‘Star Wars Rebels’: Ralph McQuarrie legacy on view in animated series

Oct. 03, 2014 | 12:15 p.m.
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Lothal's cities in "Star Wars Rebels" draw their inspiration from Ralph McQuarrie's Alderaan. (Lucasfilm)

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Ralph McQuarrie's Alderaan featured clear blue skies and a sharply vertical skyline. (Lucasfilm)

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McQuarrie's Alderaan designs became the basis for Ezra's communications tower home on Lothal. (Lucasfilm)

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The surface of Alderaan was never seen in "Star Wars," so Ralph McQuarrie's concepts went unused. (Lucasfilm)

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Lothal, the home planet of 'Rebels' main character, Ezra, is under Empire control as the series begins, retaining the drab, gray color scheme of the regime. (Lucasfilm)

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Ralph McQuarrie's paintings for Bespin in "Star Wars: Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back" featured sharply vertical clouds. (Lucasfilm)

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Ralph McQuarrie's vertical clouds didn't appear in "Star Wars: Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back," but they're present in the skies over Lothal in "Rebels." (Lucasfilm)

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Ralph McQuarrie's depiction of a TIE Fighter and an X-Wing in the Death Star trench showed the drab grays of the Empire. (Lucasfilm)

The sun was shining brightly on one recent afternoon at Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ lush yet cozy retreat in Marin County. But Kilian Plunkett, art director for the new animated series “Star Wars Rebels,” was not outside enjoying a stroll through Lucas’ vineyard or taking a dip in the waters of Lake Ewok. He was inside, in the dim light of the Lucasfilm archive, holding a bit of cinematic history in his hands.

Lothal's cities in "Star Wars Rebels" draw their inspiration from Ralph McQuarrie's Alderaan. (Lucasfilm)

Lothal’s cities in “Star Wars Rebels” draw their inspiration from Ralph McQuarrie’s Alderaan. (Lucasfilm)

At just 18×41 centimeters, artist Ralph McQuarrie’s gouache concept paintings for the original “Star Wars” trilogy are smaller than expected, but then again, so is the Mona Lisa. Physical size bears no relation to the impact these paintings have on pop culture.

“I always assumed these things were giant movie poster size,” Plunkett said as he pointed out the finer details of McQuarrie’s style.

For “Star Wars” fans around the world, “Rebels” is a hold-your-breath kind of moment.

As the first look at the “Star Wars” universe under its new Disney ownership, many see the animated series as a bellwether of the franchise’s direction for the many films and offshoots to come. There will be a lot of curiosity and a little apprehension when the series premieres on the Disney Channel Friday. (It will then transition to Disney XD on Oct. 13 for the remainder of its run).

Ralph McQuarrie's Alderaan featured clear blue skies and a sharply vertical skyline. (Lucasfilm)

Ralph McQuarrie’s Alderaan featured clear blue skies and a sharply vertical skyline. (Lucasfilm)

But while there may be some fear of a “Star Wars” future as drained of joy and color as the Empire’s uniforms, what fans will find with “Rebels” is something as familiar as John Williams’ fanfare and the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

Set in the time period just before the original 1977 “Star Wars,” (later retitled “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope”), the new series follows Ezra (Taylor Gray), a teenage thief on a planet ruled by the Empire who stumbles onto the nascent Rebel Alliance that will ultimately save the day. Not a trade route dispute or a Midi-chlorian to be found.

“It’s the origin story of the Rebel Alliance,” executive producer Simon Kinberg told fans at San Diego’s Comic-Con International, comparing “Star Wars Rebels” to a story of the American Revolution. “They’re rebels who don’t imagine they’ll be part of a larger organization one day.”

The rebels include Kanan, voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr., a Jedi knight on the run and in hiding; Zeb, a tall alien voiced by Steven Blum that’s based on McQuarrie’s original designs for Chewbacca; Sabine, a Mandalorian weapons expert played by Tiya Sircar; and Hera, the pilot and mother figure of the group voiced by Vanessa Marshall. Other, more familiar faces appear from time to time.

