The blog of one Michael Heilemann, expatriated Dane coming to you out of New York City. Half machine, half grapefruit, Interface director at Squarespace, design lover, film enthusiast, Star Wars historian, creator of the Kubrick and K2 themes, and holder of opinions, many of which are shared on his Twitter account.
We visited the Ranch during our three-week US roadtrip a few months ago, and I’ve been longing to go back ever since. Nestled in the hills a 40-minute drive north of San Francisco, hidden from view of the road and comprising all the land around it, as far as you can see, and about ten times more, Skywalker Ranch is without a doubt the geek haven.
You take a turn from the aptly named, but otherwise unrelated, Lucas Valley Road, pass through a security checkpoint—yes, the guards arm-patch has an X-Wing on it—where you’re given a small map of the area, and then a winding forest road, complete with 1920’s harvesters nostalgically littered by the roadside to give the impression of a long and all-american history (which never was), takes you around Lake Ewok and up to the main house.
It’s beautiful. Quiet. Standing there, you instantly ‘get’ why Lucas decided to skip LA and build the ranch for the money from Empire and Jedi; here you can think and talk and go about your business undisturbed by the stress and superficiality of Hollywood.
And it really is nestled in amongst the hills, the backs of which rise up all around, and on which the cattle—yes, it’s a fully working farm, complete with livestock and crops—roam free, content and ignorant of them getting to live in the geek-Xanadu of the planet.
A lot can be said, and lot has, about George Lucas, but despite the scope of this place and what it represents, if it is in any way ‘extravagant’, it would be in how it isn’t extravagant. Yes, it’s large and it has everything from an observatory to one of the most amazing and beautiful research libraries in the film industry and the best sound editing facilities, including what is perhaps one of the best theaters in the world, as well as an inn, a complete fitness center, a café and a restaurant and even a general store… Oh, and its own fire station. And a 200-lot underground parking garage.
But it’s exactly because it has all of this, yet flaunts none of it, that it is so impressive.
For instance, as we were leaving, we wanted to make one last stop at the store; you know, to score some loot (pens, t-shirts, chili sauce—the usual). But to get to it we had to park by the side of the road, and walk through a small stretch of forest, cross the bridge over a small stream and up a small path until suddenly we were mere meters from the building. There it was. And you couldn’t see it from looking at it, but it had a tennis court and swimming pool as well as a restaurant. Nestled; I’m telling you.
Incidentally, as we returned to the car, our arms filled with aforementioned loot; we saw a sight I wish to this day we had captured on video. It would have gone viral in ways I can only dream long wet dreams of.
You see, the Ranch is nothing if not cozy and homely. An old plow here, a gate covered in vines there. And by the side of the road next to our car there was an honor-system produce stand—the kind that would make Martha Stewart soft in her knees. Bell pebbers, lettuce, garlic and cucumbers as far as the eye could see. And tomatoes. And a deer. Eating the tomatoes. Not just eating though, but carefully, thoughtfully and with the greatest of non-chalance cherry-picking them one at a time. It sees us, and we see it. And it slowly lowers its head, the tongue comes out, feels its way around the tomatoes; ow-there’s a good one. Yoink. The nerve of this deer. It glances at us with a look that can only be described as the ‘what?’-look, and continues to chew the tomato leisurely and thoroughly, before its tongue goes to search for another. No, not that one… No… Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Our photo seance was soon interrupted by the groundsman, as he came waltzing over the road, and in the tone one would use with a disobedient, but utterly adorable child exclaimed: “Noooo, that’s not for you! Go on, get out of here.” After which the deer, slightly annoyed, but still sporting a healthy attitude, prances across the road and into the bushes.
He would be back, I could tell.
If I hadn’t already fallen in love with California and the ranch before, I did then and there.
And Rikke, she was well sold by the time we made it to the research library, which deserves an honorary mention all of its own.
You can enter it from the main house, the bottom floor of which consists of a café, a meeting room or two as well as the famous display case with the lightsabers, AT-AT’s and that damned crystal skull. But from the moment you step foot in it, contrary to the rest of what we saw of the main house, it feels ‘real’. Lived in. The rest is all very neat and tidy and almost too museum-like for it too feel homely; but the library is all its own. A stroll over to an entirely arbitrary shelf revealed a healthy tome on ‘Mythology’, ‘Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets’, ‘A History of Religious Ideas’ and the like. Another shelf held ‘Cults, Customs and Superstitions of India’, a well-worn gold embossed title worthy of Indy himself, as well as ‘The Coasts of India and ‘The Last Maharajas’.
You get the point. It was like stumbling into a live set, bathed in the light from the famous glass domed ceiling. Or infamous, if you count the fact that Marcia Lucas had an affair with the man who designed said dome, which subsequently led to their divorce; an annoying little nugget of history inexorably tied to the Ranch.
The library is, as mentioned an actual research library, and holds considerably more books than in the main house, most of which have come from old studio libraries—Paramount in the late 80’s and Universal in 2000—put up for sale and snatched up by Lucas. The stories I’ve heard told of the collection are considerable and impressive. Michael Rubin did much of his research for DroidMaker down there, and enthusiastically retells the story of how he was left alone with a stack of boxes while the staff were busy prepping for Episode III. The town was went to, and then some. Reportedly Lucas dragged all of his notes, files and folders in there and there they remain.
If ever there was a nexus for geekdom, it’s in that library.
But I digress.
Our time was short, and we too soon left the Ranch behind—as well as the visitors map, unfortunately, a prime souvenir if there ever was one—and started the winding trip back to San Francisco to drop off our gracious hosts Tara and Leslie at Lucas’s other campus in San Francisco
Thank you again guys, you rock!
