The art of Ralph McQuarrie (1929-2012) left an indelible impact on countless iconic movies and much of today's most popular science fiction, from Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Battlestar Galactica. The Star Wars art Ralph McQuarrie created was particularly influential. Without McQuarrie, Darth Vader wouldn't have worn a mask, C-3PO wouldn't have been C-3PO, and Star Wars might never have been made at all. Let's take a look at a man whose contributions to the Star Wars universe—and to the science fiction and fantasy pantheon in general—can't be overestimated. Here's what you need to know about Ralph McQuarrie, whose concept art made the Star Wars universe shine so bright.
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Star Wars: A New Hope was the first feature film he ever worked on
McQuarrie was born in Billings, Montana on June 13th, 1929. He was interested in art from an early age, partially because both his mother and grandfather enjoyed visual arts and served as creative models for young McQuarrie. After the start of World War II the family moved to Vancouver, Canada where McQuarrie attended high school and became more interested in making art his professional path. In his final years of high school the McQuarries moved again, this time to Seattle, Washington.
After serving in the U.S. army during the Korean war — during which he survived a shot to the head which pierced his helmet — McQuarrie attended the Art Center School in L.A., then got a job working as Artist and Preliminary Design Illustrator for Boeing. For a time, his role at Boeing was a dream come true for the artist, who had been obsessed with planes from a young age. Although McQuarrie eventually tired of the overtime required for his Boeing role and, as he put it, drawing countless "rows of windows" on planes, he remained fascinated by planes and built models well into his adulthood. In conjunction with the small studio Reel Three, McQuarrie also worked with CBS on animation to highlight their coverage of the Apollo program. His role there led to McQuarrie creating some illustrations for an unproduced screenplay co-written by Hal Barwood and Matt Robbins. It was this last project that led Lucas to approach McQuarrie about collaborating on a space epic.
At the time, McQuarrie was already familiar with Lucas' work. By chance, he had been invited to a screening of Lucas' 1967 short student film THX 1138, and left feeling the movie was very impressive for a student work. Tonally, THX 1138 is much more dystopian than Star Wars, although both stories explore themes of fascism and resistance. THX 1138, which was later adapted into a feature film by Francis Ford Coppola, is set in a society where government surveillance is omnipresent.
McQuarrie later said of his first meeting with Lucas, "When George saw the drawings I had done for Hal and Matt, he was interested in talking to me. He visited with his friends at my place and talked about a big space-fantasy film he wanted to do. It didn't have a title yet. I showed him a proposal I'd worked on in 1972 for a science-fiction film called Galaxy. I imagined this lead-in with a transparent robot standing in a void, backlit, conducting a séance using this holographic machine that produced a three-dimensional image in a laser beam. Well, a couple years went by and George did American Graffiti. I never thought I'd see him again, and then one day he called to see if I'd be interested in doing something for Star Wars."
McQuarrie was the first person Lucas hired to work on Star Wars, and initially was also one of the oldest members of the team. "I was quite a bit older than most of them," he later said in an interview. "There was some sort of a rumor going around that there wasn't anybody over 30 working on [Star Wars], and I was 45." Ultimately, McQuarrie didn't really notice the age gap between him and his collaborators. This was in part because he completed much of his work for Star Wars at home, privately toiling away at designs that would come to be universally recognized.
McQuarrie initially thought the project was too ambitious
In a 1999 interview with the San Diego Tribune, McQuarrie said that he initially had doubts the project would ever come to fruition: "I just did my best to depict what I thought the film should look like, I really liked the idea. I didn't think the film would ever get made. My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn't be enough of an audience. It's just too complicated. But George knew a lot of things that I didn't know."
Despite doubting that the project would eventually be made, McQuarrie enjoyed himself. He told The Daily Telegraph in 2011 that he viewed his work with Lucas as "a special opportunity to start from the ground up. Being able to create new characters, vehicles and different worlds … and since when I started it wasn't even clear that the film would be made, I didn't have to limit myself."
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McQuarrie's art persuaded Fox to take George Lucas' pitch seriously
By the time George Lucas first met with McQuarrie, Lucas knew he faced an uphill battle to get his sci-fi dream project made. Earlier meetings with Universal and United Artists had ended with rejection, in part because it was difficult for Lucas to make the ambitious vision he had feel tangible for executives. When Lucas met with directors at Fox, McQuarrie's designs allowed them to imagine the final project. The experience taught Lucas never to expect Hollywood businessmen to envision high-concept ideas without visual aids. Lucas himself would frequently return to McQuarrie's distinctive vision for guidance.
As McQuarrie later recalled, "I started working with George in 1974 and we worked up until the start of filming. George and I would meet every few weeks, where he would explain what he was looking for and leave me to my work. Next visit, we would go over my drawings and discuss any changes. We had a very good working relationship." Most of McQuarrie's paintings for the project are said to have taken him only a day or two, but his designs—which included depictions of Darth Vader, Chewbacca, C-3PO, Tatooine, Mos Eisley, and the Death Star—were on hand during Lucas' pitch to Fox, and instrumental in convincing the studio to fund the space opera.