“ ‘Rebels’ will tell the story of a group of characters; in this way it is more like the original trilogy which followed Han, Luke and Leia, where the prequels showed us the grand scale and political as well as personal,” said Dave Filoni, who executive produces the series with Kinberg. Filoni will be familiar to fans of the previous “Star Wars” animated series “The Clone Wars,” where he was supervising director.

McQuarrie's Alderaan designs became the basis for Ezra's communications tower home on Lothal. (Lucasfilm)

McQuarrie’s Alderaan designs became the basis for Ezra’s communications tower home on Lothal. (Lucasfilm)

Just one day before the show’s premiere, Disney announced it had already been renewed for a second season.

Without the guiding hand of Lucas – he sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 — Filoni and his team reached into “Star Wars’” distant past to tap the talents of McQuarrie, who died in 2012.

The artist’s name may not be as instantly recognizable to “Star Wars” fans as Lucas’, but his mind dreamed up iconic images including Darth Vader’s imposing mask and many alien landscapes.

The heroes of “Rebels” hail from a backwoods planet called Lothal, which bears a close resemblance to McQuarrie’s vision of Alderaan.

Lothal, the home planet of 'Rebels' main character, Ezra, is under Empire control as the series begins, retaining the drab, gray color scheme of the regime. (Lucasfilm)

Lothal, the home planet of ‘Rebels’ main character, Ezra, is under Empire control as the series begins, retaining the drab, gray color scheme of the regime. (Lucasfilm)

“We wanted to go back to Ralph’s original paintings, because they were driven much more by imagination,” Plunkett said. “We’re not being inspired by what was on screen. We’re being inspired by the stuff that inspired what ended up on screen.”

Or, in some cases, what didn’t. A number of the rich scenes and environments McQuarrie imagined for the original “Star Wars” never actually made it onto the screen. These images, including a glimpse at the doomed planet Alderaan (destroyed by the Death Star in the original movie), will finally get a chance to breathe, though in altered form, in “Rebels.”

“All this work was done and it only appeared as a big fireball [in ‘A New Hope’], so we’re amazingly lucky to get this peek behind the curtain,” Plunkett said.

But the series isn’t just evoking the original designs. It’s a computer-animated series in the 21st century with its heart firmly planted in the 1970s.

Everything about this new production is intended to evoke that original trilogy vibe, often in subtle ways. CG effects supervisor Joel Aron studied the lenses used to film “A New Hope,” virtual camera moves are designed to replicate the technology Lucas and company had to work with 37 years ago, and the even the grain of the film stock “A New Hope” was shot on is re-created.

The characters are not strapping and heroic, as you would find in most animated series, but lankier, bearing a not-accidental resemblance to those old Kenner “Star Wars” action figures that were ubiquitous in the 1980s.

And the fashion has more in common with the “Saturday Night Fever” era than anything else, be it mutton chop whiskers on an Imperial officer or a tight polyester vest.

“At one point we had Zeb in bell bottoms,” Filoni said.

Ralph McQuarrie's paintings for Bespin in "Star Wars: Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back" featured sharply vertical clouds. (Lucasfilm)

Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings for Bespin in “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back” featured sharply vertical clouds. (Lucasfilm)

But there is a limit to just how far the new series will go to evoke the era. Even if it is a line Plunkett would happily cross.

“I wish we could do matte lines,” Plunkett said, referring to the visual artifact present in many pre-digital era effects films. “I’m just old-school and nostalgic enough that if there were giant chunky black lines around stuff, I’d be fine with it.”

– Patrick Kevin Day  | @patrickkevinday

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


One Response to ‘Star Wars Rebels’: Ralph McQuarrie legacy on view in animated series

  1. @nakedrobsf says:

    I'm starting to like this after 2 episodes.

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