Ever since the original Star Wars was released in 1977, fans have always been dreaming about living in that galaxy far, far away. While that may be just a little difficult, there are still the real-world locations that served as various worlds during filming, and they can be visited. In Galactic Backpacking, we explore these locations by country, looking at their histories and current attractions.
In A New Hope, Luke told C-3PO and R2-D2 that Tatooine is the planet that is farthest from the bright center to the universe. When we saw this bright center in The Phantom Menace we saw the big sprawling city world of Coruscant. Along with many other scenes throughout the saga that consisted of sets, Coruscant was filmed entirely in studios. Most of these studios stood in the United Kingdom, making the UK in many ways the real bright center of the Star Wars Universe and the location of the heart behind the movies. Production returned to the UK earlier this year to shoot Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the Pinewood Studios.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as is the full name for the UK although it is also loosely called Great Britain (which is actually the name of the island), is a constitutional monarchy lying off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The UK is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea in the east, the English Channel in the south and the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Besides Ireland, the closest neighboring countries are France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. The only proper land bordering the UK has is with the Ireland. With an area of 243,610 square kilometers (94,060 sq. miles), the UK is the 11th-largest country in Europe and has an estimated 64.1 million inhabitants. When people talk about England, they do not mean the entire country, but in fact talk about one of the four constituent nations that form up the United Kingdom. The other three are Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
In 2004, the UK ranked as the sixth major tourist destination in the world with London receiving the most international visitors of any city in the world. Tourists flock to the many major cities like London, the 25 Unesco World Heritage sites or the stunning countryside, proving that the UK is much more than rain and visiting Buckingham Palace to see if the Queen is at home.
Official languages: English
Government: Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
Currency: Pound sterling
Time zone: UTC, UTC +1 during “British Summer Time” (BST)
Roads: Drive on the left
Climate: The United Kingdom has a temperate climate with temperatures varying by season, but seldom dropping below −11 °C (12 °F) or rising above 35 °C (95 °F). And yes, there are many places in the UK where it rains a lot, but contrary to popular belief some locations are surprisingly dry, among them London, where less rain falls per annum then in cities like Sydney, Rome, and New York.
Best time to visit the shooting locations: During the spring or summer would be best, when the nature in the Whippendell Woods is fully in bloom. The shooting there took place in September 1997.
How to get there & useful links
With all the locations being in the London area, you are most likely to arrive at one of London’s six airports, with London Heathrow (LHR) being the biggest for people coming from North or South America. The other airports are Gatwick (LGW), Stansted (STN), Luton (LTN), City (LCY – European destinations and only one business class only flight to New York JFK), and Southend (SEN — which is not that close to London at all).
For Europeans there is the possibility to go to London by car, by using the Channel Tunnel that goes from Calais, France to Folkestone, UK. The trip through the undersea tunnel takes about 40 minutes, and upon arrival you can take the M20 that goes directly to London. Before entering the tunnel you will have go through customs.
A third alternative would be to go by train. Eurostar is a high-speed train connecting London, trough the Channel Tunnel, to Paris (Gare du Nord), Lille (Europe), Calais (Fréthun) and Brussels (Zuid-Midi). For people coming from the Netherlands and travelling via Brussels it can be cheaper (and more flexible) to book an “Any Dutch station” Eurostar ticket that permits connection to/from any Dutch station provided the itinerary doesn’t use the more expensive Thalys or ICE services.
Immigration and visa requirements: While the UK is a member of the European Union, it does not fully implement the Schengen Agreement, which means that travel to and from other EU countries (except Ireland) involves systematic passport / identity card checks at the border and separate visa requirements for several countries. A visa is not required for EU, EEA, Swiss, United States, Australian, New Zealand and Mexican citizens. Be sure to check with your local embassy to be sure.
Great Britain tourism board http://www.visitbritain.com/en/EN/
London Heathrow http://www.heathrowairport.com/about-us
Elstree studios, official website http://www.elstreestudios.co.uk/
Pinewood Studios, official website http://www.pinewoodgroup.com/our-studios/uk/pinewood-studios
Leavesden Studios, official website http://www.wbsl.com/home
Warner Bros Studio Tour, London http://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk/
Ealing Studios, official website http://www.ealingstudios.co.uk/
Shepperton Studios, official website http://www.pinewoodgroup.com/our-studios/uk/shepperton-studios
Hever Castle, official website http://www.hevercastle.co.uk/
Shenley Road, Borehamwood
Located in Borehamwood, near London, the Elstree Studios have been described by Rick McCallum, the producer on the prequels, as the home to Star Wars. This is not surprising because Elstree is the studio that was the first one that the production decided to use. The decision to go to Elstree was made in 1975 due to it being able to offer nine stages (minus Stage 5 which was used by Paul McCartney) with the best facilities. Scenes shot for A New Hope include the Death Star interior scenes, the Millennium Falcon and the Tantive IV. After Stage 3 burned down during the filming for The Shining, a new stage was build and named the Star Wars Stage. The Star Wars Stage was used for some of the larger scenes in The Empire Strikes Back. These scenes all had a fully build Millennium Falcon as the centerpiece, around which they built the sets for the Hoth hangar, the interior of the asteroid the Falcon landed in and the landing pad on Cloud City. In 1981 production returned to shoot Return of the Jedi here with important sets like the Emperor’s throne room and the Ewok village.
