Ralph McQuarrie is probably more directly responsible for the texture of my dream life between the ages of 7 and 13 than any other visual artist. Simply put, the choices he made regarding the design of the world of “Star Wars” were one of the main reasons that film resonated not just with me, but with generations of viewers now.
There was a time when people ended up in the film industry after living other lives, after learning other skills, after working at a trade. Ralph McQuarrie was a technical illustrator working for Boeing, and that led him to working on animated coverage of NASA’s Apollo missions for CBS News. He sort of backed into the film industry through that work, which caught the attention of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who were part of the same circle of friends that included other young filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and George Lucas.
It was 1975 when McQuarrie was first hired by Lucas to create some paintings that would help people make sense of the script he was writing at the time. Those paintings, many of which are now iconic, not only helped pin down the designs of characters like Chewbacca and Darth Vader, but also were a big part of what convinced 20th Century Fox to make the movie.
I can’t think of any other designer before him whose work was packaged for sale to the general public, and I don’t think it was just because “Star Wars” became a phenomenon. If anything, it was the other way around. When I bought “The Star Wars Portfolio,” it wasn’t just so I could have one more thing with the title “Star Wars” on it in my bedroom. It was because there ways something in those early paintings, some raw creative energy, that I found compelling. He wasn’t the only designer on the film, of course, and even on those paintings, there were credits for the other designers. But his execution, his eye for framing, his choices in terms of palette and style, are memorable even removed from the film they eventually inspired.
My co-writer Scott, one of the biggest “Star Wars” fans I’ve ever met, has always talked about his secret desire to see a remake of “Star Wars” where the film looked 100% like the McQuarrie paintings, and I remember his delight when he saw a WETA collectible sculpt inspired by one of the most stunning of McQuarrie’s paintings…
… a sort of tangible proof of just how cool it would have been to see his designs executed precisely. There have been other figures and toys based directly on his art, and they tend to be highly prized by fans of the films.
And I love that there actually was a Ralph McQuarrie figure because of his brief walk-on role in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
McQuarrie certainly contributed in important ways to other major films, like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” and Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed,” but there is no doubt that it is “Star Wars” he will always be remembered for, and rightly so. I respect his choice to retire from the industry before the “Star Wars” prequels were made, but I do wonder what he might have contributed to the process, and what marvels we were denied because he wasn’t involved.
But his legacy is bigger than any single film or design. He inspired a generation to think of film illustration as a possible job, and his example continues to draw great new voices to the industry. When Ryan Church is called “our McQuarrie” by Andrew Stanton in the new book about the making of “John Carter,” I can think of no higher praise.
Ralph McQuarrie was 82 years old, and the best way to sum up what he leaves behind at the end of those eight decades is with a selection from the images that launched an Empire.
McQuarrie was the first person to look up at those twin suns over Tattooine…
I also really love how overt the inspiration from “Metropolis” was in his original version of C3PO and R2D2:
What amazes me is how close some of his images were to actual shots in the film, like this glimpse of the Millennium Falcon in its hangar…
… while this glimpse of the cantina fight really isn’t anything like the scene in the film, although it captures the proper energy.
He will be missed, but as long as genre film endures, he will not be forgotten.