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A Day At The Ranch - Star Wars EP 1 DVD
Skywalker Ranch - A DVD Talk Trip Report

Star Wars The Beginning
There's no denying that Star Wars has had an influence on me. I was one of those young kids who did stop motion animation with my Star Wars Action Figures. My friends and I used to compete on how many times we had seen Star Wars. We waited every few years in long, long lines to see each new Star Wars chapter as it opened.

But times have changed, I have changed, and so has Star Wars. The latest installment, Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, is considered by many Star Wars fans to be the weakest Star Wars movie so far. I consider it to be a real disappointment. I walked out at the end of my first and only time seeing Phantom Menace in the theater with a feeling of discontent.

So, I felt mixed before beginning my trip to Skywalker Ranch. On one hand I remember the Star Wars (and Indiana Jones) of years back, their influence on me, their special place in my life. But the REASON I was going to Skywalker Ranch was for Star Wars Phantom Menace, a film that by all accounts I really didn't like.

I had a lot of questions spinning around my head as I began my trip: Do films become bigger and better for us in our minds as time passes? Is it simply impossible for any Star Wars to live up to Star Wars: Episode 4 - A New Hope? Was I going to be able to conceal the fact I didn't like Phantom Menace?

Day 1
After driving for over an hour (I was coming from the East Bay Area), and traveling up a steep and windy road, I finally came upon a small non-descript wooden sign that read '5959' and a wooden gate which opened for my rental car (amusingly the only car I could get at the Oakland airport was a Dodge Grand Caravan Minivan). The tree lined drive opened to reveal a security check point where the guard looked up my name and gave me a parking pass. Up the road a bit was the stunning Victorian main house surrounded by a picturesque ranch including grape vines, gardens and a lake. If you didn't know that George Lucas was plugging away at editing Episode 2 here, you'd have no idea looking at this spectacular ranch. The Main House is simply one of the more remarkable buildings I've been in.

As we began our tour we were reminded that we weren't allowed to discuss anything that we saw at Skywalker Ranch outside of the Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD, and we should focus our coverage on the DVD. We were also told we could not take or publish any pictures of the ranch. As I sat looking up at the magnificent domed stained glass ceiling of the Lucasfilm library, I almost asked if they sold postcards in the gift shop, it was that amazing. But the Skywalker Ranch isn't really that shrouded in mystery - you can see a great deal of it, including the screening room, in the documentary on the Phantom Menace DVD (Star Wars I - The Beginning). If you watch the documentary you'll get a sense of the amazing (and rare) hardwood paneling in the main house and some of the spectacular design work. What you won't see is a display case with memorabilia from Lucas' movies including Luke's Lightsaber, the Idol which Indiana Jones replaces with a bag of sand, and, believe it or not, a guitar signed by Howard the Duck!

As we waited for everyone to arrive, the editors and reporters introduced themselves to each other (there were about 20 in all). I finally had a chance to meet Bill Hunt from The Digital Bits, and see Pete Bracke from DVD File and Guido Hinkel from DVD Review (both of which I had met at last year's VSDA). Bill joked, "If a bomb were to go off in this building there wouldn't be anymore DVD news!", and he was right. Gathered here were all the DVD dot coms, all looking no worse for wear from the dot com roller coaster, all excited about seeing what Lucasfilm had in store.

Seeing The DVD For the First Time
We were all lead off to a small screening room with a 'home theater' set up. Lucasfilm had set up a THX EX system with a standard 4:3 30 or so inch TV. I bet you can guess which scenes they demo'd for us, as they'll probably be the same ones you'll use to show off your home theater (after all, how many times can you show friends the lobby scene from The Matrix without them rolling their eyes?). Yep, you guessed it, the two scenes were the Pod Race and the Duel.

As much as Episode 1 troubles me, I have to admit I LOVED the pod race. It captures the same sort of Star Wars magic and excitement of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter battles, and the Imperial Speeder Bike scenes on Endor. The Pod Racing scenes simply look and sound amazing. DVD was created for scenes like this!

After watching the Pod Races and Duel we were lead into the bigger screening room - the same room that Lucas uses to screen the various cuts of Star Wars. Plush velvety arm chairs six rows, five across sat facing a large screen with some of the best sound and picture I've seen come from a DVD. This isn't your ordinary home theater, this is the top of the top of the line. We all ooohed and ahhhed at the set up.

