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Oscar Tour Day 1: The Walt Disney Family Museum and Skywalker Ranch

Like intrepid but warmly dressed explorers venturing into mysterious but GPS-identified territory, our group set forth into the crisp morning air in search of our first tour stop, the new Walt Disney Family Museum. We caught a break – the rain had stopped, at least for a few hours, leaving behind a beautiful sunny sky. We weren't so lucky later in the day - we were pounded by rain and hail.

The Walt Disney Family Museum. And some cars.

Written by Dan Sarto

Like intrepid but warmly dressed explorers venturing into mysterious but GPS-identified territory, our group set forth into the crisp morning air in search of our first tour stop, the new Walt Disney Family Museum.  We caught a break – the rain had stopped, at least for a few hours, leaving behind a beautiful sunny sky.  No traces of the hail that had pounded our motel earlier that morning. Max Lang, Jakob Schuh, Geefwee Boedoe, myself, Ron and his daughter Sara (who is also my niece and our photographer) all drove together.  Teddy Newton drove separately and met us later in the day at Skywalker Ranch. 

The museum resides within the historic Presidio, a park on the northern tip of San Francisco, which has been home to Spanish, Mexican and American armies dating back to 1776. Turned over to the National Park Service in 1994, the former army fort is slowly being restored and opened up to commercial activities.  ILM and LucasArts moved here in 2005.  Opened in October of 2009, the museum is a tour stop anyone young or old should include on any trip to the Bay Area.  Disney memorabilia officianados will find something to faint over on every wall. Fans of animation will marvel at the sheer enormity of the impact Walt had as he essentially defined an entire genre of art and entertainment. People like me, who grew up with and appreciate firsthand the impact Walt Disney had on the new “television generation,” will be transported back in time, to an era when it was cool to sit in your living room, eating popcorn made in a Revere Ware pot (microwave ovens then a mere myth of science fiction) watching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on ABC…on your new color TV. Today, everyone knows the Disney brand in some shape or form.  Back then, the brand was Walt Disney himself and for those who remember being spell bound listening to him talk about the world of tomorrow, this museum is nothing short of amazing.

One of the few displays we were allowed to photograph. This section housed various Disney Oscars and numerous other awards.

Michael Labrie, the museum’s director of collections, graciously chaperoned our much-too-short tour.  He worked for 8 years to catalog, restore and curate the various collections of papers, photos, movie posters, production art, equipment, mementos, merchandise and countless other types of materials.  The enormity of the task is quite staggering.  Unfortunately, no one is allowed to photograph the main rooms, so you’ll have to see them for yourself to understand and appreciate how expertly this entire museum is put together.  But, just close your eyes and imagine the most substantial collection of Disney-related items possible, then multiply that by 5.

Geefwee Boedoe, director of Let's Pollute.

One side of the museum faces the bay - to say the view is spectacular is an understatement.

The Interactive exhibits are easy enough for kids to use but not childish enough to bore adults.  The materials are arranged chronologically, so each room adds to the growing story of Walt’s life, from birth until his death at age 65 in 1966.  They have on display one of Disney’s ground-breaking multi-plane cameras, a large glass case filled with shelves of original cel paints, initial sketches of more famous characters than you can count, an entire wall of Mickey Mouse merchandise dating back to the 30s, the list is endless.

The installation of the multi-plane camera is 2 stories high, setup to let visitors look down from above at the composition of 3 separate image plates.

From the museum, we headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Skywalker Ranch.  After a short stop to take pictures and get really completely chilled, once again we piled into our van and set off for the ranch.  Our trip was mostly uneventful, though at one point we did almost run down a number of wild turkeys taking way too long to cross the road.  Somewhere near Big Rock Ranch, the van started making an odd noise and as we turned into Skywalker Ranch, a Miata pulls up alongside, the driver yelling we’ve got a flat tire.  Sure enough, we did. 

Looking back at the Golden Gate Bridge from the northern view point.

Luckily, the ranch has its own fire station, complete with fireman and an air hose.  After a fast fill, we drove up to the fitness center, where our tour of Skywalker Sound began.  For those who have never been to the ranch (this is my first time), it’s difficult to describe its uniqueness. It’s not just the location, the rolling mountains and idyllic vistas.  This is the heart of George Lucas’ operations, his personal offices, his own art and memorabilia collections, everything emanating from the vision of one person. It reminds me of the fact that there are very few individuals running studios any more, no more “moguls” as they were once called.  Entertainment is a corporate entity now, with very few people in a position to impart their singular vision on a large scale creative effort. 

