Across the Universe: Back at the Ranch
Parallel Universe visits LucasFilm
By Don Kaye
Special to MSN Movies
There was a time, back when “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” were first released, that the word “LucasFilm” across the screen was like the invocation of a magical, faraway kingdom. Over the years, with a lot more water and “Star Wars” controversies – some would say cash grabs – under the bridge, our adult perception of that brand has changed. But we couldn’t help but experience a true thrill as we were invited to the Bay Area and a trip to Skywalker Ranch – the sprawling, pastoral headquarters of LucasFilm – for a press event surrounding the arrival of “Indiana Jones – The Complete Adventures” on Blu-ray.
That trip centered around two major events: First was an audience with Dennis Muren, creative director at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and Ben Burtt, the sound designer behind the Indy movies, “Star Wars” and many more. Second was a visit to the LucasFilm archives, housed on the property and rarely opened to the press, where props, artifacts, costumes and models from LucasFilm productions are kept (the Ranch is more of a creative retreat; the corporate HQ, along with Industrial Light and Magic, reside at the Presidio in San Francisco).
Skywalker Ranch itself is located perhaps 40 minutes outside San Francisco, in a hilly, rural area of Marin County that is both beautiful and peaceful. The main building is where we first congregate, a stone structure containing screening rooms, offices and meeting facilities, and off in the distance across a vast field lies a Victorian-style house where Lucas goes to work with writers for his film projects and where the research library is kept. A short drive away on the property are the low, almost stable-like buildings where the archives and other storage facilities are maintained (we did not get to see the on-site restaurant, observatory or swimming pool, but did glimpse the garden where fruits and vegetables are grown).
After a brief interlude, we and the other journalists in our group were shepherded to the main screening room, where Muren and Burtt came out to sit on the low stage down at the front. Both men are living legends of cinematic magic: Muren pioneered visual effects on “Star Wars” and helped transform them with the digital advancements of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Jurassic Park,” earning nine Oscars along the way. Burtt, a four-time Oscar winner, created the iconic sounds of R2-D2, Darth Vader, the lightsabers and much more on “Star Wars,” not to mention the voice of E.T. and countless others.
Unlike “Star Wars,” Muren emphasized that visual effects played less of a major role in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” saying, “Harrison is the movie, and we were supplementary to all that. But the effects are important because what George and Steven always wanted was to be able to experience a hyper-adventure, you know. So the effects were there to supplement that and go beyond whatever was going on in the James Bond movies."
The James Bond movies were probably the benchmark for action films throughout the '70s, up until the time that “Raiders” arrived on the scene, but it’s fair to say that the effects in a number of 007 adventures haven’t aged well. There has been no such problem with the Indiana Jones films, however, even with the new restoration potentially revealing seams and weak spots. “I think the old movies hold up very well,” said Muren. “Having been there and lived through it, there's something about the reality of it that sort of usurps any sort of technical problems we might have had in those days and gives a very handmade feel to it. So I think the movies hold up extremely well. Not that the newer ones aren't good also … but with those real locations, the reality of everything, I think it really helps that the effects are all 'real' things as well."
Burtt revealed that he went to special lengths to give “Raiders” – and the subsequent Indy movies as a result – its own unique soundscape. “I could have gone to a library at any studio and gotten face punches, fire, explosions, trucks -- good recordings that had been in movies many times before -- but instead I wanted to build our own new, customized Indiana Jones library, which would have its own signature,” recalled Burtt. “Conceptually, I wanted it to be based on my favorite movies of the past. I would study the gunshots in all the movies that I loved and say, 'How did they do it? How can I make something that is better but owes its origins to an older movie language?' So we set out to record everything again: new fire, new explosions, new body falls, new truck skids, new snakes, whatever it might be.”
As for the temptation to tinker with the films – something that has been done not just (and most controversially) with “Star Wars,” but with many other titles – both Muren and Burtt were steadfast about not doing that, a notion no doubt shared by director Spielberg. While Muren said definitively that "there was never any talk about changing any of the effects at all,” Burtt admitted to a little enhancement here and there: “It would be really hard for me to change the movie in a way that really modernized it and imposed an idea that didn't exist at the time,” he explained. “But what I did on 'Raiders,' for instance, was some touch-ups on some things to expand the use of the surround tracks because that was available to us in a way now that it was not available to us back then.” He added that any new sounds added were all taken from the original 1981 recordings.
Listening to Muren and Burtt speak about “Raiders” today was fascinating, but nothing prepared us for the final stop on our trip: the Skywalker Ranch archives.
As we arrived in the interior of the warehouse, it was explained that original materials from the Indiana Jones movies had been brought out especially for us to see. And in fact, there they were right in front of us: one of Harrison Ford’s actual costumes (complete with fedora and bullwhip), outfits for various other characters and villains from the four films, and numerous props used during the productions. The Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara stones, a Crystal Skull – all sitting inches from us and looking as cool as they did on the screen years or decades ago.
But beyond the Indy presentation, one could glimpse the shelves of the warehouse extending back even further, and what was on those shelves would send any geek’s mind reeling. Crowded onto those shelves were props, monsters, ships, costumes and many other items from LucasFilm’s other big franchise. We glimpsed an R2-D2 sitting peacefully on the floor, Imperial walkers nestled next to TIE fighters, the giant space slug from “The Empire Strikes Back” just a few inches away from a stormtrooper’s helmet – there were literally hundreds of pieces of real, physical “Star Wars” history sitting there, just beyond the Indiana Jones collection. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to explore the aisles and shelves, but just to see pieces of sci-fi and filmmaking history housed a few feet from where we stood was staggering.
After that and some lunch, it was time to depart (and head, actually, to ILM for an entirely different presentation), but the trip to Skywalker Ranch finally made an almost mythical place real to us – which is what the movies are all about, too.