We sat down and were treated to an amazing tour of the Phantom Menace DVD, including the three different main menus on the main disc. Each time you insert the DVD into your player one of the three menus (Naboo, Tatooine and Coruscant) is randomly selected. All three are stunning and extremely well produced. On the main DVD we were treated to one (and only one) easter egg - the credits for the DVD intercut with a hilarious blooper reel. They didn't show us how to get to the easter egg, but I'm sure it'll be unearthed and posted to our forum in no time!

From the main disc we went on to the 2nd special features disc and got the grand tour, including some fun 'time outs' (when the music and such cycles while you wait) including a fun one in Watto's shop. Then came a moment we were waiting for - the deleted scenes! Unlike most deleted scenes, the 7 deleted scenes on the Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD were cut from the movie before they were ever fully produced (later at the Q&A Lucas would comment that things were cut in concept, it was the idea of something that had to be cut, things didn't get to be produced unless they were IN). Lucasfilm went back with the 7 scenes and completely produced them. This is really well explained in the 'Deleted Scenes Documentary' which not only covers the production of the Deleted Scenes but also discusses why scenes are deleted from a film in the first place. It's a fascinating documentary.

After a short break we were treated to the high point of the DVD - Episode 1 - The Beginning. Taken from over 600 hours of archival footage, this documentary provides a look into Lucas' creative process. It was the most compelling thing I saw my whole time at Skywalker Ranch, and it gave me a real understanding of what Lucas was trying to do with Phantom Menace and why he both succeeded and failed. In the documentary there's a scene with George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum and visual effects supervisor John Knoll. In less than five minutes of footage it becomes clear that Lucas isn't just making a movie, he's creating a new industry for Lucasfilm. As he looks over the budgets, it isn't just with an eye for the film, but with the vision of creating cutting edge effects and technology at a price which would be affordable to other film makers. An example of this is the choice to make Jar Jar an all digital character. Originally they designed a suit for Jar Jar 'actor' Ahmed Best to wear and were planning to just replace his head, but after figuring out the costs they discovered going all digital was less expensive. The money spent on the actor's suit was seen as an investment in figuring this out rather than a waste of money.

Another poignant moment in the documentary is when Frank Oz, doing the puppetry for Yoda, sees some of the completed Jar Jar footage and says to Lucas, "You don't need me any more to do this, George", a bitter sweet ode to the transition to digital film making. A point made even more clear with a scene where Lucas digitally alters an actor's performance by splitting him out of the scene, editing him and then putting him back in. Our jaws dropped at what is now commonplace technology for Lucas.

The documentary ends, and we gather our things and walk down the wooded path from the main house to the Skywalker Ranch company store. As we walk down, I compare notes with my fellow DVD editors and we all agree, the documentary is the star of the DVD. If only it were longer than an hour! After buying Skywalker Ranch shirts for my kids, I packed up my stuff and loaded back into my minivan for my long trek back to the East Bay (where I was staying).

Day 2
The second day at Skywalker Ranch started a little later, so I was able to swing by Berkeley and meet with HKFlix.com guru Mhat. We had a great lunch and talked about all the great deals they've been able to bring to DVD Talkers and discussed the ones in the queue. At the end of lunch Mhat swiped the check proclaiming, "If Lucasfilm isn't going to feed you lunch, then HKFlix will!" I laughed, shook his hand, and continued my trek to Skywalker Ranch. It was nice to put a face to the voice and e-mail, and Mhat was a really great guy.

Driving up the steep curves back up to Skywalker Ranch felt more familiar the second time around. The security guard almost remembered my name, and I was really excited as this was the day I'd be able to put questions from my DVD Talkers in front of George Lucas.

As we waited to be let in, everyone was a-buzz about an article which appeared in the Washington Post about The Phantom Edit including a quote by The Digital Bits' Bill Hunt. Each of us took a jab at Bill and wondered if this would mean he wouldn't get called on in the Q&A (he did).

I had a long talk with one of the reporters from Ain't It Cool News. His face went blank when I told him I was looking forward to getting the DVD, if for no other reason than to see Phantom Menace a second time. "One Time! You've only seen Phantom Menace one time!", he exclaimed. I felt like someone admitting they had voted for Gore at a Young Republican's meeting. As he talked about not really liking Phantom Menace the first time around, but loving it the second (and third, and fourth, and....), I was reminded of the joke:

Q: Why do people see Star Wars Phantom Menace two times?
A: To convince themselves that they enjoyed it the first time around.

