How Ralph McQuarrie’s Concept Art Gave ‘Star Wars’ Its Soul

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In the full-length trailer for The Force Awakens, when the new character, Rey (Daisy Ridley), rappels down inside the remains of a crashed Imperial Star Destroyer, it’s hard for fans not to see the influence of artist Ralph McQuarrie. As Rey’s body is dwarfed by the massive spaceship left to decay on the surface of some desolate, alien world, the image resonates with all the elements of McQuarrie’s work.

A graduate of the Art Center School in Los Angeles, McQuarrie was a technical illustrator for Boeing who would design film posters on the side. The latter led George Lucas to approach him about creating some concept art for a project. What resulted were paintings of vast, decaying worlds that featured golden robots walking across a desert, and images of aerial dogfights in space that bordered on the surreal, but would end up becoming vital to the very existence of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Though McQuarrie died in 2012 at age 82, his influence on the upcoming The Force Awakens remains profound. As director J.J. Abrams strives to make a film that captures what audiences loved about Star Wars in the first place, drawing from the concept art that was crucial to the film’s creation may prove the most important aspect to this approach.

The Classic Trilogy

Back in 1975, McQuarrie met with Lucas to discuss the making of an epic adventure that two years later would become the first Star Wars movie. Lucas was having trouble describing his vision of a space opera made “with the energy” of Flash Gordon, a property he tried and failed to obtain the rights to. Having trouble securing funding for his own story, written in the same swashbuckling, sci-fi vein, Lucas commissioned McQuarrie to paint conceptual images of what this make-believe world of his might look like.

George had ideas about how his picture would look. In fact, I think the look of the picture was more interesting to him than the plot.

Never believing the project would get made, McQuarrie went wild with his designs, which ironically became an integral part in persuading 20th Century Fox to back the project, helping turn Star Wars into a reality. Aside from creating the aesthetic, McQuarrie would go on to design several of the trilogy’s characters, and was the one who suggested that Darth Vader wear his signature breathing apparatus. Building on McQuarrie’s idea, Lucas then added a samurai helmet (a nod to a cinematic idol, Akira Kurosawa), and a screen villain for the ages was born.

After Star Wars, McQuarrie stayed on board as a conceptual designer for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as the now-disowned Star Wars Holiday Special, which featured the debut of Boba Fett, one of his most popular character designs. He’d worked on other noteworthy projects, including Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Earth-bound Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and the sci-fi comedy *batteries not included. His last credit was as the conceptual artist for the Clive Barker horror film Nightbreed in 1990.

The Prequel Trilogy

A few years later, when Lucas and company were gearing up to begin production on the Star Wars prequels, McQuarrie was offered his old job, which he turned down, believing he had simply “run out of steam.” The job was then given to Industrial Light & Magic creative director Doug Chiang, who would work as the design director for The Phantom Menace and concept design supervisor for Attack of the Clones.

While Chiang had initially primed himself to recreate McQuarrie’s aesthetic, Lucas had told him to “put that all aside. We’re going to do something new. We’re going to go back and kind of re-create this world.” What resulted had a noticeable disconnect between the prequel and the classic trilogies, which did not go unnoticed by fans.

Spaceships, for example, were based on modern, existing aircraft, instead of the burgers and streetlights that helped give the original three films such a unique, alien look. Chiang’s work is commendable in its own right, but Lucas’ conscious decision to change the aesthetic meant that it simply didn’t feel like Star Wars anymore.

The Sequel Trilogy

Enter Abrams, who was given the director’s chair for the first movie in a new Star Wars trilogy shortly after Disney bought the rights for a cool $4 billion in 2012. Abrams’ goal became to recreate the aesthetic that made the classic trilogy so beloved, stating “when you’re lucky enough to inherit the history of this world that we know, there should be a continuum.”

To help, Abrams enlisted production designer Rick Carter, who’s won Oscars for his work on films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and James Cameron’s Avatar. Together, the two began going through McQuarrie’s old sketches looking for ideas that they could incorporate into their continuation of the Star Wars universe. Combing through every available image in the Lucasfilm archives, Abrams’ celebrated McQuarrie’s distinct compositions.

Much of what he did was embracing fundamental form. He wouldn’t overcomplicate things. He would use really familiar shapes. So if you think of like the Star Destroyer was a giant triangular ship or a TIE fighter was just sort of two planes and a sphere.

When production was under way last summer, photos of the sets leaked to the press began to reveal the extent that Abrams was going to pay homage to McQuarrie’s designs. As more footage was released, iconic elements such as the X-Wing, stormtroopers, and lightsabers all shared a look that was new, yet somehow familiar. Even BB-8, already on its way to becoming a fan favorite, was based on one of McQuarrie’s original concepts for R2D2, back when he was envisioned as “running on a giant ball-bearing — just a sphere, a circle, wheel-like. He had gyros so he could go in any direction on this ball.”

Abrams’ strive for an authenticity didn’t stop there, as he’s been particularly outspoken about utilizing both practical and in-camera effects whenever possible. With The Force Awakens being the first film produced without Lucas, (though he wasn’t around much during The Empire Strikes Back), even the most skeptical fans are eager to engage with an entirely new chapter in the Star Wars saga.

The ongoing saga

In conjunction with The Force Awakens, the animated series Star Wars: Rebels also draws heavily from McQuarrie’s work. Together they work to emphasize a specific look that will undoubtedly run through all forthcoming Star Wars projects, alternating between trilogy installments and standalone films set to run until the end of time.

However far, far into the future that Star Wars movies may go, McQuarrie’s work has, from the beginning, been the driving force in getting people excited about it and continues to play that role to this day. After all, when Lucas would have trouble describing what he needed, he’d simply point to one of McQuarrie’s paintings before telling the crew to simply “do it like this.”

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