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Road Trip: Tatooine or Bust II - January 20th, 2001

Ever since my first trip to Death Valley (here) in search of a Star Wars filming location, I've been dying to go back. The thought of going back to Tatooine and searching for all seven known filming locations has been harassing my mind for almost eight months. In fact, it got so bad, I expanded my curiosities to Crescent City, CA and the sand dunes outside of Yuma, AZ.

Since April, I have done everything I could to bring myself closer to these locations without really leaving my Los Angles home. I've called locals who remember working on the production; I equipped my friend Steve, who was "passing through" Crescent City recently, with a disposable camera and told him: "Snap anything that looks Star Wars-ish and send the film back to me." In my quest, no... unquenchable addiction, I even interviewed a Jawa! The accumulation of information has grown so great, I could publish a book (and I've actually seriously considered it).

So when the opportunity arose in Mid-January to actually visit a few filming locations, I jumped at the chance. Lucky for me, my friend Erik Murillo jumped as well, and before we knew it, we were on our way back to Death Valley, California. Our trip from Los Angeles was long and painful, but all the recent memories dissolved away when we entered the land of Star Wars. The sun wasn't even fully awake by the time we entered Death Valley National Park.

We were on a tight schedule and only had a day to find, photograph, and document all the filming locations I knew of. Thanks to months of research, I knew that finding them wouldn't be too much of a problem. I was armed with a diary I made filled with notes, interviews, pictures and sketches - all the ingredients I needed to make a successful journey.

Artoo's Sand Dunes

Comparison from then (top) and now (bottom)After a brief stop in Stovepipe Wells, one of only two barely populated towns in Death Valley, it was on to the sand dunes. Only seen briefly in A New Hope, (where R2-D2 rolls over the sand towards the rocky canyons of Tatooine) this location was one of the hardest to get to by the small filming crew in 1976. Because it is illegal to drive off the roads in national parks of the United States, the team had to hike about a half mile into the dunes, all the while carrying camera gear and a heavy remote-controlled R2-D2 unit. I'm sure they weren't all too happy about hiking out so far, but they knew it was necessary to do in order to find an area that didn't have any shrubs (apparently, Tatooine doesn't have shrubs). Appreciating the cool winds and our light loads, Erik and I made it out to the correct location in no time at all. Our biggest problem in finding the exact filming spot was aligning the mountains as seen in the film with the very constant appearance of the larger dunes. As you can see in the picture, the shrubs seemed to have slowly crept across the sand since Artoo was there 24 years ago.

By the time we returned to the car, the cool winds of the morning had died down and the temperature began to climb... slightly. When I was in Death Valley in April 1999, the temperature reached 103 degrees Fahrenheit - in the shade! It was a relief to hear that the temp for the day wouldn't even hit 70.

Landspeeder Lakebed

Comparison from then (top) and now (bottom)Quite a few people I talked to shared stories with me about the day George Lucas and crew came out to Death Valley in late 1976. One guy remembers clearly how George pulled up in a station wagon towing Luke's Landspeeder on a flatbed trailer. (It must have been quite a site on the freeway!) With my information, the filming location for Landspeeder Dry Lakebed wasn't too hard to locate. On West Side Road, there is an straight stretch of road that slowly declines for a mile and a half. It was at this place where they filmed the Landspeeder sequence. Of course, the actual spot of filming would have been nearly impossible to find, so I was comfortable with leaving that task to another Star Wars fan with more time on their hands.

Bantha Canyon

Comparison from then (top) and now (bottom)Not even three miles from West Side Road is a place called Desolation Canyon. Hike far enough into it and you'll learn how it got its name. But the crew only hiked about 500 yards into the canyon to film a memorable scene for A New Hope. It was in this canyon where Luke first spots with his monocular two Banthas and a Tusken Raider. Borrowing an elephant named Mardji from Marine World Africa, USA, George Lucas and his staff transformed her into a Bantha and filmed her in the canyon. Later in the editing room, George would seamlessly splice in this footage with the shots they did of Luke and Threepio in Tunisia. So, if you think about it, Luke is looking through his monocular at something that took place thousands of miles away and a few months later! Quite a powerful monocular!

Sandcrawler Station

Comparison from then (top) and now (bottom)George must've had a mild heart attack when he realized he had a major continuity error on his hands after reviewing the Jawa sequence filmed in Tunisia. Apparently, they forgot to have the Jawas carrying R2 back to the Sandcrawler in the original shoot. (See the image in Star Wars Insider #41, pg. 69) So what does he do? Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on going back to Tunisia, rebuilding the Sandcrawler, and hunting down the small actors, he decides to film a single shot in Death Valley (on the same trip as all of the other ANH shots). With the help of all the Death Valley Elementary children under the height of 41 inches, and the artwork of Ralph McQuarrie, George manages to get the shot in less than four hours.

George Lucas might have taken four hours to film the shot, but it took me about two hours just to find it. This one is a tough shot to locate and it can be blamed mainly on the road. You see, the shot was taken facing south, but the one-way road goes north. So, unless you have a patient and slow driving friend like I do, or can drive while facing backwards (not recommended) it could take quite a long time trying to find the exact spot where all three mountains match up.

Fortunately, I did most of the grunt work so you should have no problem at all finding this shot: Just park about 100 yards to the south of the entrance of Artist's Palette and climb the small hill on the west side of the road. Congratulations. You're in Jawa territory.

Artoo's Arroyo

Comparison from then (top) and now (bottom)Speaking of Jawa territory, Artoo won't soon forget when Jawa's zapped him in A New Hope. Although that shot was filmed in Tunisia, there are a few shots leading up to that encounter which were filmed in Death Valley. Just a stone's throw from the Sandcrawler Station filming spot is this popular spot. Nicknamed "Artoo's Arroyo" by Star Wars fans, Artist's Palette is where you'll find the shot introducing the rocky canyon filled with hidden Jawas. It was this location that first brought my friends and I to Death Valley back in April 1999 for a contest that the Star Wars Insider Magazine was having. (We came in 3rd) Judging by the amount of responses that the Insider published regarding the contest, it's apparent that I am not alone in the enjoyment of finding filming spots. If you're one of them, I think you'll enjoy visiting the final location...

The Road to Jabba's Palace

Comparison from then (top) and now (bottom)One of the only pick-up shots for the filming of Return of the Jedi, this shot was my favorite. If you remember the scene where C-3PO and R2 are approaching Jabba's Palace, you might have recalled thinking that the talented artists at Lucas Film must have done a matte painting of the entire background. There's even a few images published that show the artists painting most of the shot. But when we drove into Twenty Mule Team Canyon, it amazed us on how little was added to that shot. I was almost expecting to see Jabba's Palace nestled onto the side of the canyon. As you can see by the picture, the location scouts for Return of the Jedi sure earned every penny for finding this location.

Although some sources say otherwise, this was the final shot filmed for the production of Return of the Jedi. George Lucas, Anthony Daniels, and a small crew of about eight filmed this shot in December of 1982, just months from its release. It was believed that a cut scene involving a cave was filmed nearby, but I'll just have to wait till Tatooine or Bust III to try to discover that little-known filming location...

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