I didn't think the joke would go over too well, so I kept it to myself.

Getting The DVD
Finally the moment we were waiting for came - we were presented with a press kit, a copy of the DVD, and an Episode 1 T-shirt (unfortunately a little small for me).

"Don't you just want to wet yourself!?!" said Dennis Burger from DVD Angle. But I just didn't feel that way. After seeing the DVD the day before I knew that this would be the DVD of the year. I just wished it was for a better movie. Sorry, that's just how I feel. As exciting as it was, it still didn't change how I felt about Phantom Menace itself.

As we waited for the Q&A session to begin, I had an opportunity to spend some time talking with Van Ling, the producer of The Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD, who is also known for his stellar work on T-2 Ultimate Edition and The Abyss: SE. "Don't ask me about Episodes 4-6 DVD, I don't know." I smiled. I'm sure that's the first question anyone asks. I complimented him on his breathtaking work on this DVD. If there's a star of this Star Wars DVD, it's Van Ling, who knows DVD better than anyone else. In addition to talking about The Phantom Menace DVD, we also talked about his work on the upcoming True Lies: Special Edition. He indicated there was an entire subplot involving Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter that was cut. The interesting thing is that his daughter was played by Eliza Dushku, a virtual unknown back then. Van mused about just how much of the deleted stuff was going to make it on the DVD as he reiterated "sometimes scenes are cut for a reason". The only other info I could squeeze out of Van was that James Cameron was mulling over the idea of another Titanic DVD with a 3-plus-hour cut, but no firm plans yet.

The Q & A
My conversation with Van ended as it was time for the Q&A to begin. We all filed into a large auditorium, which would seat at least 10 times the 40 or so reporters who had gathered that day. Sitting on my left was Bill Hunt, to my right Pete Bracke, all of us with our note pads and list of questions. Pete looked over at the printout I had in my hand and was curious what it was. I showed him that my questions were a printout of the thread of questions from our Forum. Here we were, the three top DVD sites on the net, all poised to ask questions, but all a little nervous that we'd ask the question which would result in not getting called on again.

The Q&A started off with a lot of soft pitch questions, and Van was great about answering them. Armed with the questions from DVD Talkers I fired off my first question: "Did you use anything as a source from the laser disc for the DVD?" There were some rumblings from the other press people, as many of them weren't aware of any laser disc release. Rick McCallum, who was waiting in the wings for his turn on the Q & A, said "Bootlegs?!" under his breath and then in a louder voice "I think he means the Japanese laser release." I felt a little flush - had I sand bagged any chance of getting my other questions answered? Nope, I was fine, and Van answered "Nothing was taken from the laser disc for the DVD, it's all from the Master Master".

They brought up a number of other people to talk about the DVD, including Phantom Menace Producer Rick McCallum, Richard Dean - Supervising Engineer from THX, Pablo Helman - Visual Effects Supervisor from Industrial Light & Magic and THX, and Jon Shenk - Director, "The Beginning". It was clear that the Phantom Menace DVD was a huge undertaking. Many echoed Van Ling's statement that Star Wars Phantom Menace was the biggest and most challenging DVD project they've worked on. After John Shenk there was a pause as we waited for George Lucas. During the break Jim Ward, Vice President Marketing, Lucasfilm Ltd. stalled by answering some questions.

"When will Episodes 4-6 come out on DVD?" It was the question we all wanted to ask, and it came in a faint voice from a reporter in the back of the room. The answer was one which we've heard before: "We don't have solid plans yet on when were going to release these DVDs." There was a collective relief that the question had been asked but also a collective disappointment at the answer. I looked down at my printout from the DVD Talk forum and a question caught my eye that I figured was perfect to ask. "Will Lucas's busy schedule with Episodes 2 & 3 preclude him from releasing some of his other films like Indiana Jones?". Jim replied "No, we're releasing other Lucasfilm DVDs. For example Willow is coming out soon, and there will be more to come."

