Nestled unassumingly in the small courtyard outside of the Letterman Digital Arts Center lobby, the Yoda fountain looks as you might imagine: a bronze, pensive Yoda, hands at his sides, standing on top of a rectangular stone surrounded by water. Little waterfalls pour out of shelves in the stone, and between the gurgle of the fountain and the rustle of crepe myrtle leaves, you feel like you should be raking sand or trimming a bonsai tree, not anxiously adjusting your coat sleeves because you’re about to visit the company that changed your life.
The Letterman Digital Arts Center (LDAC) is home to Lucasfilm LLC, Industrial Light and Magic, and LucasArts, the companies responsible for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and almost every other written-with-lightning story that’s inspired me in my life. LDAC is situated on a beautiful campus at the Presidio in San Francisco, a former military base with large, white rectangular buildings, ornate and bulging palm trees, and narrow roads that wind up grassy hills. The striking view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay below makes it clear why this is some of the most desirable real estate in the city. I can’t see that now, though. All I can see, directly in front of me, is the glass-paned lobby, and aside from Yoda greeting me as I enter, there is no indication that I’m at anything other than a really fancy dentist’s office.
I’m standing here thanks to my Uncle Andrew, who’s friends in San Francisco were game to make a Martin’s dream come true. Let’s call them the Awesomes.
I meet Mrs. Awesome at the Yoda fountain, and we go inside. My first feeling, upon entering, is momentary surprise that George Lucas is not there. I know this is ridiculous, but I think I was expecting to walk in there and see him… I don’t know… waiting for me, enflanneled, in a large leather chair, bear rug at his feet, smoking a pipe and holding a spaceship, possibly while wearing a hooded brown robe over that unmistakable shock of white hair. When I jokingly share my expectation with my host, he explains that he’s only seen Lucas at the LDAC three times in as many years. “He spends most of his time at Skywalker Ranch. We only see him for the holiday party.”
In other words, I have about as much chance of seeing George Lucas today as I do a live Ewok.
The lobby looks like the living room of the classiest Star Wars collector you’ve ever met. The room, with wooden floors and brightly lit by large floor-to-ceiling mission-style windows, has four tan leather couches arranged in a broken rectangle. On every end table and coffee table is a different Star Wars book, some in English, some in Japanese, and some in languages I don’t recognize. To my left are wall-to-wall bookcases, broken up only by a life-sized Boba Fett and Darth Vader watching over the room. Vader is imposing, if a little comically low-tech in person, while Boba Fett looks like he is posing for a camera yet to flash. On the bookcases are bronze sculptures and Master Replicas – a thermal detonator, Yoda’s lightsaber, etc. – and I can’t help thinking that this is how my house would look if I hired starwarsshop.com to be my interior decorator.
On the opposite wall are two massive vintage movie posters, each six feet tall and nearly as wide. Lucas is a huge movie buff, and one of the most impressive things about the lobby (and, as I would learn, the place in general) are the giant posters with which he decorates the buildings. Next to the front desk, for instance, is a giant French poster for Dracula (starring Peter Cushing, who went on to play Moff Tarkin in A New Hope), his wild eyes and green face hungrily gazing on a helpless damsel.
The reason I am able to go beyond the front desk into the Grey Havens of geekdom is because Mr. Awesome works for LucasArts, and every Friday is friends and family day, where employees can have visitors from 11:30AM – 1:30PM. We get our badges, sign in blood our promise not to post on the Internet any pictures of things beyond the lobby, and are let inside.
What strikes me first is the size and height of the main hallway. Along its length, massive vintage movie posters alternate with floor-to-ceiling windows. The whole place is bright, cheerful, and remarkably unpretentious. Outside, a gaggle of children play, waiting for their parents to come visit them at lunch. At the end of the hallway we pass beyond another security checkpoint, turning a corner into a much smaller, much narrower hallway. It is here that the place starts to resemble an office building – white walls, grey carpet – but the difference is that instead of insipid abstract corporate art, the halls and walls have artifacts from movies the company has worked on: animatronics from Jurassic Park, giant original matte paintings still mounted on glass with their shot number written in chalk, sets of scuffed and worn Stormtrooper armor, Draco’s human-sized rubber tongue from Dragonheart, an enormous portrait of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II that strikes in me a primordial fear just thinking about it, models, maquettes, movie posters, on and on an on. Iron Man guards the restrooms, E.T. flies in his basket and bike in the stairwell, the ships from Galaxy Quest soar overhead, Han Solo relaxes in carbonite against a wall, a freakishly realistic wax figure of Tommy Lee Jones from Men In Black takes calls behind the front desk of ILM… it’s like I’ve wandered into our collective cultural subconscious, and for good reason: a Lucas company has worked on half of the top-grossing films of all time, and bits and pieces of those projects are everywhere to be seen.
