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A Visit to the Archives
The Lucasfilm Archives, justifiably renowned among legions of fans as the final resting place for everything from Darth Vader’s lightsaber to the Holy Grail that just eluded the grasp of Indiana Jones, is much more than just a prop mausoleum. It’s an active private collection where on-going programs of conservation and restoration ensure that precious items that aren’t really made to last, but that have become icons of popular culture, can survive for future generations to enjoy in exhibitions around the world.
And in an age where the “common wisdom’ had it that digital technology would replace the need for most hand-built props and models, the opposite seems to have happened. The Archives has grown larger and more sophisticated in the wake of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace than at any time since it was established shortly after completion of production of Return of the Jedi. “This is truly a unique collection” says Paloma Anoveros, the Collection Manager since October 1996. “Most production companies don’t keep the props, costumes and models that they generate for films. But I think that since Star Wars was a trilogy, the idea of reusing objects made sense. Later it became clear that these were films that were making an impact, and that these objects had an extremely iconographic power in our culture.”
Most Lucasfilm movies are represented in the Archives: The Indiana Jones Trilogy, the Star Wars films, Willow, Tucker, and even American Graffiti.
With the initial success of Star Wars, and the immediate realization that a second film would be made, Industrial Light & Magic kept a number of the props from the first film to see if they could be used again. It did the same thing for The Empire Strikes Back. The production company also sent some of the large pieces back from England for storage in California. But it wasn’t until around the time of the taking of a very famous photo–George Lucas amidst a sea of some of the most famous spacecraft, droids and other props from his trilogy–that Lucas decided it was time to set up a proper Archives.
It was also around that time that some of the earliest exhibitions of Lucasfilm props took place: The World Science Fiction Convention (Los Angeles, 1984), The Star Wars 10th Anniversary Celebration (Los Angeles, 1987) and several Marin County Fairs.
The first Archives was a makeshift rental in an industrial park, but at least it served as a gathering spot for all of the props, costumes, models and artwork. Several years later, the first climate-controlled Archives building was erected. A second structure has been added to accommodate Episode I costumes and props including the massive miniatures such as Theed city and the Mos Espa Arena. Currently, the Archives take up about 50,000 square feet of space.
The Archives also has a film department which houses production elements such as dailies, original sound recordings and continuity reports and audition reels and outtakes. The daily operations of the film archive include providing requested materials to departments such as Production and Publicity, while safeguarding the transition of materials to a cool, dry environment which will keep them protected for years to come.
“A normal museum usually grows steadily,” Anoveros says, “But we grow tremendously in spurts. Last year the collection more than doubled due to Episode I and other collections, so we have to be creative on how to address issues like this.”
Anoveros’s background is in artwork conservation and collections management. On her staff are two full-time model and costume archivists (Danielle Roode and Susan Copley), a film archivist (Sandra Groom), and project personnel like interns from museum studies programs.
Despite her museum and conservation background, Anoveros knows that, first and foremost, she serves an active film production company. “This is very much a collection in use, with props and models that may be needed at any time for production,” she says. “My role is not to prevent use but to minimize damage while things are being used. So I talk to the person who needs something for reference and ask, ‘Do you need the actual object, or would a great photo do?’ Or if it’s for filming, I make sure it’s packed and transported correctly and handled properly to minimize damage.”
For Episode I, the Archives got requests early on from the Art Department for props for reference for continuity purposes. It sent large amounts of material to Leavesden Studios outside of London for use in the actual film–everything from masks and costume to R2-D2 units and Luke Skywalker’s original landspeeder. A little closer to home, ILM borrowed props for blue-screen use or for reference for computer-graphic use. All of it needed to be logged, tracked, packed, shipped, and eventually brought back.
“A very important aspect of what we do is cataloguing the objects” Anoveros says. The Archives is implementing a bar code system because objects move in and out so quickly during filming. Then, if it needs to be sent out it can simply be scanned. Among the challenges faced by Anoveros and her staff is that objects built as film props, for the most part, aren’t built to last.
“We have modern materials and no one knows how they are going to perform long-term,” Anoveros says. “Many of these objects are fragile, and meant to be used under careful supervision in front of blue screen, and it’s a continuous challenge how to preserve them. For example latex, used widely for masks and creatures. There is no treatment for deteriorated latex. We try to provide stable environmental conditions and appropriate support for their preservation. Once latex deteriorates there is no treatment to recover it.”
Currently, the Archives doesn’t perform restoration work on-site, but hires trained professionals when necessary. “Sometimes we get work done at the ILM department where they created the actual object, or we contract it to conservators in the field who are experts in different materials,” Anoveros says. The Archives keeps a priority list based on how important a piece is, whether it might go on display at some point, and whether it will deteriorate further if it isn’t fixed.
“We try to focus on preventative conservation, which is avoiding damage before it happens to objects,” Anoveros says. “We try to keep things in stable environmental conditions by keeping the temperature at a constant 65 degrees Fahrenheit and 50-55% relative humidity. We have implemented a pest management system to prevent pest infestation. And in terms of storing objects, we try to provide the proper support for all objects, like costumes and masks to make sure they don’t sag or stretch and deform.”
The Archives collection is incredibly diverse. “We have models from full size spacecraft to miniatures, and from screen quality to foam-core prototypes,” Anoveros notes. “We have traditional costumes from Imperial officers to incredible Queen Amidala gowns to Gamorrean guards with all the foam layers of ‘fat.’ There are thousands of pieces of concept art and production paintings. There are original matte painting. These are usually done on glass, some are on board and some very large ones on canvas. This section of the collection isn’t likely to grow since matte painting are now done digitally.” The Lucasfilm Archives has multiple copies of some objects. “It’s just the nature of production,” Anoveros says. “For example, look at all of the version of R2-D2. One was worn by Kenny Baker and is considered a costume; one just has the ability to turn its head; another has the ability to drop its third leg. So these all add history to the collection.
One of Anoveros’s most weighty recent responsibilities was proposing what to keep for the Archives from Episode I. “I started first looking at the objects keeping in mind the issues of significance, quality, storage, transportation, and maintenance costs. The few pieces we could not keep-like the really large sets-we documented really well.”
In the last few years, much of the time of the Archives staff has been devoted to organizing public exhibitions of the treasured memorabilia in conjunction with Lucas Licensing Ltd., another unit of Lucasfilm. “Since we are a private collection that does not have the facilities to be able to be open to the public, we try to take part in well-organized public museum exhibitions when possible,” Anoveros says. In the last several years there have been two very popular separate exhibitions in Japan and one in San Francisco. There was even an amazing three-day exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration fan convention in Denver last May.
But the real attention getter was the year-long National Air and Space Museum’s Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, which is currently on a two year tour of U.S. museums organized by SITES. Coming up in April in London is a similarly ambitious exhibition, The Art of Star Wars, at the Barbican Art Centre.
“Currently, the exhibitions have been taking 90% of our time,” Anoveros says. “Of course, that slows down once the exhibit goes up, but when you’re moving 250 objects, that takes a lot of time. We work with the organizing institution in terms of developing exhibit plans and guidelines, and we give suggestions of what we think might work. We think we know our fans and what they expect to see. It’s a continuous dialog to develop the curatorial point of view, and we participate actively with them in selecting the objects.”
High on Anoveros’s agenda is better maximizing her existing space as the calendar pages keep turning. Before too long, she’s going to be getting a telephone call from Episode II Producer Rick McCallum: “Paloma, I’ve got a bunch of stuff for you to take a look at!”