Anyway, I was reminded by and decided to finally get around to doing this write-up because Philip Bloom, whose work I’ve envied for some time, recently visited Skywalker Ranch and shot this extraordinary mood-piece there, which stands in sharp contrast to how sweltering it was when we visited.
Next time I hope to stay at the inn and peruse the library for a few hours… One can dream.
Update, March 17th, 2010: A couple of years ago two guys from Io went to visit Skywalker Ranch as guests of Matthew Wood. I convinced them to let me post this video of theirs, from the visit:
Spent the last few evenings glued to the screen, bouncing from hotel to hotel, trying to find the right fit between price and location for our stays in LA, SF and Vegas. Maybe I’m picky, but that stuff is draining. I don’t know what I’d do without Trip Advisor to be honest.
Originally we had planned to stay wherever, but as our plans started crystalizing, we decided for peace of mind, to book places while in the cities, rather than trying to find something in the stress of it all.
So now we’ve got the car ready, hopefully a true all-American Mustang V6 convertible, what other way is there to roadtrip the US? We’ve got hotels in the major cities, we’ve got our 4000+km route. We’re going to see Pixar and Skywalker Ranch! I’m meeting up with various people, including the venerable Michael Rubin, and we’re going to see both John Williams and AC/DC while in LA.
Oh, and I’m still hoping for some NIN tickets for LA on the 7th, though that’s looking remote, to put it mildly. I might be able to convince Rikke that we go down to the venue on the night and see if we can pick up some tickets; it being the last concert of the tour (and supposedly for a long while), it would be epic.
And once we get home? Well, someone has to figure out how to convince our bank how we could possible be considered responsible and grown with spending habits like the ones we’re about to display. I honestly have no clue about that one. But this is once-in-a-lifetime stuff, and as such, irresponsibility is part and parcel.
The worst part? Three weeks doesn’t look like a whole lot anymore.
I know, I know, it’s starting to look more and more as if Binary Bonsai was reborn as a Star Wars and Droidmaker-reblog site after its hiatus, but if I merely updated the older entries with this information, it wouldn’t propagate, and dammit, when I have something to take credit for I’ll damn well use every excuse in the book to take it!
Then there happened to be an unusual series of events at the end of June, 2009, when a couple interesting Lucas stories were emerging. An old home movie from ILM in 1977. An older interview with young George Lucas from the BBC in 1972. My book gives some context to these items.
On June 30 I got a wild hare and generated a PDF of the entire book. I posted it on my blog and I made two public-ish announcements: I posted it on my Facebook page, and I emailed a note about it to a blogger in Europe who had just written something nice about Droidmaker a few days earlier. So I emailed “Binary Bonsai” – he posted it. And that was it.
The word spread globally in a few moments, and in 24 hours there were around 2,000 downloads of the book. A few weeks later there was another spike of interst, bringing the total downloads to about 13,000. In 14 days, more people have read my book than in the prior 4 years. And I finally feel like my work with this is done. #
Exciting for me, as I’ve been a fan of Droidmaker since it came out. I plowed through it in a few days, which is honestly rather rare for me. I hope to have the chance to meet Michael when we’re in California; a fitting encounter on a trip which is already taking us to see Pixar, Skywalker Ranch and a John Williams concert.
I honestly don’t know how all of this could get much better…
The whole company was sent packing for their annual summer vacation today (as per tradition, a thunderstorm over Copenhagen is welcoming them). I’ll be working throughout most of the next three weeks, with the exception of a short stint to England, for a friend’s wedding, as Rikke and I have finally manned up and gone ahead with our plan for a roadtrip through California (and parts of Arizona).
But those wonderful three weeks are all the way over at the end of August, so I get to stay behind and work while my buddies are drinking longdrinks indoors, imagining they were vacationing around the equator. Suckers.
At the top you can see the approximate route we’ve got so far. We’re obviously still adding and subtracting, but the basic idea is to gt around to all that’s worth getting around to (so feel free to drop address, maps, vague suggestions, food places and whatever else you can come up with), as we probably won’t be coming back to that neck of the planet for a good while afterwards.
One of our destinations we’re looking forward to the most is of course Pixar. I was there in 2005, but that was far from enough for me, and Rikke’s never even been on the westcoast, so we’re both giddy as children (and heavily indebted to the wonderful Kate for giving us this opportunity):
I’ve been trying to cash in some old favors/promises to get us into Skywalker Ranch, an honest to … boyhood dream (if you hadn’t guessed), but so far it doesn’t look too good. I’m still hoping though.
Either way, I’m well-excited about this trip, and not a little intrigued about the idea of circling California behind the wheel of some American monstrosity of a car.
Anyway, this entry was a) to inform you of our plans, and b) to try out some map embedding, which is generally done way to rarely on blogs, considering how awesome it is. I of course plan to do a travel blog of some sort, but I haven’t quite figured out the format yet, and I don’t know how much time I’ll have to play around with it either (both before and during).
Should I do it on Tumblr? Would make it easy, but on the other hand I want to keep it for posterity, so a local blog makes more sense. But then I’d want to do a roadtrip theme and that’d just turn into a major thing and I wouldn’t finish it in time and…
Either way, that’s what’s what from my neck of the planet on this, the most grey of fridays.
Today and tomorrow, at work, we’re having Matthew Wood from Skywalker Ranch over to do some lecturing on audio and what not. Should be very interesting, and I’ll surely do all I can to sneak into the otherwise audio-geeks-only ‘classes’.