Design for working

New digital arts campus a seamless fit within Presidio

Anyone taking a good look at “Revenge of the Sith” can sense George Lucas’ interest in architecture and design.

Not only is the movie filled with images of imaginative cityscapes, but even the furniture and light fixtures have a distinct sense of style.

The same is true of Lucas’ biggest real-life architectural project yet: the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco’s Presidio.

Though decorated in a different style than anything in the “Star Wars” universe (the LDAC is Arts & Crafts, not Art Deco), the campus is as stunning, in its own restrained way, as anything in the films.

On a walk-through, a visitor is struck by how carefully the design takes advantage of the gorgeous setting, drawing attention to the gorgeous vistas and not to the buildings themselves, which are quite unassuming.

That’s no accident. Lucas himself asked for buildings that would fit into the Presidio in terms of scale, size and design.

Even so, the campus is unmistakably lavish. It’s practical in the same way that the original Disney lot in Burbank was practical. The goal was to create comfortable, practical workspaces for artists.

But Walt Disney wasn’t a billionaire when the original Disney buildings went up. The LDAC interiors are much grander than those early Disney buildings, with high ceilings, big windows and skylights coordinating with Arts & Crafts-flavored design touches. Lucas asked for attractive, inviting common spaces that would bring his employees together and encourage collaboration among the business units, some of whom are housed together for the first time.

The grounds, though, may be the LDAC’s most spectacular feature.

The Presidio is a National Park, supervised by the independent Presidio Trust, which meant that Lucas couldn’t make them private even if he wanted to. But Lucas asked for the greatest amount of public open space possible, so 17 of the site’s 23 acres are parkland.

Moreover, LucasFilm hired renowned landscape architect Larry Halperin to design the grounds.

Halperin’s plan includes some 500 new trees and an artificial stream ending at a pond adorned with an English-style folly. With its backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts and Alcatraz, there have already been inquiries about the site’s availability for weddings.

There will be a restaurant and coffee shop, but of course the primary purpose of the LDAC is to be the new home of LucasFilm corporate, Industrial Light & Magic and LucasArts games. (Skywalker Sound will stay at Lucas’ other architectural jewel, the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County.)

The campus comprises four buildings, all brand new, on the former Letterman Hospital site at the northeast corner of the Presidio. The architecture is intended to fit in with the low-rise wooden buildings and homes that pepper the former Army base, some dating back to the Civil War era.

Unlike the grounds, the interior offices and production facilities will be off limits to the general public; only LucasFilm employees will see some of the most impressive aspects of the new campus.

The entire edifice was built with sustainability and environmental friendliness in mind, so much so that the complex is in line to receive a Gold LEED certification (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Heating and cooling ducts run directly under the floor for maximum efficiency. Stairs aren’t tucked away in dark corners; they’re large and bright, with skylights to make them inviting. New Otis “G2” elevators save electricity. There is extensive bicycle parking and shuttle buses will run from the complex to downtown San Francisco.

Employees will enter the underground parking garage from the north edge of the Presidio, so they never actually drive into the National Park. Only guests will drive to the front entrance, where they’ll pass a bronze statue of Yoda and enter a lobby that feels more like a hotel than an office building. Besides that, only the statue of “King Kong” f/x wizard Willis O’Brien betrays the movie connection. What they won’t see is signage. There’s nothing to announce what company occupies the buildings. George Lucas is a shrewd and visionary businessman, but when it comes to his office, he’s not inclined to advertise.

Real time

The campus’ northernmost structure, Building A, includes a motion-capture stage and several common areas for employees. The building’s best view, a panoramic vista of the Bay, belongs to the cafeteria. The building also includes a day-care center for 100-plus children and a fitness center.

On the technical side, the facility is also designed to move LucasFilm toward an entirely new production model. Visual effects and game artists traditionally worked in assembly-line fashion, finishing one part of the job and then handing the shot off to the next artist.

But while the LDAC was under construction, LucasFilm was building software tools to allow artists to collaborate in real time.

“Say we have artists looking at a computer-generated scene,” explains Cliff Plumer, LucasFilm’s chief technology officer. “We can have one artist moving lights around and another artist moving camera around, and everyone viewing that in real time. And those artists can be in different locations.”

There are theaters scattered throughout the facility. The largest is the 300-seat Premiere theater near the front entrance, and there are smaller 75-seat theaters for viewing dailies and numerous 10- to 25-seat “viewing stations” around the campus.

Ripple effect

Though the larger theaters have both film and digital projectors, all the theaters are fed from a central data center that ensures that the images look identical, no matter where they’re viewed around the campus.

The LDAC’s lavish campus is a marked contrast to ILM’s current home, a ramshackle collection of industrial buildings and trailers in an out-of-the-way area of suburban San Rafael near, well, nothing much.

LucasFilm’s move to the heart of San Francisco is likely to have ripples across the entire Bay Area film scene. With Francis Ford Coppola and Saul Zaentz less active in recent years, filmmaking in the region has shifted toward digital, with LucasFilm, Pixar, PDI and a mid-sized special effects companies the Orphanage, Tippett Studios and Giant Killer Robots leading the way.

Until now, artists who preferred the urban lifestyle and a bicycle commute to work tended to gravitate to the Orphanage and GKR. Now ILM can offer the same lifestyle.

On the other hand, longtime ILM hands who’ve put down roots in the suburbs face a more daunting commute. Some may find it tempting to look for work at Tippett or Pixar, especially if Pixar ramps up production to two films a year, as some analysts expect. So over a few years, there’s likely to be a significant reshuffling of talent among the area’s companies.

ILM’s prestige is its best insurance against a brain drain; artists still flock there, knowing they’ll get to work on many of the industry’s best projects.

But for those who are still wavering about their future as the company moves to the heart of San Francisco, Lucas has made his new digs an enticement all by itself.

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