Being invited to Skywalker Ranch is one of those things you assume will never happen to you, like discovering you’ve murdered your aunt or finding yourself part of a scandal involving a sexy heiress. I was fortunate enough to get the invite as part of a trip to promote the game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II and, having been in San Francisco for a couple of days seeing the product, this was the event I was really waiting for. I’m not an in-your-face Star Wars fan, all dressed up in Jabba rubber and harassing the various Princess Leias at cosplay conventions, but I could tell you the scene in the special edition of the original trilogy in which you see Dash Rendar’s Outrider, as well as other thoroughly uninteresting tidbits involving the extended universe. A trip to Skywalker Ranch, then, was an offer I couldn’t logically refuse.
The first thing I should say is that the journey to the Ranch feels, retrospectively, like the most important part of the trip – piling onto a bus which looked like the A-Team van if it was designed by National Express, the 40-minute ride from the Letterman Digital Arts Center to the Ranch was my time to anticipate what would lie ahead. We travelled across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, seemingly floating above the clouds on a particularly foggy day, and we drifted past the beautiful Marin County – it was an absolutely tremendous way to experience Northern California. I’m being too poetic, of course. I actually spent the majority of the trip thinking, “Ooh! This looks a bit like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” I’m culturally rich like that.
Anyway, the bus was essentially silent on the journey there (nobody likes to approach me when I’m tired). Perhaps the other passengers, like me, were indulging in the fantasies of what lay ahead – was I anticipating a fortress of themed rooms, like one where a giant boulder would chase me through a temple if I moved something, or some Willy Wonka-style wonderland where Lucas would greet us dressed as Greedo? Not exactly, but then this was supposedly a place of legend. Nobody was perched next to me at the back of the bus (my thick eyebrows give me a serial killer vibe), so I merely sat there, dreaming up the increasingly bizarre possibilities.
We drove past Big Rock Ranch (home of The Clone Wars production team), where one PR representative told me a classically ludicrous legend: the titular rock, once vandalised, had since been painted in rock colours to guarantee nobody could tell the difference. This is probably as mad as capitalism will ever get.
We passed a tiny security booth, the kind you’d expect to see empty at a supermarket car park. A polite lady told the driver to go through. The amount of reprehensibly bad jokes I heard about security guards dressed as Stormtroopers became faintly soul-destroying – I was pleased to see everything kept on the down low, at the Ranch, in keeping with what I perceive as Lucas’s relatively quiet public persona.
At this point, it occurred to me that Skywalker Ranch is… a ranch. No gimmicks, nothing out of place, just a ranch. Savaged by unreasonable Californian heat, I was corralled into the Ranch’s technical building (home of Skywalker Sound) by LucasArts’ all-female army of PR staff. The make-up of this facility is beautiful, designed almost like a classic Spanish villa, with both an underground theatre and recording studio. Our tour guide, The Force Unleashed II’s audio lead David Collins, described the theatre as ‘the most THX-certified’ place on the planet, with fully customised speakers and other technical specifications that sounded rather impressive. He explains how screenings often occur there, with guest directors like James Cameron talking to the Lucas staff. There’s also a prop from Episode II to the left-hand side of the screen – a statue from Palpatine’s office.
We’re then shown the Skywalker Sound studio, a place so large that it can (and does) house entire orchestras for musical scores, including for games like The Force Unleashed II and Uncharted 2, as well as movies like Zodiac and Jurassic Park III. The walls can actually be moved to reduce or increase reverberation, something I’m told is important if you record rock music – being as musically incompetent as I am, though, I just enjoyed the size of the place. They can mix up to 72 channels of sound, which according to my research (I turned around and asked James Rundle) is a lot. It underlined the extent to which Lucas views sound as a vital component of movie-making, and, just like everything I’d seen in those couple of days, showed how important it was to Lucas to spare no expense in having the best of everything. Admittedly, I was swaying on the spot at this point due to a combination of jet lag and a generous Lucas lunch (they had salmon burgers. I had seconds as soon as it became socially acceptable to do so), but still, it was undeniably a cool facility.