Being In-Universe on Batuu at Star Wars Galaxy's Edgeby Todd King, contributing writer
Welcome to 2018. That still puts the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge more than a year away. As the cranes at both Disneyland in California and Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida build up the mountains and scenery, so builds our anticipation for the days when both parks will be open for guests.
Since the initial announcement that Imagineering was planning for a Star Wars park, actual details about the park itself has been revealed piecemeal over the years and at a very slow pace. All of that is intentional, of course, so as to not disrupt our anticipation by telling us everything. For us fans of the movies and of Disney park attractions, it's a time of wonder and curiosity. What are those cranes putting together? How will all of this scaffolding turn into an alien planet? Welcome to another year of waiting.
It's not all radio silence, though. At the December 16 Galactic Nights event, held the day after the theatrical release of The Last Jedi, a few Imagineers gave us some details about "Batuu," the planet for the setting of Galaxy's Edge (check out MousePlanet's own Alan Dalinka's coverage of this and other Star Wars events in his column from last month).
Scott Trowbridge, Robin Reardon, and Chris Beatty sat on the cleared and darkened stage at the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular in Disney's Hollywood Studios on that December night with actor David Collins and Lucasfilm's Doug Chiang to offer a few tidbits of information about what's inside the Edge. It was a brief half-hour presentation disguised as a question-and-answer panel that highlighted the immersive nature they hope we will feel in the new park expansions. It wasn't a lot of information but it was enough to whet our appetite for more, and enough to give us a clearer idea of this immersive experience we hear about.
Before any images of the park were revealed, I tried to make some predictions about the setting of the land. I thought that perhaps it could be set in Tatooine and that you could go into the movies yourself and explore it first-hand. Imagineering considered that idea but decided to make the setting a neutral place that is in the same galaxy, but not from the movies. We now have Batuu.
Scott Trowbridge from Walt Disney Imagineering touched on the topic of the setting at the panel:
"It's an amazing opportunity for us to start to live our Star Wars story and Batuu is a great place, a stepping-off point, for all those adventures. We could have gone to, like, Tatooine and remembered Luke's story, or other planet and remember some other character's story, but Batuu is a place where we're going to get to live our Star Wars story and be the hero of that."
By making a new planet, the setting is limited to just the cinematic places. Batuu doesn't belong to, say, just one of the films. It makes it the galaxy's District of Columbia—a place that it isn't governed by one particular story or plot point. Even though I would have loved to walk into the scenes of the movies themselves, it was probably wise to set Batuu aside and have it be our planet. It allows the park to have any visitor and any story within its valleys.
But what kind of place is Batuu? How does it compare to the designs of other Star Wars locales? All those planets and cities and outposts were distinctive, and had character. How is Batuu the same? How is it different? Character is where all the designs of Star Wars places began. Doug Chiang of Lucasfilm, who has designed a share of places and machines in the movies, explained that characters' desires and motivations helped construct their environments:
"We always try to ground our locations based on a character. Tatooine is a perfect example. It is Luke's homestead. In A New Hope, Luke is a simple person but longs for adventure; he longs to escape the mundane life that he has and the bleak desert of Tatooine mirrors that because it reflects the emptiness in his life. Vader's castle, on the other hand, we wanted to go the other way. We wanted to make a statement, a bold statement, that this is Vader's place. It's like a stake in the ground and everything about Mustafar reinforces who Vader is. We wanted to imbue the environment with Vader's character. For instance, the sky is dark from the clouds, we have fumes from the lava field, and everything makes you feel really unsettled. You get a sense that there is impending doom."
Chiang explained that they set out to create Batuu in the same way. Basing previous designs on characters helped set the stage for the screenplays, but the analogy here means that Batuu's design is based on us, the guests. Trowbridge elaborated:
"This place [Batuu] wants to represent a great stepping-off point for our story so it is rich with discovery, hidden alleyways to explore, and new adventures around every corner. That's the Star Wars we want to live. We want to actually make sure that we're providing an opportunity for all of you to BE in the story."
That is a very conceptual idea. We get the idea that this is place for our story. That story will be similar to many guests, but it can't be exactly the same for everyone. We all have our own likes and interests. How does Batuu accommodate us humans so that we all feel we're living our own story? Chris Beatty, also from WDI, described how the Imagineers needed to base the setting on real places, noting that environments like Hoth and Endor are known to us here on Earth. If they set out to make a planet that isn't from the movies, what would it be like? He says:
"A planet really is a reflection of the character. What planet do we want to take you to that's not Hoth or Endor? It still has to be a place that is familiar, that still felt like Star Wars. For Batuu we wanted it to be romantic, we wanted it to be ancient. There had to be an exotic nature to it, it had to be mysterious, and have a little danger."