Me getting ready to fill the flat tire with air.

Eva Porter from Skywalker Sound was there to greet us and show us the facilities. She graciously spent hours with us.  First, we had lunch at the small commissary.  I had a cheeseburger made from locally raised grass fed beef.  With roasted poblano salsa dressing. And fries. And a Diet Coke. Sweet. 

For a moment at least, 2 men of leisure, Geefwee and Teddy (director of Day & Night). Image courtesy of Sara Diamond.

The spiral wood staircase inside the Lucas Library. From left to right, Geefwee, Ron, Max (co-director of The Gruffalo) and Teddy.

Looking up at the group from the solarium floor.

Walking in the rain outside the main house, Lucas Ranch. Image courtesy of Sara Diamond.

One of the wooden sound baffles in the main sound stage. Each piece of wood jutting out is a different length. They look more like sculptures than sound equipment.

The main sound stage at Skywalker Sound. Image courtesy of Sara Diamond.

From there, after procuring us all giant Lucas umbrellas, she walked us all over the ranch. Except for a few selected areas, we weren’t allowed to take any pictures.  Shame on anyone who would inadvertently disclose the location of the rebel alliance base! Eva took us to the main office building, which houses an incredible art collection as well as selected pieces of George’s own memorabilia collection.  From there, we walked through the Lucas Library, the adjacent solarium currently being refurbished, then over to the main Skywalker Sound stages.  The main sound stage is a cavernous affair, housing the largest collection of microphones in the US.  Panels slide out of sections on the main walls, giving sound engineers tremendous echo control.  From here we snaked through other, smaller, though no less sophisticated mixing rooms until we happened upon the group busily engaged in the final mix of Blue Sky’s next animated feature, Rio.  None other than the film’s director, Carlos Saldanha, came out to greet us, sharing a few moments with us, telling us about the final post-production process and introducing us to his crew. 

Carlos Saldanha greets us at Skywalker Sound. He's doing the final mix on Blue Sky's next big animated feature, Rio. Image courtesy of Sara Diamond.

Inside the main mixing suite at Skywalker Sound during a final mixing session on Blue Sky's Rio. Image courtesy of Sara Diamond.

Yoda insisted on helping fix our flat tire. I slipped him $5.

From there, we drove the short distance back down the hill to Big Rock Ranch, home to Lucas Animation.  After some pre-show futzing with the sound levels, the screening proceeded.  I always enjoy listening to Ron’s introductions.  All the weeks of hard work that go into producing the Oscar tour coalesce for a few short minutes where Ron can share his true passion for animated short film with all those in attendance.  He speaks eloquently about the filmmakers, their films, the origins of tour and how exciting it is for all of us to get a glimpse of the work being done at these important studios.  Getting a studio to allow large numbers of their staff en mass to take off an hour or more during their terminally-hectic work days to sit and watch animated shorts, is inspiring – it shows that the executives and creative leaders understand the importance of supporting the community and celebrating the nominee’s creative efforts and accomplishments.   

Merriment had by all at the Pizzeria Picco. From left to right, Geefwee, Tim Soman, Lowell Dawson, Chris Sherrod (all from Lucas Animation), me and Max.

Afterwards, Teddy, Geefwee, Jakob and Max fielded questions from the audience – how long did it take to make your film, what was your inspiration, how do you pronounce your name, etc. We mingled with a number of Lucas staff for some time and eventually made our way to dinner at Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur, where we enjoyed beer, aroncini, specialty pizzas and soft serve ice cream with caramel, sea salt and olive oil – in that order.  We were joined by Tim Soman, Lowell Dawson and Chris Sherrod from Lucas.  I bored everyone with talk about how to make a good marinara sauce and Geefwee shared his hilarious experience at the Oscar practice session held last week in LA.  It was here he first brought up how the mainstream press honed in on him as the nameless “chin beard guy.”

Our day ended with our directors nodding off in various configurations in front of a warm fire at the Inn at Skywalker Ranch.  Not a bad day indeed. More on our inn stay tomorrow.