The original buildings have been sold and razed to the ground to become a supermarket. Some of the Studios have been subsequently restored and were re-opened in 1999. These days Elstree is again an important aspect of British filmmaking, with the BBC operating there with shows like The Voice and Strictly Come Dancing, which is hosted on the newly build, and equipped with brand new HD technology facilities, George Lucas Stage.
Because Elstree is a working studio, it is not open for tours. There are shows being filmed there with a studio audience, tickets can be bought for that.
Studios Road, Shepperton
Ever since the 1930s Shepperton Studios has a long history of film making that continues to this day with movies been shot there like Captain America: The First Avenger. For A New Hope, Shepperton was chosen to be the second studio to shoot at because the two largest scenes wouldn’t fit on any of the Elstree stages. These scenes were the Rebel hangar on Yavin Four and the end ceremony; both were filmed on Stage H, with the hangar set reusing the big stone pillars from one side. In 2004, production returned to Shepperton Studios to shoot pick-up scenes for Revenge of the Sith. These four to five hundred shots were mostly done with blue and green screens with just a few set pieces added. Most of the principal cast was present. Among the scenes shot were the Galaxies Opera House on Coruscant, including Palpatine tempting Anakin with the story of Darth Plaguies, Anakin choking Padmé, some parts of the fight scenes with Obi-Wan vs. Anakin and Mace Windu vs. Palpatine.
Just like Elstree it is not possible to get a tour of the studios.
Warner Drive, Leavesden, Hertfordshire
Starting as an Aerodome to build and house fighter craft and bombers during the Second World War, Leavesden was acquired after the war by Rolls-Royce to become a factory producing engines for airplanes and helicopters. It was not until 1995 that the, by then abandoned, buildings were first used as a studio for a major movie production. The production team behind the James Bond movie Goldeneye quickly converted the factory into a studio and in August 1996 Leavesden became the primary studio for The Phantom Menace.
Leavesden had many advantages for the production team; not only would the tradition of shooting a Star Wars movie in England be continued, the site was also large enough to accommodate the many required sets, including the huge outdoors back lot in which the staircase of Theed’s Royal Palace, along with streets was built. Because it was possible to lease the entire studio for a two and half year period, sets could be stored for a period long after the principal photography was done, something that is not regular in the movie business where a studio would want the production team of a movie to be cleared out quickly so that a new production could begin. The list of scenes that were shot here are too numerous to list but basically everything that required actors and was interior on Naboo, Tatooine and the Royal Starship were filmed there as well as everything on Coruscant. Departments inside the studio included the Creature Effects Department.
After The Phantom Menace the studios became property of Warner Bros, who used the studios for every Harry Potter movie. Unlike the other studios, Warner Bros offer the possibility to visit the studios with an impressive display of Harry Potter sets. Visit the Warner Bros Studio Tour, London link as mentioned above for more details and tickets.
Ealing Green, London
Ealing Studios opened in 1902 and is to this day the oldest continuously working studio facility for film production in the world. From the period of 1955 until 1995 the BBC even owned the studios and produced many of their series there.
While the primary studios for Attack of the Clones (and Revenge of the Sith) were the Fox Studios in Australia, the production turned to Ealing Studios when it was time to shoot some additional scenes in the pick-ups. In the first pick-ups, scheduled from March 24 to April 8 2001, the scenes on Geonosis with the conveyor belt were shot as well as the scenes with Anakin and Padmé’s starship scenes when they arrive at Geonosis. However, after seeing a cut of the movie, George Lucas felt that some more scenes were missing, and on November 6th they returned to shoot the elevator scene between Anakin and Obi-Wan, as well as the scene where Count Dooku is given the secret Death Star Plans in the Geonosis War Room
Pinewood Road, Iver Heath
The Pinewood Studios is another UK-based studio with a long filmmaking history. Pinewood is considered to the home of James Bond considering that most of them were filmed there and they named their largest sound stage, which is one of the largest in the world, the Albert R. Broccoli’s 007 Stage, after the producer who was so important to this film series.
On May 16, 2014 production started here for The Force Awakens.
