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Inside Lucasfilm’s top secret Star Wars database (Fandom Files #13)

Contributed by
Jan 15, 2018

No matter how much you know about Star Wars, Leland Chee knows more. As the franchise's recently reborn galaxy expands in size and scope at an unprecedented pace, it is Chee's job to both keep track of its endless new adventures and details and help make sure they align with what came before. A Lucasfilm employee for over two decades, Chee is the creator and keeper of the Holocron, the deep-cut name given to the internal database that stores all knowledge about the Star Wars universe. And thanks to Star Wars' resurgence, it's become one of the coolest and most high-pressure jobs in geek media.

"Right now we're up to nearly 80,000 entries in the Holocron," Chee explains in a new episode of the Fandom Files podcast. "So that's 80,000 different characters, vehicles, planets, locations, events, and even different Star Wars slang that will get their own entry. And each entry has dozens of fields, though most of those fields don't apply to every entry."

The Holocron is like a massive collection of dossiers, filled with details big and small, kept so that every movie, TV episode, video game, book, app, and merchandise item is accurate and consistent with Star Wars lore and presentation. It furthers the immersiveness of the franchise's multimedia empire and creates more devout fans. Chee and several colleagues are both a quality assurance and creative resource for the various engineers of the expansion, providing everything from basic answers to more obscure inquiries.


He is uniquely well-equipped for the job; a lifetime fan, Chee worked his way up from game tester at LucasArts — he got the job the same day in 1997 as the release of the special edition of A New Hope — and learned to build databases and keep track of continuity before the Holocron's launch in 2000. He had a base of knowledge from reading all the comic books and novels as a kid and eagerly filled in the company's internal question marks by tracking down those rare comics and listening to once-forgotten radio dramas.

"A Luke Skywalker entry would have listed what was his lightsaber color? What were the different costumes that he wore? When was he born? What were the major events in his life? Who are the characters that are most closely associated with that character?" he explains. "Then we have weird things: if Darth Vader needs to be translated into French, I've got that; if someone needs to know how to pronounce AT-AT, I track that."

Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm has led to several dramatic changes to the vast store of knowledge that Chee oversees. Whereas he once worked for Lucasfilm's licensing group, largely making sure the dots connected between video games and other products produced by independent artists and companies, he's now part of the Star Wars Story Group and serves as an important reference resource for a revived movie series, as well. The explosion in Star Wars media has led the size of the Holocron to almost triple in the last decade; in 2008, a Wired profile pegged the database's number of files at around 30,000.

The other big change? What exactly counts as continuity and canon. Everything that was not seen in the original six movies and Clone Wars TV series was famously removed from the official timeline when Disney bought Lucasfilm, which in one broad stroke cleared the way for new movies and ancillary media. Relegating those stories to non-canonical "Legends" caused a bit of an uproar amongst fans who had been following the multimedia adventures for the last 30 years, but as Chee tells it, it was done not only to make the series more approachable for casual fans but also revive the spirit of the original.

UPDATE: Chee wasn’t with the Star Wars Story Group when the change was made, as he noted in a tweet on Monday; he personally thought the change was a good idea because of the circumstances described below.

"For me it came down to simply that we had killed Chewbacca in the Legends — a big moon had fallen on him. Part of that [original decision] was Chewbacca, because he can't speak and just speaks in growls, he was a challenging character to write for in novels. Publishing had decided they needed to kill somebody, and it was Chewbacca," Chee explains.

"But if you have the opportunity to bring back Chewbacca into a live action film, you're not gonna deprive fans that," he added. "There's no way that I'd want to do an Episode VII that didn't have Chewbacca in it and have to explain that Chewbacca had a moon fall on his head. And if we were going to overturn a monumental decision like that, everything else was really just minor in comparison."


Since The Force Awakens "revived" Chewbacca, the franchise has added new stories and details at a record clip, re-answering questions and introducing new characters, planets, vehicles, and stories. The number of platforms on which the story unfolds has continued to expand, and the goal of total immersion will finally be achieved with the opening of the Star Wars: Galaxy Edge theme parks at Disney World and Disneyland. Chee is consulting on those parks, too.

"It requires an amount of detail and things that wouldn't apply to any other platform," he explained of the planning done for Batu, the name of the 'planet' that tourists will be visiting. "Things like smell and taste, things that are hard to convey in a movie or a book, now it's something that we have to think about. What does Mustafar smell like? What would a Star Wars marketplace smell like, what kind of foods and aromas might come from that? It's completely new territory for me, and for most of us from Lucasfilm, prior to Disney, something that we now need to think about."

Disney Parks are as famous for their merchandise as their rides — every attraction ends with a store — but according to Chee, even that element is being adjusted. Not that there won't be shopping, but the products being offered in Batu will be adjusted to assist in the quest for immersiveness. Chee says that Disney has pulled back on co-branding as well, so you probably won't see Mickey Mouse in Jedi robes, among many other typical products.

"You're gonna go to Batu and you are not gonna see T-shirts with the Star Wars logo on it," he revealed. "You are going to be in an authentic Star Wars environment, and the things that you can eat and things that you can buy and things that you can see, all are within the world of Star Wars — not baseball caps with Star Wars all over it. You're gonna have that, because fans are gonna bring what they bring to the experience, but from what the park gives to the fans, it's going to be authentic in universe."

All of this highly proprietary information, and with the thirst for every scrap of Star Wars news at an all-time high, the Holocron is now treated with utmost care.

"The way that we would do it before was to share it with outside partners, I would actually burn a CD and then send the physical CD out," Chee explained. "The way that we have it structured now, it's completely internal. I don't send the CDs out anymore; the Holocron never leaves Lucasfilm."

 

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