As a person who loves to design spaceships and original sci-fi universes, I’ve had three primary artistic influences: Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, and Syd Mead. While the latter men blew my mind with their industrial and vehicle illustrations, Ralph McQuarrie is the one who truly stirred my imagination.
He died this week at the age of 82.
I remember the first time I saw his work. It was way back in fifth grade: the Fall of 1976. I found a magazine in class that talked about cool new things in the media; inside was an article about a forthcoming science-fiction film that piqued my interest. Along with the text was a single shot — a pre-visualization from the original Star Wars depicting Tusken Raiders next to a derelict ship at sunset.
While the aliens freaked me out a little, there was a quality to the picture that I had never seen before. I felt transported to another world by a single image. In fact, I even asked the teacher if I could take the magazine home. I pondered it for days. Where was that place? Who were those aliens? What was that ship they were next to? Was it Earth in the future or another world all together?
Once I saw Star Wars the following summer, that image was replaced by a two-hour journey to a magical futuristic world. While my friends were consumed by the story, I was enthralled with the visuals. Now I had even more questions: How was Star Wars made? Who came up with the look and feel of the film?
Luckily, my Aunt Cecelia gave me a copy of The Art of Star Wars. It soon became my most precious possession. Here I saw the rich production paintings and illustrations of McQuarrie and the design team. I was even more amazed by what he had imagined than what ended up on screen. It probably would have been too expensive to actually build and film his actual vision.
There were vast corridors and vistas. Drawings of detailed costumes that went far beyond what was possible for the filmmakers to make at the time. It was all so cool (and prohibitively expensive without today’s CGI). That probably was for the best. The limitations of budget and technology freed the creative team to use their minds and hands to developed the rich world depicted in the film from the ground up.
To this day, I still have never had an experience like the first time I saw Star Wars.
In subsequent years, I followed the work of Ralph McQuarrie with continued interest. The Empire Strikes Back — my favorite of all six films — far outdistanced the designs of the original. Hoth, the asteroid belt, Dagobah, and the amazing Cloud City all expanded the Star Wars visual universe to new heights thanks to McQuarrie’s brilliant work.
As reported by the official Star Wars site, George Lucas recalled of his friend:
“Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision Star Wars. His genial contribution, in the form of unequaled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy.
When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’
I will always remember him as a kind and patient, and wonderfully talented, friend and collaborator.”
What a fitting tribute. In the end, as much as anything else has influenced who I am, the designs of Ralph McQuarrie have deeply impacted my life. They are forever embedded in the fabric of my imagination.
Thank you, sir, and rest in piece. You definitely will not be forgotten.
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