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San Francisco - the home of Star Wars

Famous for its cable cars, its sprawling Chinatown, and its monumental Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco also deserves recognition for its place in the Star Wars galaxy.

Although Episode VII was directed by J.J. Abrams, Star Wars is the brainchild of George Lucas, born and raised in Modesto, California, less than a two-hour drive southeast of San Francisco. The bustling, cosmopolitan San Francisco Bay Area clearly left its mark on Lucas. And the success of his space saga has been anything but modest. The series has grossed more than $4 billion worldwide.

Charles Mingus, the 20th century American jazz musician, may have put it best when he said, “You can’t improvise from nothing – you have to improvise from something.”

‘While cruising around the Bay Area, you can find traces and echoes of Star Wars magic in many locations’. Photo: Jennifer Martiné

George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars saga, may have set it in a galaxy far, far away where only some of the characters are carbon-based creatures and only a minority of those are something we’d call human. But he did started with something, too. He had his San Francisco so he didn’t have to draw his inspiration out of thin air.

Well, maybe he did in one instance. The concept of Cloud City is said to be inspired by the view over San Francisco Bay with the city sticking out from under a fog. Some parts of the half-finished Death Star are said to resemble the San Francisco skyline.

While cruising around the Bay Area, you can find traces and echoes of Star Wars magic in many

The business of Star Wars

In October, first-day advance ticket sales for The Force Awakens were more than eight times as high as those of the previous record holder, The Hunger Games (2012).
Adjusted for inflation, the original Star Wars movie, later retitled Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), has grossed close to $2.8 billion worldwide.
Including memorabilia, video games, books, TV programs, and comic books, the Star Wars franchise has earned more than $22 billion to date.

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locations. (This is a fun and easy alternative to, say, traveling to Tunisia to see where scenes on the desert planet of Tatooine were shot.) Lucas saw the characters everywhere he went in his new hometown, San Francisco, where the Lucasfilm campus is also based.

Lucasfilm campus

When you enter the campus, it’s hard not to hear the iconic main theme of Star Wars in your head. All around the skylit lobby are pieces of glorious movie memorabilia.

Menacing life-sized figures of Darth Vader and bounty hunter Boba Fett immediately catch the eye. A cabinet holds smaller busts of Han Solo’s faithful Wookiee friend Chewbacca and C-3PO, the golden robot who bills himself as “fluent in more than six million forms of communication.” Solo’s blaster and Luke Skywalker’s light saber are also there to strike a blow for the good guys.

In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and the company is intent on maximizing its acquisition. This includes organizing tours of the campus.

When Disney announced plans in August to build 5.66-hectare Star Wars attractions at its signature North American theme parks, CEO Bob Iger said, “These new lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World will transport guests to a whole new Star Wars planet, including an epic Star Wars adventure that puts you in the middle of a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance.”

The visitor gets a taste of battle fever outside the low-key yet elegant entrance to Lucasfilm, with a bubbling fountain topped with a 66-cm-tall Yoda statue. To the delight of the kids (OK, adults too), our Disney tour guide pops off and returns dressed as a Jedi, toting a humming blue-lit light saber.

With all due respect to Yoda, it’s hard not to quibble with the diminutive sage’s assertion: “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things.” Exploring the Letterman Digital Arts Center – home to Lucasfilm, Lucasfilm Animation, and the special-effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) – offers plenty of adventure and excitement for any aspiring Jedi.

In The Empire Strikes Back, the ILM designers looking for the design for Boba Fett’s ship found the answer outside their office building: a street lamp.

The Letterman center’s interior décor showcases the influences that went into Lucas’s masterpiece, including a statue of Willis O’Brien, who created the revolutionary stop-motion animation for 1933’s King Kong. Lucas owns one of the world’s largest movie poster collections. Heading down a hallway, there’s a large poster for David Lean’s Oliver Twist, starring Alec Guinness as Fagin. (Guinness, as we remember, played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy).It took three different actors to portray Darth Vader: David Prowse (body), James Earl Jones (voice), Sebastian Shaw (face)

An Italian poster promotes a lesser-known Errol Flynn flick called Maru Maru, and Flynn’s swashbuckling heroics influenced the light saber fights in Star Wars.

The art deco movie theater was designed by Lucas himself. It’s a state-of-the-art venue, with 300 seats, but it’s not normally open to the public. It offers private screenings for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote for the Oscars.

The Letterman Digital Arts Center sits in San Francisco’s Presidio, a 566-hectare urban park with cypress groves and nearly 40km of trails. Formerly a US military base for coastal defense, the Presidio has been overseen by the National Park Service for more than 20 years. This National Historic Landmark District offers a great view of the Palace of Fine Arts, which has an interesting Star Wars connection.

The Palace of Fine Arts is said to have inspired the shape for R2-D2, while bounty hunter Boba Fett’s ship looks like the shape of a street lamp outside the designers’ office.

Originally constructed for the 1915 World Fair with tinted plaster and rebuilt in concrete in 1967, the  Palace of Fine Arts looks reminiscent of R2-D2, the astromech droid, and rumor has it that the pseudo-classical, domed building’s silhouette gave Lucas the inspiration for the look of C-3PO’s little buddy.

Another day, seeing the Golden Gate Bridge wreathed in fog during a waterfront bike ride evokes Cloud City. The iconic suspension bridge, completed in 1937 and painted International Orange, is 2.7km long – 1.1km longer than an Imperial Star Destroyer. It has appeared in such recent hit movies as Pacific Rim and Terminator Genisys, both of which use ILM effects.

While crossing the huge Bay Bridge in a bus en route to the Napa Valley, you can see the gantry cranes that tower over the Port of Oakland. They resemble giant gray beasts, and urban legend has long held that they inspired Lucas to create the Imperial Walkers that attack the Rebels on the ice planet of Hoth. Unfortunately, Lucas shot that notion down in a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle interview when he said, “That is definitely a myth.”

George Lucas ­busted one myth: the AT-AT Walkers were not designed after cranes at Port of Oakland (they just remind Star Wars fans of them).

North of the city, a winding drive through Mill Valley brings you to Muir Woods National Monument, dedicated to US president Franklin D. Roose­velt. In 1945 after World War II, 50 countries gathered to sign the United Nations Charter in San Francisco, but Roosevelt died on April 12 before he could open the peace conference. A month later, delegates gathered in Muir Woods and dedicated a memorial plaque in his honor.

The giant, ancient redwoods immediately call to mind Endor, the forest moon where the Ewoks live. There are no Ewoks along the fern-fringed paths, but there are deer, raccoons, and owls. It’s a beautiful, refreshing escape from San Francisco’s teeming population of 852,000.

Sounds for the light sabers were recorded by moving a microphone next to a TV set.

In a much nicer way than the Death Star, the trees remind you of how small we really are: they stand up to 76 meters high, and some are as old as 1,000 years.

While Harrison Ford reportedly wasn’t impressed with the dialogue – “You can type this [crap], but you can’t say it,” he quipped – George Lucas did drop a few words of wisdom into the script, often delivered by the master of all Jedi masters, Yoda.

One of them, about the Force, captures the essence of the redwood forest: “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.”

The spirit of imagination and freedom fills San Francisco – the same spirit as in Star Wars. The force is strong there.

Text: Lucas Aykroyd 

Last edited: August 2, 2017

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