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It's considered the most famous scene in Star Wars history, perhaps in all of science-fiction cinema. Near the end of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, evil Darth Vader corners Luke Skywalker and admits to the injured Jedi warrior, "I am your father."
Nearly 32 years later, the father-son bond that was so important to Star Wars creator George Lucas' universe became even more significant as 20th Century Fox – in preparation for the 3D release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace – invited multiple movie journalists and their lucky children to the legendary Skywalker Ranch in Northern California for a full day of interactive events.
I’m not sure who was more excited by the invite, my 7-year-old son, P.J., or me. I mean, this is Skywalker Ranch – a place so iconic, someone once made a movie about Star Wars geeks trying to infiltrate the compound to see Episode I before it was released! Like most kids his age, P.J. was excited about the flight, the hotel room, and seeing California for the first time, but I’m not sure the enormity of a trip to Skywalker Ranch really hit him until we got there and the day played itself out.
That’s because Star Wars wasn’t a major part of his formative film years. I'm not a gigantic Star Wars fanatic. It's omnipresent in our pop-culture-obsessed society, but that speaks to Lucas' skills as a mass-marketer. As a result, my boys are far more familiar with Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and E.T. than they are with Luke Skywalker, Yoda or Han Solo. P.J. had seen the original film, and I showed him Menace when the Blu-rays were released. You know how my kids learned about the Star Wars universe? Through the LEGO Star Wars game, which remains a popular play around the O’Connell house.
But an opportunity to introduce my son to Lucas’s world through a trip to the legendary Skywalker Ranch? A no-brainer.
Access to the ranch is limited. Wait, no, that’s an understatement. Rumor has it Ronald Reagan requested a tour during his presidency, and was denied. A special invitation is required to enter the property, which sits on a total of 4,700 acres outside of San Francisco. Large portions of the ranch -- including Ewok Lake, the Tech Building, and the Skywalker General Store -- were open on this unique day, however, as part of the Phantom Menace celebration.
With shuttle buses transporting invited guests from San Francisco to nearby Marin County, California buzzed with anticipation the morning of the visit. Most parents on the buses just kept looking at each other, asking, "Is this really happening?" Or maybe that buzz was the constant hum of nearly 40 lightsabers igniting, as each child attending the event received their very own sword to be used for training exercises with Jedi master ObiShawn.
That might have been the most important component of the trip. You didn’t have to be a die-hard Phantom Menace fan to appreciate all that Fox and Lucasfilm had set up at the ranch. We were greeted by a life-sized R2-D2. An interactive set up invited kids to try the Kinect Star Wars 3D video game for Xbox. Various aspects of Star Wars filmmaking were covered in detail by Lucasfilm experts, making the trip as educational as it was exciting. Concept model artist John Goodson explained how Lucasfilm designers spent years piecing together the high-speed Phantom Menace pod race sequence. Sound editor Matthew Wood, set up in the same auditorium that recorded the audio for every Pixar film, dubbed young voices so they could be turned into droid sounds for a Phantom Menace scene.
I, meanwhile, couldn’t stop thinking about the number of noteworthy films that had been worked on at the ranch by Skywalker Sound employees or tech workers at Lucasfilm over the years. There’s so much history in the hallways of those tech buildings on the ranch, and you could feel it permeating the workspaces … in much the same way that Jedi warriors can sense a disturbance in the Force. You could spend a day at the compound marveling over Lucas’s collection of vintage movie posters. They adorn the walls and hallways of the facility, and they are breathtaking.
The kids already were geeked about Star Wars. Safe to say the moms and dads chaperoning the trip did a decent job prepping their children for all things Jedi prior to the visit. But what we didn’t expect was how immersive the trip would be in the complicated art of sci-fi filmmaking, and how responsive our own kids would be about the process.
P.J. knew Phantom Menace before the visit, but seeing him open up when talking with the film's creators was an eye-opening experience. Children had to prepare questions for one-on-one interviews with the Star Wars experts as part of the day, and I was incredibly proud of the questions P.J. decided he needed answered… not about the Star Wars story, but about the process of moviemaking. He inquired about the audio samples used to record explosions, the lighting for Darth Maul in the Clone Wars animated series, and about the materials used for the models in the pod race sequence. And with that, a true movie geek was born.
We’ve tried to continue the magic this week as we prepare for Phantom Menace in 3D. Thanks to this unique trip, I've been inspired to pull the original trilogy off of the shelves and started re-sharing them with the boys. P.J. certainly has a newfound appreciation for the original Star Wars, and I think my youngest son, Brendan, has become a bigger fan of the world than his brother. As a parent, I've come to admire how Lucas casts a spell over imaginative children with these films, and while I can see why die-hard older fans looking for denser mythology might have grown upset by the direction Lucas went with his prequels, our trip to the Skywalke rRanch taught me a valuable lesson: these movies work magic on kids. They open creative doors inside these young audience members' souls, and it's up to us as parents to keep those doors open because we have no idea where the journey might take our sons and daughters.
They might even be able to bring their own children to Skywalker Ranch one day. Wouldn't that be amazing, to see the process come full circle? But that’s later. For now, we have The Phantom Menace in 3D to look forward to. And we have a wealth of memories to treasure from a trip we'll never forget.