‘Star Wars’: Ralph McQuarrie’s creative force remembered

March 07, 2012 | 7:20 a.m.
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Concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, who died March 3, 2012. (Terry Chostner/Lucasfilm)

“Star Wars” is a persistent (and even relentless) presence  in pop culture today, but in 1974 the Empire existed only in the imagination and writing of George Lucas. To get the expensive intergalactic project off the ground, though, the filmmaker knew he would need more proof of his vision — that’s when he hired artist Ralph McQuarrie to paint vivid dispatches from this far-away galaxy and its alien landscapes, strange warriors and memorable machines.

The collaboration bottled-up a rare sort of lightning and the echo of its thunder grew louder with the news that McQuarrie, 82, died Saturday after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.  The passing put his legacy — both as a Jedi myth-pioneer and a titan of concept art –very much on the mind of  illustrators, filmmakers and fans.

“You know what it’s like? It’s like George Martin and the Beatles,” said fantasy artist Tony DiTerlizzi, referring to the Fab Four and the studio producer who helped make the group the creative engine they became. “You kind of needed both of them.”

McQuarrie had fought in Korea, illustrated catalogs, and found success  as a technical artist for Boeing by the time Lucas, a generation younger, asked him to paint scenes he could take to the studio to persuade them to fund “Star Wars.” After seeing McQuarrie’s paintings, Fox executives gave Lucas the green light for the film.

It was the beginning of a beautiful collaboration between the mastermind behind the space adventure films that would become a worldwide phenomenon and the artist who possessed the ability to find that world first and then paint it. McQuarrie sketched characters for Lucas, including C-3PO, R2-D2, the Stormtroopers, and even providing the mask that would become the defining characteristic of Darth Vader. Lucas referred to McQuarrie’s art as he made the original trilogy, using it as a blueprint on set.

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A Ralph McQuarrie sketch shows Darth Vader leaping. (Lucasfilm)

“When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this,’ ” Lucas said a in statement.

McQuarrie never expected his paintings to find an audience beyond Lucas and his crew, said John Scoleri, who coauthored a book about McQuarrie’s art, but “Star Wars” fans fell in love with his art, and it found its way to posters, action figures and lunch boxes.

“So many people feel that Ralph’s work was the pulse of ‘Star Wars,’ ” Scoleri said. “He created from scratch what so many people since then have kind of taken for granted.”

McQuarrie became known among fans as the “first person to experience the world that George had had in his head,” said John Singh, an entertainment publicist who spent six years working at Lucasfilm.

“Ralph McQuarrie got to the heart and soul of what ‘Star Wars’ was,” Singh said. “The images that he created were so vibrant and filled with color and history. They weren’t story boards. They weren’t comics. They were art.”

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His work with Lucas opened doors for McQuarrie across the film industry, creating concept art for the likes of Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard. He won an Oscar for his work on “Cocoon,” and he worked on “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and even drew the now-famous illustration in the Bible that Indiana Jones opens in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But through all of it, it was “Star Wars” that remained closest to his heart.

“It gave him a chance to do something where he felt like he was in his element,” Scoleri said. “He was really doing that which he was born to do.”

McQuarrie also began illustrating book covers for Del Rey Books, the science-fiction and fantasy publisher home to the “Star Wars” novels as well as the likes of Philip K. Dick, Anne McCaffrey and Arthur C. Clarke. Michael Whelan, another Del Rey artist and perhaps the most popular fantasy illustrator alive, said McQuarrie’s work stood out because “it didn’t look cobbled together from his environment.”

“He brought a level of cinematic realism to science-fiction art,” Whelan said. “It didn’t look, as science-fiction illustration so often does, like things that exist in our world that have been slightly modified and placed in a phony environment, almost like something that was cut out and glued into an environment that already exists. Everything in the environment looked of-a-piece and fresh and made from the same cloth, so to speak. There’s a sense of ambient completeness to all his work. That seamless integration of fantasy and realism is something that really set his work apart from other people working in the field.”

robotdreams Star Wars: Ralph McQuarries creative force rememberedMcQuarrie illustrated two collections of Isaac Asimov’s short stories, “Robot Dreams” and “Robot Visions.” In his introduction to “Robot Dreams,” Asimov wrote that the cover illustration, which “humanizes a robot in a way I have never seen before,” inspired a story in the collection.

“For Isaac Asimov to compliment you on doing something involving robots, it’s one of those pinnacles that you just can’t quite top,” Scoleri said.

Despite his success, McQuarrie is best remembered by his peers as a humble man.

“He really was such a humble, self-effacing guy,” said Stephen Sansweet, former director of content management and fan relations adviser at Lucasfilm. Sansweet remembers being surprised by McQuarrie’s gentle, down-to-earth personality when they met for the first time in 1991. “Here in my eyes, and in the eyes of so many other Star Wars fans and artists who were inspired by him, he was this icon, this god, but he turns out to be this humble, ‘Oh yeah, well, you know, George hired me, and I did my best. It’s really cool to see some of my stuff out there.'”

Lucas praised his patience and humility, and Scoleri described him as “shy and private.”

“He seemed rather humble and not really fully aware of the impact that his work was going to have on the look of science fiction from his time onwards,” Whelan said.

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Ralph McQuarrie. (Giles Hancock/Lucasfilm)

And what an impact it had. McQuarrie’s work paved the way for concept art as a career, inspired hundreds of young artists across film and print illustration fields, and continued to shape the “Star Wars” universe; the concept artists behind the “Star Wars” prequels based many designs on unused McQuarrie work from the first three films, as does “The Clone Wars” — the animated TV series, Sansweet said.

“He changed everything,” Whelan said. “In both his print illustrations and his movie work, there isn’t an artist I know working in the field who hasn’t studied his work minutely to glean whatever gold could be taken from the treasure trove of his work — the composition, the color, the sheer imaginativeness of his creations, the sense of realism to the sense of lighting and the form of the mechanical objects that he rendered — all of it all comes together in his work, and I think it held influence over everything that came afterwards. His influence can’t be overestimated, in my opinion.”

After several years of gathering McQuarrie’s art and stories, Scoleri visited McQuarrie and his wife at their Berkeley home in 2007 to show him the finished product: a limited-edition book featuring his work.

Scoleri remembers McQuarrie sitting in his dining room, flipping through the pages of his paintings and sketches.

“You know,” McQuarrie said, a smile forming on his face, “some of this isn’t too bad.”

— Noelene Clark


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4 Responses to ‘Star Wars’: Ralph McQuarrie’s creative force remembered

  1. len gatdula says:

    Ralph McQuarrie's wonderful artwork inspired—-and will continue to inspire—generations of young creative people. As an artist blessed to be working in the toy business today, I do not know where I'd be if I'd not been 'spurred on' to pursue my dreams after seeing his work for STAR WARS…Mr. McQuarrie, my heartfelt gratitude. It's because of you that I got just 'good enough' with some pencils and markers to find a career in the creative industry. Rest in peace knowing that your imagination lives on in every child who picks up his or her crayons to draw after watching a movie you helped to visualize!

  2. Horace Austin says:

    Good piece on the great Ralph McQuarrie.

  3. relictele says:

    How cruel for an artist to be overtaken by such an insidious, ever-worsening neurological disorder that robbed him of his unique gifts.

  4. tom luong says:

    Does anyone know if all the visualization came from Ralph McQuarrie or were the pictures directed by George Lucas first with ideas and concepts? I am a film maker and would love to know the answer to who was the creator in this case. Thank you!

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