“His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled 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’.” – George Lucas, following McQuarrie’s death.
As the vast majority of you well know, the 1977 release of the space opera The Star Wars (A New Hope) was a major event in the movie making industry, you could even go as far as to say in western culture as a whole. This theatrical masterpiece balanced a compelling story with unwavering charm and futuristic design into a seemingly-perfect product, bringing together people of all backgrounds, ages and tastes into the experience of a galaxy far, far away. While the story was delivered by George Lucas, and the charm by the actors, it was the legendary Ralph McQuarrie that brought us the design and visuals of the Star Wars that we know and love today.
In the early 1970’s, George Lucas approached the little known Indiana born illustrator who went by the initials of “RMQ”, with an offer to bring to life Lucas’ grand vision, a whole new universe, and one that would be portrayed on the big screen to be enjoyed by the masses. Needless to say, McQuarrie accepted.
The task was a substantial one. Alongside a small artistic team of follow-up hiring’s, he began work on the designing concepts of both the complex and grotesque aliens that could exist and the decrepit sci-fi landscapes that our space-faring heroes may visit in the vast and bizarre galaxy held in Lucas’ mind.
McQuarrie and his teams’ concepts were visually staggering. So much so that following multiple rejections from studios, Lucas decided to enter 20th Century Fox’s offices armed with the paintings. When he finally emerged, he did so in success with a powerful ally that embraced his vision. According to McQuarrie, this single act was his greatest personal contribution to Star Wars.
McQuarrie’s early work created the foundation for everything that eventually made its way onto our screens and into our hearts. It was his interpretation that set the visual tone, the atmosphere and the style of the film and its sequels. If you look closely enough, you can still get a feel of his inspiration from early sci-fi as realised by those many years before, in such works as Metropolis and the Buck Rogers comic strip from his childhood. Perhaps this is why his illustrations were such a success. They blended the vintage sci-fi that his generation and many others had grown up seeing, with the then-modern understanding of aerospace and the scientific constraints of the post-Apollo era that added an element of loosely plausible realism into it.
Following the conversion of his work into the completed film, McQuarrie continued collaborating with Lucas on the sequels, until his retirement from working on Star Wars during post-production of Return of the Jedi. Despite Rick McCallum’s (prequel trilogy film producer) best efforts to oversee his return for The Phantom Menace, McQuarrie ultimately rejected the offer, stating that he had “run out of steam”, resulting in the appointment of his successor, Doug Chiang.
It’s a little known fact that McQuarrie actually held a brief moment of screen-time in the opening sequences of The Empire Strikes Back, playing the role of Pharl McQuarrie, a rebel that was stationed at the doomed Hoth base during the evacuation from the attack by the Empire.
Sadly, Ralph McQuarrie passed away in early 2012, prior to the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney. However, this was not the end of his contributions to the franchise. The popular animated TV series, Star Wars Rebels drew much of its inspiration from his early concepts. A notable example would perhaps be the early design for Chewbacca, now reincarnated as Zeb or one of his many Alderaanian cityscapes being brought to life as the planet of Lothal’s capital city.
Even now, over 40 years after his first pieces of conceptual artwork were completed, and nearly 5 years since his passing, you can bet that the decision-makers at Lucasfilm and Disney are still referring to his work as a guide on how best to visually expand the universe of Star Wars.
You can look forward to our next installment of our series, Inspired, in the coming weeks as we look at the story behind the legendary soundtrack composer, John Williams.
If you have any ideas for who you would like to see covered in forthcoming articles in this series, please leave a comment in comments section below and we will take them under consideration.
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