Yesterday the world lost a visionary artist and tremendous human being in Ralph McQuarrie. He has been an inspiration to me since my very earliest years, his unparalleled work on the original Star Wars trilogy was the first to take hold of my imagination and transport it far, far away to another galaxy. He is now, and always has been, a true hero of mine. This one hurts, he will be greatly missed.
I came across a folder chalk-full of McQuarrie’s Star Wars paintings and sketches Friday night while doing some much-needed file organization. I said to myself, “I really need to do a post about him” and put it on my to-do list. Little did I know that less than 24 hours later he would be gone and I’d be writing that post in his honor.
Ralph McQuarrie, for all intents and purposes, designed the look of Star Wars; from the characters and space ships, to the exotic worlds. He worked directly with George Lucas on the original Star Wars film starting in 1974 and met with him regularly to go over character sketches and concepts. The set designers, model makers, and makeup artists all took their cues from McQuarrie’s artwork.
“I would say that a lot of what you see on film was already set. The production department used my paintings as reference, the special-effects department worked from the paintings that I had done as well. So a lot of my designs were realised on the screen.
“It was a nice feeling to see all my work on the screen, even if it didn’t match my concepts exactly as I had envisioned them.”
Of course, McQuarrie also designed Darth Vader’s iconic mask, even though the early version was much more menacing than the final product. Here’s a little insight into how it came to be:
“George had described Vader as having flowing black robes. In the script, Vader had to jump from one ship to another, and in order to survive the vacuum of space, I felt he needed some sort of breathing mask. George said ‘OK’, suggested adding a samurai helmet, and Darth Vader was born. Simple as that.”
I was only about a year old when Star Wars hit the big screen in 1977, and my first memories of a movie theater are almost exclusively of Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back. I recall how different things worked back then, there was no VHS and barely any cable television to speak of, so the only way to watch a major motion picture was to do so in a theater while it was showing. Because of the overwhelming demand, both Star Wars and Empire Strikes back were continually re-released to theaters and I made my dad take me more times than I’m sure he would have liked.
Anybody who was a kid during this time will tell you that it was ALL about Star Wars; toys, comic books, novels, read-along adventures, lunch boxes, you name it.
I have some hazy memories of Star Wars novels that an older friend of mine had at his house. Specifically one entitled, “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye“, for which McQuarrie painted the cover. Everything about his cover creeped me right out, but I was transfixed by it. It was so dark and so mysterious I couldn’t get its image out of my head. The book’s title, the ominous silhouette of Darth Vader, Luke and Leia laying helpless before him, the misty trees and crumbling ruins, and that strange glowing orb; what the heck was going on?!
My friend refused to let me borrow the book, and so I never got to read it. But that played directly into my personal mythology about it. I remember dreaming up scenarios that got Luke and Leia to that wooded planet and how the came to be at Vader’s mercy, answering questions that came up along the way with my own answers. Why was Vader alone with them in the woods? Where were the Storm Troopers? What are those ruins from?
It launched my imagination into hyper-drive and I loved every second of it.