“His genial contribution, in the form of unequaled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew…When words could not convey my ideas; I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’”
George Lucas talking about McQuarrie’s contribution to the original “Star Wars” trilogy.
A little less than a month ago, on March 3, 2012, a heavy blow was dealt to the fans of the Star Wars universe with the passing of Ralph McQuarrie. Sadly, it was complications from Parkinson’s disease which claimed the 82 year old legendary conceptual artist’s life at his home in Berkeley, California. He is survived by his wife, the former Joan Benjamin, whom he was married to for twenty-nine years, as well as his sister Joan Wolf, and two stepsons, Leonard and Vaughn Griffin. The vivid images in McQuarrie’s artwork helped persuade 20th Century Fox to finance what became the first of the blockbuster films in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but that was just one of the many interesting aspects of the man’s life.
Ralph Angus McQuarrie was born on June 13, 1929 in Gary, Indiana. Raised on a farm near Billings, Montana until he was ten years of age, his family next moved briefly to Seattle, Washington. His father, hoping to find work there was unlucky, so he moved the family to his native country of Canada. It was in Vancouver, British Colombia that Ralph would stay until 1948. The family returned to Seattle and Ralph graduated from high school and began to both work and attend night classes for technical illustration. Two years later, in 1950, he was drafted and served in the United States Army during the Korean War. Luckily, during combat, McQuarrie survived a bullet to the head which pierced his helmet and bloodied his skull. After the war, thanks to the GI bill, he attended The Art Center of Design in Los Angeles (now known as the The Art Center College of Design, located in Pasadena, California). During his two and one half years there, he studied both advertising art and illustration. In an interview McQuarrie gave in the March 1978 edition of the defunct magazine Mediascene, he stated: “Well, I try to concentrate on what I think would be appropriate to any given scene. Part of this approach comes from my years as a student at the Art Center of Design in Los Angeles… they taught the essentials, like quick, poster imagery and color effects. I learned the lessons well enough that I can approach a job methodically at first, and embellish it with my own ideas as I go along.”
He initially began working for a dentistry firm, where he drew equipment and teeth, before moving onto Boeing as an aerodynamic illustrator. At Boeing, McQuarrie was tasked with creating diagrams for manuals which showed how to assemble the 747 jumbo jets. After leaving Boeing in 1965, he began work at a company called Reel Three. During his time there, he animated and designed film posters depicting the Apollo space missions for CBS News, in particular, drawings depicting the lunar surface which could not be televised live.
While those jobs supplied him with work and put money in his pocket, McQuarrie yearned to do commercial art and was particularly interested in working in the medium of film. Eventually, he would meet writer, producer and director, Hal Barwood (The Sugarland Express) and writer / director, Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer), who were working with George Lucas at the time on the 1971 film “THX 1138.” The two were attempting to sell a script called “Star Dancing.” Barwood and Robbins asked McQuarrie to create production paintings of aliens, machinery, and a figure in a space suit.
While working on “Star Dancing,” McQuarrie was introduced to director, George Lucas. After having “Star Wars” rejected by both United Artists and Universal, in 1975, Lucas commissioned McQuarrie to draw concepts in order to help persuade studio executives at 20th Century Fox to green-light his intergalactic space saga. Sifting through Lucas’s script for inspiration, McQuarrie created scenes depicting laser sword-wielding warriors and an aerial space battle between fighter planes. The artwork helped push Lucas’s vision over the top, and thus was born one of the most successful film franchises of all time.
McQuarrie’s involvement with the ‘galaxy far, far away’ didn’t end there. He was directly responsible for both creating and modifying the appearance of numerous central characters, such as: the gold platted body of the humanoid looking C-3PO; adding the big foot characteristics to Chewbacca; designing the trashcan on wheels appearance of RD-D2; and the armor of the Stormtroopers. But, when it came to designing one of science-fictions quintessential bad guys, McQuarrie’s influence can directly be seen by several of the additions he suggested to George Lucas for the Darth Vader character. McQuarrie gave Vader both his black caped outfit and Samurai-inspired helmet; but in an interview he gave, McQuarrie had this to say regarding his thoughts about what he felt was a crucial addition that needed to be made to the character’s conceptual design: “The first thing I thought was, ‘Shouldn’t he have some sort of breathing apparatus if he’s entering the vacuum of space?’ I asked George and he said, ‘Fine, give him a breath mask.'” The addition of the breathing mask affects the way Vader speaks in the films. If not for its inclusion, instead of having the unique sounding vocals of James Earl Jones, (Field of Dreams) Lucas might have allowed bodybuilder turned actor David Prowse to speak Vader’s dialogue, which would have given the character a British sounding accent.
In both of the sequels to the original “Star Wars” movie, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), which, in this blogger’s opinion, was the superior and the best of the six films, and in “Return of the Jedi” (1983) McQuarrie made his mark – but especially in Empire. Lucas tasked McQuarrie with creating both the frozen planet of Hoth, where fans of the Star Wars universe were treated to a near death experience for heroic Luke Skywalker at the hands of the Wampa snow beast, Snowtroopers and the deadly AT-AT Walkers, as well as the Bespin cloud city, which is where Vader revealed a truth to Luke that the young rebel didn’t want to accept. Trivia buffs take note: McQuarrie has a non-speaking cameo role as General Pharl McQuarrie (a play on his name) in “The Empire Strikes Back” during the tremendous battle sequence that takes place on Hoth. In 2007, for the 30th anniversary of the first “Star Wars” film, an action figure in McQuarrie’s likeness, replete with a blaster in his holster and his hands behind his back, was produced by Hasbro Toys.
Beyond the Star Wars universe, McQuarrie worked on three Steven Spielberg films, creating the original drawings of the alien ships in both “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” (1982), as well as working on conceptual art for“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). Additional movies that were graced with his talent included, but are not limited to, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and “Batteries Not Included.” It was, however, his work on the Ron Howard film “Cocoon,”(1985) which earned him an Oscar at the 58th Annual Academy Awards for Best Effects, Visual Effects. McQuarrie shared the honor with three other people: David Berry, Scott Farrar, and Ken Ralston. In addition to those accomplishments, McQuarrie created illustrations and designs for the pilot episode of the original “Battlestar Galactica” television program; designed covers for short-story collections by prolific author Isaac Asimov (I, Robot); and, along with Douglas Trumbull, collaborated on the “Back to the Future” ride at Universal Studios theme park.
Ralph McQuarrie brought a treasure trove of imagination to all of the work he did and inspired an entire generation of artists. I feel it is only fitting to end this blog with a quote from him: “It’s really a nice feeling to go down the street and see, on the sidewalk, a bubblegum wrapper with Darth Vader’s picture on it. And Darth’s face on the cover of Time, too. It’s interesting to have done something out in the world that everyone looks at all the time. You become part of the public happening.”