Twenty Mule Team Road
STAR WARS - EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI is the only other STAR WARS film I'm aware of that had shots filmed in Death Valley. In this case, it was for the shots of the droids making their way to the palace of Jabba The Hutt.
Between ADR sessions, on Saturday, December 11, (1982) Lucas, Marquand, Daniels, Kazanjian, 26 crew, and a park ranger all convened at Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley, for a one-day location shoot. The two droids would be filmed here and composited together with the cave portion of the Luke/lightsaber scene, scheduled to be shot later at ILM.
“That was fun because it was one of the first times that George took us, the matte department crew, out on location,” Barron would say. “And it was very funny because George and Richard Marquand had this little thing where sometimes George would yell, ‘Cut,’ on our matte shot and then Marquand would say, ‘What? Don’t cut!’ It was sort of a joke between them.”
Unusually, the shot of the droids heading toward Jabba’s palace would be completed via the “original negative” matte method, which ensured the very best shot quality. Used since the earliest days of moviemaking, but not recently, this meant that both the live action and the matte art would be composited in camera on the same piece of original film without resorting to optical or projection compositing. The droids were therefore photographed with a black matte protecting the area of film in which Jabba’s castle and the sky would appear. The painting of the castle and sky would later be photographed onto the exact same film at ILM with the previously exposed area of the droids protected by a matching black matte.
“It was very exciting, because I thought I could rely on Artoo and know he’s not going to suddenly break down,” says Daniels, referring to his friend’s new electronic innards. “He was radio-controlled by a man named David Schaeffer. But in fact we had a panic on, because nearby Edwards Air Force Base was really screwing up Artoo’s radio receiver - he was going all over the place.”
- Excerpt from The Making Of Return Of The Jedi, pp. 271-272, by J.W. Rinzler
I suspect that Edwards Air Force Base was not the real source of the interference. The Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake is closer, as is Fort Irwin National Training Center. Closer still are the numerous installations that comprise the Nevada National Security Site. It's also possible that interference came from aircraft flying over the park. During each of my trips I saw a number of military aircraft in the sky. But I digress.
As mentioned in the above quote, the scene with the droids making their way to Jabba's Palace, wasn't the only scene shot that day. There were a few shots for a scene which was later deleted prior to the release of the film. This scene would have come just before the scene of the droids heading to Jabba's Palace. As you can see in the following clip (taken from the blu-ray release of the films), the scene involves Luke Skywalker inside a small cave finishing the construction of his new lightsaber. He then conceals it within R2-D2 before sending the droids on their way.
Per the quote above, the interior of the cave was later filmed on a set constructed at Industrial Light & Magic. The view outside its opening was composited in from the footage shot in Death Valley. For the cave's exterior, the film crew used one of the abandoned mine openings along Twenty Mule Team Road. The opening to this mine - if not the mine itself - has apparently since collapsed. Some claim a severe storm caused it to cave in on itself. Others claim the park service collapsed it for safety reasons.
The scene was not available for reference at the time of my visit. I had only a few, small behind-the-scenes photographs that weren't of much use. But I wasn't really interested in looking for the cave anyway. I was much more preoccupied with finding the location of the source of the matte painting that was used for the wide shot in the clip. That image had been floating around the internet for some time, but in 2005, a higher quality version was included in the book Creating the Worlds of Star Wars: 365 Days.
With this image as my guide, I attempted to match it up with imagery on flickr, panoramio, and Google Earth. While I wasn't able to find an exact match, I did notice that the mountains in the background matched up quite closely with those immediately northeast of Twenty Mule Team Road. From this point, I used Google Earth to target some specific areas in which to search. My research paid off and as it turned out, I was able to locate the specific ravine within ten minutes of my first visit to Twenty Mule Team Road.
If you are inside the park, from the Vistor’s Center at Furnace Creek, travel 6 miles southeast on HWY 190 to the entrance of Twenty Mule Team Road. Alternately, if you are coming from Death Valley Junction, the entrance is 24 miles west from the intersection of HWY 190 and HWY 127.
Twenty Mule Team Road is an unpaved (but graded), one-way, 2.7 scenic route that connects back to HWY 190. As with all roads and attractions in the park, check with the Death Valley National Park website for road closures prior to your trip. See also wikimapia | googlemaps
There Is Another...
Twenty Mule Team Road represents the final STAR WARS filming location that I know of in Death Valley National Park. It was also the last one I visited on my first trip out there and it continued to be a final stop on my other trips as it is situated conveniently on the road back to Las Vegas. However, in the course of researching and writing these blog entries, I have come across another location that, while not a filming locale, does actually relate back to STAR WARS. So...
Next up ... Another "Star Wars Canyon"!