He conceived of Vader's iconic breathing apparatus
During an interview with The Daily Telegraph a year before his death, McQuarrie revealed how Darth Vader's design came about: "George had described Vader as having flowing black robes. In the script, Vader had to jump from one ship to another and, in order to survive the vacuum of space, I felt he needed some sort of breathing mask [...] George said, 'OK,' suggested adding a samurai helmet, and Darth Vader was born. Simple as that."
The above concept art depicts Vader fighting a character known at the time as Deak Starkiller, whose name would eventually be changed to one of the most iconic in all pop culture: Luke Skywalker. In very early versions of Star Wars, Deak was the younger brother of a character named Annikin Skywalker.
It's clear in looking at McQuarrie art that much changed in the Star Wars galaxy from conception to release. That's undeniably part of why McQuarrie's concepts are still compelling to Star Wars fans; it's exciting to see the story that might have been. In 2017, students at the Digital Animation and Visual Effects (DAVE) School took that to the natural conclusion when they created a concept trailer based off McQuarrie's art. Not only does the trailer capture McQuarrie's distinctive aesthetic, but it also explores some of the biggest differences between original drafts of Star Wars and the final product. For instance, McQuarrie's images depict lightsabers as a weapon used by everyone, from Force-sensitive characters like Darth Vader and Deak Skywalker down to humble stormtroopers.
Darth Vader is one of the few characters who changed very little from early concept art to production. It meant a lot to McQuarrie to have worked on a design that ultimately became so universal: "It's really a nice feeling to go down the street and see, on the sidewalk, a bubblegum wrapper with Darth Vader's picture on it. And Darth's face on the cover of Time, too. It's interesting to have done something out in the world that everyone looks at all the time. You become part of the public happening."
Without McQuarrie, Anthony Daniels wouldn't have taken the role of C-3PO
The first Star Wars art Ralph McQuarrie completed was of C-3PO and RD-D2 wandering in the desert. That early design for C-3PO was heavily inspired by the art of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The painting had a huge impact on actor Anthony Daniels, who was on the verge of turning down the role of the protocol droid C-3PO, but changed his mind on seeing McQuarrie's rendition of the character: "He had painted a face and a figure that had a vey wistful, rather yearning, rather bereft quality, which I found very appealing,"
His favorite character was R2-D2
McQuarrie said of R2-D2, "He has a lot of personality for a small metal robot. The film version isn't quite as squat as my original concept, but for the most part it reflects my design."
He had a cameo in The Empire Strikes Back
McQuarrie appears briefly in The Empire Strikes Back as Pharl McQuarrie, a Rebel general seen in the Hoth base. An action figure of General Pharl McQuarrie was released for Star Wars' 30th anniversary in 2007.
When Lucas struggled with a concept, he would refer to McQuarrie's art
In a statement following McQuarrie's death at 82 from Parkinson's complications, Lucas had words of high praise:
"Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision Star Wars. His genial contribution, in the form of unequaled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph's fabulous illustrations and say, 'Do it like this.'"
Although he only directly worked on the original trilogy, his contributions continue to shape the Star Wars universe
While working on designs for Episodes I, II, and III, concept artists Doug Chiang and Marc Gabbana have said they approached their work always keeping McQuarrie's legacy in mind. During the Rogue One panel at Star Wars Celebration 2017, Chiang said McQuarrie's work continues to influence the look of Star Wars: "Designing Rogue One started for me 40 years ago. That’s when I saw Episode IV and that’s when I first saw Ralph McQuarrie’s work. His work completely influenced mine. Since I didn’t go to art school, I learned to paint and draw through Ralph’s work. The Art of Star Wars books and McQuarrie portfolios became my textbooks.”
The farm young Jyn Erso is seen living on with her parents at the start of Rogue One is also based on some of McQuarrie's concepts for the original trilogy.
He won an Academy Award
In addition to Star Wars, McQuarrie also did design work for the film Star Trek: Planet of the Titans. Although that project was ultimately cancelled, the design McQuarrie created for the ship went on to be used in Star Trek: Discovery, a new series which debuted in 2017. Discovery production designer Mark Worthington and showrunner Bryan Fuller were both McQuarrie fans, which is why they decided to explore the unused design for the new series. Although the ultimate iteration of the Discovery ship isn't identical to McQuarrie's, his impact is still evident in the final product.
MCQuarrie also worked on the 1978 Battlestar Galactica series, conceptualizing the show's ships and aliens. He also designed the alien ships seen in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. In 1985, his work on the sci-fi horror film Cocoon won him the Academy Award for Visual Effects.
His legacy continues to influence science fiction
McQuarrie's influence extends past his work on A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. As Lucas said following McQuarrie's death,
Beyond the movies, his artwork has inspired at least two generations of younger artists—all of whom learned through Ralph that movies are designed. Like me, they were thrilled by his keen eye and creative imagination, which always brought concepts to their most ideal plateau. In many ways, he was a generous father to a conceptual art revolution that was born of his artwork, and which seized the imaginations of thousands and propelled them into the film industry. In that way, we will all be benefiting from his oeuvre for generations to come. Beyond that, I will always remember him as a kind and patient, and wonderfully talented, friend and collaborator.