Just like Elstree and Shepperton it is not possible to get a tour of the studios.
Hever Castle was build in the 13th century and was the seat of the Boleyn family from 1462 to 1539. The second queen consort (wife) of King Henry VIII of England, Anne Boleyn grew up in this castle. In 1903 the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, from the Astor family who is well-known for the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, owned the castle as his private residence and added the Italian style garden to display his collection of statuary and ornaments. The castle and grounds became a tourist attraction in the 21st century.
A very short, and ultimately deleted, scene for The Phantom Menace was filmed in the Italian Garden: the arrival of Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Jar Jar Binks in Theed. They climb out of their bongo sub only to find the current dragging them towards a waterfall. With help of a tow cable they manage to make it to land where they pass by a fountain. This scene can be seen on the DVD.
The Whippendell Woods are seen in The Phantom Menace as the woods where the Jedi first meet Jar Jar Binks, where the Gungans’ secret place was and later in the movie when the heroes are plotting to take back the Palace. These locations can be a bit tricky to find so it may be advisable to bring some sort of GPS tracking device with you, as well as the above map and good reference shots of the trees. Here are some good reference photos; this excellent YouTube video below was made by Colin Kenworthy, who allowed me to share his work here.
Location 1 – GPS coordinates: 51°40’24.04″N, 0°26’26.62″W
Right across the street from the Grove Mill Lane parking lot you will find the area in which queen Amidala plots the attack on the Trade Federation to get her planet back. This one should not be that difficult to find if you line up the reference shots.
Location 2 – GPS coordinates 51°40’16.69″N, 0°26’35.56″W
Not that far into the park from the parking lot, you will find the area in which the STAP attacks the Jedi and where they meet Jar Jar for the first time. The STAP crashes trough a gully and some of the trees can be identified by their knots and markings.
Location 3 – GPS coordinates 51°40’16.49″N, 0°26’35.65″W
The gully/hollow where the STAP crashes into also identifies the location for the Gungan Sacred Place. Captain Tarpals can be seen striding past a knotted tree in the movie, which makes an easy identifying point to look for.
Location 4 – GPS coordinates 51°40’15.76″N, 0°26’36.97″W
And a little further into the park is the location where we can see Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon walking away. The identifying marker for this scene is a distinctive ‘kinked’ tree trunk.
Location 5 – GPS coordinates 51°40’6.81″N, 0°26’49.80″W
This last location will be the hardest to spot when you travel here. Around here the Jedi and their Gungan companion arrive at the shore of the lake that they then dive into to reach Otoh Gunga. However, the water is CGI and the trees are less distinct from the other locations.
What else to do in the UK?
With a rich history of filmmaking, the country is filled with many amazing shooting locations that you can visit, so it will be impossible to list everything here. But some noteworthy ones are:
Indiana Jones: The Royal Masonic School For Girls, Rickmansworth, was used in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade to depict the school Indiana Jones teaches. London’s Royal Horticultural Hall was used to portray Club Obi-Wan in The Temple of Doom. The Tilbury Docks in Essex were used for a portion of the Venice boat chase from The Last Crusade. Stowe School, Buckingham was the place where the Berlin book burning scene took place.
The popular, and British, TV series Doctor Who has been filmed in many locations around the UK including the Forest of Dean (also seen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), Bristol and around Cardiff, which is also where the main production is based. Cardiff Bay & Roald Dahl Plass has been made famous for being the location of the Torchwood headquarters.
London – When in London to visit the Star Wars shooting locations, make sure to visit: The Tower and Tower Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Shard, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Abbey, and Trafalgar Square.
Oxford – Well-known for its University, must-see places include: Bodleian Library, Hertford Bridge and of course the University of Oxford.
Other important cities worth a visit include: Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh
Shakespeare enthusiasts should visit Stratford-upon-Avon, where there is a square with the master surrounded by statues of his famous creations, as well as the birthplace and other buildings important to his life.
And of course there is Sherwood Forest for the Robin Hood enthusiasts among us.
Join us next time for a trip to America, where we meet the Ewoks on Endor and battle on the Naboo Great Grass Plains!
Map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, adapted by Stefan Pfister.
Special thanks go out to Colin Kenworthy for his images and video!
London’s Tower Bridge image courtesy from Wikimedia Commons
Sander de Lange (Exar Xan) from the Netherlands worked on the Rogues Gallery feature in Star Wars Insider and has written the backstory for Niai Fieso through “What’s the Story?”. He is an editor for TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub, and an administrator for the Star Wars Sourcebooks page on Facebook. Being born in Deventer, a city used to shoot the world-famous movie A Bridge Too Far, he always had a passion for shooting locations and tourism, in which he hopes to find a job.