What delights me the most on the tour, more than the memorabilia, are the trappings of the actual office culture. It’s an active workplace, after all, and to their great credit the employees seem unperturbed by the merry buzz of excited visitors. There are conference rooms and common areas, hallways and broom closets, cubicles and corner offices. My favorites are the offices I recognize immediately as those of an artist: dark, lamp-lit, and slathered floor-to-ceiling in posters, artwork, statues, and toys, the difference here being that the artist probably designed the artifact that they proudly display (or worked on the movie it is from).
My favorite detail, though, is in one of the office break rooms. Above the sink is a picture of Yoda, ball of Force lightning in hand, gently chiding the workers: “Wash themselves these dishes do not.”
The LDAC has a number of built-in movie theaters. The largest one is by the main lobby, where employees get to enjoy pre-release screenings of new films. This week’s movie was Life of Pi, which was being screened early for Lucas employees. Director Ang Lee was coming by on Monday to talk about the film, joining a roster of famous speakers like Scorcese and Tarantino who regularly come by to talk movies with the company at large. I find myself resisting the urge to go to the front desk and ask for a job – any job – application. The big theater is also the location for family movie nights, where employees can bring up to four friends or family members to see a screening of Indiana Jones or Star Wars in full THX surround-sound.
We ended up in one of the smaller theaters, where they show a little “get to know us” film that highlights the company at large and then shows off some of their latest work. ILM did extensive work on The Avengers, and it was amazing to see the final film shots deconstructed into a dazzling series of layers and effects.
“Dazzling” is a good word for the LDAC. It feels more like a wizard’s foundry than a $4-billion-dollar corporation, and I came away impressed at the family-friendly culture of creativity that Lucas and Co. had created. Mr. Awesome explains how, to encourage collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas and capabilities, the different departments offered seminars that you could sign up for to learn, say, how to take better photographs or do 3D animation. It is like the whole place is made up of people who actually want to be there. I find this intensely refreshing.
I look at my watch. I’ve got 20 minutes until I have to catch a 1 PM shuttle back to the Ferry Building downtown, where I’m catching a bus to the Amtrak station in Emeryville for the 3 o’clock train to Sacramento. The Awesomes invite me to at least see the cafeteria before I go, profusely apologizing that we ran out of time to eat.
Like the rest of the building, the cafeteria is open, bright, with giant bay windows that actually look out onto a bay. To the left is the Golden Gate Bridge, its orange muted against overcast skies. To the right is the Palace of Fine Arts, its dome an earthy half-moon silhouette. Conversation is lively, and a farm-to-table ethos pervades. The chalkboard by the cash registers says where the food for the day’s options was sourced from, and hundreds of employees and guests crowd around food stations serving everything from fish tacos to lasagna. After snapping a few photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, we decide to make a quick stop in the gift shop, where my prized purchases are a Lucasfilm mug and a little magnet with a picture of the Yoda fountain on it.
Just then, as we exit the gift shop, Mr. Awesome stops in his tracks in the middle of the hallway, then quickly backtracks to me.
“Oh my God,” he says quietly.
He motions me over subtly, trying to avoid attention. As I walk to him, the door to the conference room by the cafeteria swings open to reveal a group of people having a working lunch.
At the head of the table is an older man in a blue-and-red flannel long-sleeved shirt with a shock of unmistakable white hair. He’s seated in a leather chair, his back to us. After a moment, his shoulders stiffen, as if a chill just ran up his neck. He turns his head. When our eyes meet he gives me a long, acknowledging nod. I nod back, two lightning-weavers acknowledging each other’s might. So, I think, we meet at last.
Okay, the nod never happens. But I do see George Lucas in person, a stroke of the Force that neither my host nor I could have foreseen. And after visiting the campus at the Presidio, I leave with a new respect for the art and business of the man who has given me so much to dream about, so much to strive towards, and so much to chew on as I mull over my always-in-motion future…