Beatty went on to support this idea of a new but familiar place by getting a lot of inspiration from Morocco and its marketplaces—their sights, sounds, and smells. He continued:
"If this is Morocco, what's Batuu? If I turn a corner, what do I hear? Do I hear droids arguing in the corner? Or some strange musical instrument playing? Can I go up to a weird cart in a market place and get some strange space meat sandwich and I walk around eating it? What am I walking on? Do I look down on the dirt and see droid tracks? It's all about the story. And when you build a story it gives the place life."
Like all storywriters, he relied on our senses to create realism. Sounds and smells bring us into a common place because we humans all have the same five senses and so they set out not to just make cool-looking mountains and structures, but to ensure it is inhabited by living things—living things that have their own stories to them as well.
Like the Imagineers before him, designing attractions was always about centering the experience on a story. Walt Disney would talk about a particular character in a ride like the Pirates of the Caribbean and how he, like the looter with one foot in a boat, had a whole story behind him—that he stole all these things he liked and was ready to escape with his haul, only to find himself in a predicament where he'll never make it out. In Galaxy's Edge, it is the same idea. The shops and the people in them have stories that finally brought them here and even if you don't know the whole thing, you sense it because of the design.
Beatty said, "Here [in the market plaza] you'll find all these little stalls and they all have backstories." He shared one particular story about a Toydarian, the race of creatures like Watto from The Phantom Menace. She happens to be a toy maker because it was in the name. How did this life form wind up here selling toys? We may ask ourselves that and if we do, the Imagineers' work is done because we wonder about them and their story.
Speaking of toys, Star Wars and toys (and in a bigger sense, all its merchandise) go hand in hand. Like anyone else dreaming up a Star Wars land inside a Disney park imagined gift shops after gift shops filled with action figures, plastic lightsabers, and clothing like we see in stores now. But Imagineers asked themselves, if you were truly in Batuu—really in a strange alien place (which is what they want us to feel) would that place have gifts like the Disney Store at our local mall? Their answer was no. Beatty said, "As fans you want something unique, you want something different, something that feels like it came from this planet." And three-and-three-quarter-inch action figures wouldn't come from this planet.
Having that kind of expected merchandise, by this thinking, would break the illusion that you're in another world. That's an idea going back to Walk Disney himself not wanting the magic to be spoiled by seeing something like a cowboy in Tomorrowland. He wanted you to come into Disneyland and leave the real world behind you. In the parks now, every paddock has a gift shop or a merch stand with pins and plushies. In Galaxy's Edge, we'll see and buy merchandise that you would actually find on Batuu. That means different kinds of crafts and arts—ones made by otherworldly creatures. At this idea, the host, David Collins, of the evening chimed in asking, "So, I'm not going to go buy a Star Wars T-shirt from this toydarian?"
Beatty responded, "No, you will not buy a Star Wars T-shirt." I believe there might be clothes, but not what we expect, like simple everyday T-shirts. I believe this is where all this immersion really starts to work. It breaks expectations and we discover new ideas.
This immersion isn't limited to merchandise but to food as well. We've all speculated there would be a cantina here, and there is one (maybe two), and that we might get some alien-ish food. The first thing we imagine when we consider Star Wars food is blue milk. And sure enough, there will be blue milk. Not only that, but there will be other colors, too, for what they say will be a total of thirty different varieties! Will there be tasting contests in the future on Batuu? Will it have an Epcot-style blue milk and food festival? In short, Collins stated, "The food and beverages, merchandise, all of it, is part of this planet, Batuu. In-universe."
I think that sums it up well, "in-universe." Once we pass the threshold and enter Batuu, we, too, will then be in-universe. Then the sights, sounds, and smells will be as much part of Galaxy's Edge as we will be. No longer "guests," but travelers, each with our own backstories all about to have new stories and adventures together in this new world. It's enough to get anyone, not just Star Wars fans, excited for the coming experience. Galaxy's Edge itself, the land, the environment, the shopkeepers, the stories, the rides, all of it is the attraction. It seems only when you leave Batuu that you'll probably be greeted by those familiar gift shops and realize that you're still in the faraway place of a Disney park where reality is still further away.