
So it began my passion for Star Wars, to collect every memorabilia I could afford – which is not a lot at age 8. So I borrowed my friends’ toys. And when I got my first paycheck 6 years later, I bought my first Star Wars figurine: It was Han Solo in Hoth gear. Cool.
But, like every Star Wars nerd, I wanted more. I wanted to visit the birthplace of the Far Far Away. And I realised I was not the only one when I saw the 2009 movie Fanboys. Here was a bunch of guys as nerdy (maybe more) and more in love with Star Wars than I ever could be. And they had a plan to break into Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch so their dying friend could watch Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This was a group I identified with. According to news sites, Lucas had given them his blessings and even opened up Skywalker Ranch for them to film in. Urban legend has it that ex-American President Ronald Reagan once asked to visit the ranch but was turned down. That’s how hard it is to get into Skywalker Ranch. As far as nerds were concerned, this was the White House.
So to say I was excited when Microsoft asked me if I wanted to visit Skywalker Ranch as part of their Xbox Spring Showcase 2012 programme, and to go backstage behind the making of the Kinect Star Wars game is an understatement. You know the feeling you get when you’re about to meet the girl of your dreams for your first date? That mix of fear, excitement, nerves and nausea that you get? This was close. Except for the sweaty palms.
Located in Marin County int he outskirts of San Francisco, California, Skywalker Ranch is nestled in a quiet neighbourhood with rolling hills and horse ranches. Even though the sun baked down hard, the air was chilly with a light breeze dancing on my flushed cheeks.
The first sight of Skywalker Ranch is a little bit of a letdown. But only because I had 30 years of hype built up in my mind. I had envisioned protocol droids conducting tours with exciting narratives and sound effects, and rebel pilots putting last minute repairs with their R2 units. I had imagined a stormtrooper at the gate instead of a remote gate. Imperial guards sweeping the grounds. What I got was a quaint little country house. The kind you’d want to retire in.
No. 5858 in Marin County is a sprawling ranch with grazing grounds for cattle, a lake, a vineyard and three country-styled houses. Security is tight. We were not allowed to take pictures of the interior. And we needed to be escorted to wherever we wanted to visit (except the toilet, of course).
The Tech Building where we had lunch and conducted interviews had vintage foreign movie posters lining the wooden walls. Skylights let in natural sunlight which created a very warm and homely ambience. I was told the decor was designed to look like an Italian vineyard, a personal preference of Mr George Lucas. Our minder also said Mr Lucas liked to vacation in Italy but stopped short of saying where.
Outside of the Tech Building is a little vineyard which I assume produces the wine that is sold at the Skywalker Ranch General Store. And a short (escorted) walk to the Skywalker Ranch General Store, that winds past Ewok Lake (with its own tiny beach), a swimming pool then through a building, led to the friendly store.
And even though there were no flying aliens, or wookies working on hyperdrives, there is magic in ‘dem ‘dar hills.
Throbbing within each studio is a low drone like the hum of a lightsaber; where geniuses of light and sound create the magic that goes into Star Wars projects like the Kinect Star Wars game and the Clone Wars animated series. A light shiver ran up my spine as I stepped into the studio, to hear the swish and the drone of the lightsaber as the character (who was not identified) taught a group of padawan children in what I presume to be the Massassi Temple.
Just watching the sound put into the short clip gave me goosebumps. That is the true magic that Lucas wields – his ability to whip you away from your actual surroundings and throw you into a fantasy world.
To create a game that manipulates technology so you are totally and inextricably immersed in the game.
To let you step into the shoes of a Jedi (or for that matter, a Rancor).
So what if the Skywalker Ranch did not have jawas and a sandcrawler, it should still be on your bucket list. For when you visit a site that excites you as you once were as a kid, then – to paraphrase Darth Vader - the Force is strong with the place.