Lucas Speaks
Then the moment came. It was dead silence as George Lucas took the stage. For a moment, no one raised their hands, then all hands went up except mine. I decided to wait a bit and listen to the questions being asked and what Lucas was saying. I knew I would get one question so I decided it had to be a good one. Lucas, dressed in blue jeans and a pink plaid shirt, was frank in his answers. For the most part, many of the questions asked of him were things we all knew the answers to. I'd recommend reading the entire transcript because some of the things he said went in one ear and out the other. I kept thinking of THE question I wanted to ask. As other reporters asked their questions, I checked off the questions from the forum. I looked at our question-to-answer ratio and it looked pretty good. Finally it was my turn. I raised my hand and asked, "Given the fact that you've embraced the Internet as way to communicate to your fans, are you or the Star Wars franchise influenced by the fans and the fan sites on the Internet?" I don't know why my heart was racing, maybe there was that twinge of excitement at interviewing the director who made the film that got me started in the direction of film, and because of that, rather than quote him directly, let me tell you what I heard. Lucas said that while he was editing Episode 1 he did read what people were writing on the Internet, but after a while stopped. He said it was 10,000 different opinions and, like reviews, he's decided to not look at the Internet. It was disappointing to me, because on one hand he uses the Internet to promote his work, but has decided to reject the two-way street it provides. It turned out that my question was the last question of the day and we headed for our cars. A group of DVD Editors decided to pose for this picture to commemorate the event:


(back from left to right: Guido Henkel - DVD Review, Jeff Rauter - DVD Answer Man, John Randall - DVDCC, Geoff Kleinman - DVD Talk)
(front row: Pete Bracke - DVD File, Bill Hunt - The Digital Bits)

Later Day 2
As the 2nd day of my two-day trip to Skywalker Ranch came to an end I had a long trip down to San Francisco where I was to meet long time cyberfriend Chris Pirillo, who does Lockergnome. I thought a lot about my time, how nice it was for the DVD Editors to all get together, how amazing the DVD was, and how much I still didn't like the movie Phantom Menace. I resolved to sit down, with an open mind when I got back to Portland, and watch the movie again.

In San Francisco I had a great hamburger dinner at a greasy spoon near 3Com Park (which to this day I still think should be called Candlestick Park!). In a virtual deja vu, Chris picked up the tab and said, "If Lucasfilm isn't going to feed you lunch, then Lockergnome will!" - Thanks again, Chris!

Rather than spending a night on the town, I spent that Friday night in front of Chris' computer as we explored the Phantom Menace DVD. We looked in every nook and cranny for an Episode 2 trailer (which we didn't find). Chris was much more enthusiastic about Phantom Menace than I was, but I found his enthusiasm renewed my enthusiasm for giving it another viewing. Maybe it wasn't Chris' enthusiasm that was contagious as much as the extremely strong coffee I was downing from his new techno-gadget Bodum coffee maker! The evening ended and I made the drive back to the East Bay. The next day I made my trip to Portland, exhausted.

Epilogue
So I did get back home, and I did give Phantom Menace another viewing. I tried so hard to re-connect with my enthusiasm for the Star Wars universe. At first I found that I was really enjoying the film and was blown away at how crystal clear the picture was and how phenomenal the sound was. But then there was Jar Jar. I tried real hard not to hate him, not to let my mind drift to 'The Phantom Edit' but I just couldn't. Jar Jar sticks out like a sore thumb as something that just doesn't fit the way I see Star Wars. My dislike for Jar Jar took a back seat to the Pod Racing Scene, which seeing again, I just loved. Could it be.... would I like Phantom Menace the second time around? Was I the butt of my own joke? Unfortunately not. As the second act of the film comes to a close, the excitement drains out of me and I remember why I really didn't like it the first time around. When the closing credits started to roll I found myself humming the Star Wars theme - man, I love John Williams' score. So here's the final word: Go buy Phantom Menace on DVD. It's the best DVD of the year, the making-of is phenomenal, and it's worth it to see an example of the amazing things you can do on DVD....and yeah, the Pod Racing. I still say that Phantom Menace is a disappointment, but after this experience I now have 'A New Hope' that Episode 2 will take the best of Episode 1 and run with it!


Complete Phantom Menace Coverage:
Phantom Menace Official Q & A
The Phantom Answers - Answers to Your Star Wars Episode 1 Questions
Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace DVD Review

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