Monday, 11 June 2018

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 5) - An Appreciation of Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph Angus McQuarrie (13th June 1929 - 3rd March 2012) was born in Gary, Indiana and began art classes at the age of ten.  After graduation and active service in the Korean War (where he survived a shot to the head thanks to his helmet lining), he studied at the Art Centre College of Design in California - alongside ‘visual futurist’ (to be) Syd Mead - and in 1950 began working at the Boeing Company in Seattle as a technical illustrator.  Moving to California, he worked for Reel Three which produced illustrations for NASA that were used on CBS News’ live coverage of the Apollo space program and that led to a call from Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins who needed illustrations to help sell a film they were planning.  Whilst Ralph wasn't particularly interested in sci-fi, he “was in love with airplanes and spacecraft" and working on the illustrations “felt like that was really the place I should be. I had found what I should be doing.”

Though Barwood & Robbins, Ralph was contacted by their friend George Lucas for help with his own sci-fi project.  "He was interested in talking to me...about a big space-fantasy film.  A couple [of] years went by and George did American Graffiti…then one day he called to see if I'd be interested in doing something for Star Wars.”

with George Lucas
The script was complicated and Lucas knew he needed something to sell it, without having to rely on the imaginations of the studio executives.  “George said, I’ll give you this script, read it, and when you come to something you like, make a little pencil drawing and we’ll look at it later.”  They met every couple of weeks with Ralph doing his “best to depict what I thought the film should look like. I didn't think the film would ever get made. My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn't be enough of an audience. It's just too complicated. But George knew a lot of things that I didn't."

On the strength of the paintings and the pitch, Lucas was given funding to start pre-production.  One of the most famous pictures was one of the first - C3PO and R2-D2 in front of a cliff on Tatooine.  “George wanted Tatooine to be a desert planet with twin I was thinking, 'Desert, extreme heat, no plants, just rocks and dust”.  C3PO came from a “photograph of the female robot from Metropolis (1927), [George] said he’d like Threepio to look like that, except to make him a boy.”  Anthony Daniels saw the painting (which you can see at the end of this post) when he went to audition and was touched by the image.  “Without his inspirational art,” Daniels says in Empire Of Dreams, “I would not be C-3PO. I once said to him, ‘This is all YOUR fault!’ Then I thanked him.”

Concept sketch of the heroes
As well as the sets and ships, Ralph also designed R2-D2, Chewbacca and Darth Vader.  In the script, Vader had flowing black robes “that would flutter in the wind” but as the Sith Lord had to cross between his Star Destroyer and the Rebel Blockade Runner in the vacuum of space, Ralph suggested he needed a breathing mask.  Lucas agreed, suggested adding a samurai helmet “and Darth Vader was born. Simple as that.”

“Working on Star Wars was a special opportunity to start from the ground up,” Ralph later said.  “Being able to create new characters, vehicles and different worlds ... and since when I started it wasn’t even clear that the film would be made, I didn’t have to limit myself.”

As part of the newly created Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) - “there was some sort of a rumour going around that [nobody] over thirty worked on Star Wars and I was 45” - he also produced several key matte paintings, his first foray into the artform.

Following his work on Star Wars, he produced designs for the Mothership in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and worked on a planned Star Trek film (Planet Of The Titans) which never happened.  Ralph moved on to the Battlestar Galactica TV series (1978), designing the craft (his original version of the Viper was re-worked for Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1979)), the aliens and Cylons, producing 24 paintings in total to help sell the project.

Working on the Cloud City landing platform matte painting
from "The Empire Strikes Back"
Back in the ILM fold, Ralph was concept designer for the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which notably featured the debut of Boba Fett, arguably one of his most popular character designs.  For The Empire Strikes Back, he produced concept art and production paintings - including the first glimpse of the AT-ATs - as well as several matte paintings.  He also played the uncredited role of General Pharl McQuarrie at the Hoth base (of which an action figure was made for the Star Wars 30th anniversary) before leaving ILM to go freelance.

He worked on two back-to-back Steven Spielberg films, creating on-screen artwork for Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and the spaceship from E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial (1982).  “Steven was at ILM one day and I talked with him for about five minutes - he said he [wanted] ET’s space ship to look like Dr. Suess designed it. I thought that was kind of interesting, very off the wall.”
top left - artwork of "the power of the ark" as seen in Raiders Of The Lost Ark - right - ET's ship
bottom - concept design for the Mothership in
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
Ralph went back to ILM as conceptual artist for Return Of The Jedi and after his work on the project was finished, George Lucas made a point of thanking him in front of everyone.  Nilo Rodis-Jamero, also a designer on the film, said in interview, “Ralph stood up and said, ‘I was one of the first people that George hired,’ because Ralph is an unbelievably humble man. George got up and said, ‘No, you were the first one.’”

from left - Ken Ralston, Ralph McQuarrie,
Molly Ringwald (presenter), Scott Farrar and David Berry
He was the concept artist on Cocoon (1985) for which ILM won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  Supervisor Ken Ralston said, “Ralph is a big reason why we were honoured. Simply stated Ralph McQuarrie has the ability to paint dreams.”

After working on Masters Of The Universe he finally got his Star Trek chance when, working at ILM, he produced concept designs for  23rd century San Francisco, Starfleet Headquarters, shuttlecrafts, whale tanks, and storyboards for the fourth film The Voyage Home.  He reunited with Matthew Robbins to work on *batteries not included (1987) and his last credit was for Nightbreed (1990) where he painted the history of the breed as a sixty-foot long mural which features heavily in the opening credits.

He was offered the design role for the Star Wars prequel trilogy but felt he’d “run out of steam” and retired, though his Star Wars concept paintings were subsequently displayed in art exhibitions, including the acclaimed 1999 show Star Wars: The Magic Of Myth.  As it is, his original designs and unused concept art are still influencing the saga, both with the animated TV shows, the sequels and the stand-alone films.

McQuarrie died at his Berkeley, California home from complications of Parkinson's disease and is survived by his wife Joan.

Following his passing, George Lucas said, "His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled 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'.  We will all be benefiting from his oeuvre for generations to come. Beyond that, I will always remember him as a kind, patient and wonderfully talented friend and collaborator.”

Star Wars (1977) (production illustrator)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (spaceship designer)
Battlestar Galactica (1978) (production and concept illustrator)
Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) (production illustrator)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) (design consultant and conceptual artist)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (illustrator)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) (scenic artist/spaceship design)
Return of the Jedi (1983) (conceptual artist)
Cocoon (1985) (conceptual artist) Oscar for Best Visual Effects
Masters of the Universe (1987) (conceptual artist)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) (visual consultant)
*batteries not included (1987) (conceptual artist)
Nightbreed (1990) (conceptual artist)

On holiday in Torquay in 1989, I picked up a copy of Ralph's Star Wars portfolio from a second-hand bookshop (and thankfully kept hold of it as they're worth a fortune now).  Having been a big Star Wars fan from the off, I'd seen his work a lot (that little RMcQ was a real guarantee of quality) and I've always been impressed with the scope and vitality of the images.  Here are a few of my favourites...

Concept art for Battlestar Galactica
The Empire Strikes Back Bounty Hunters
 You can read my post on the matte paintings from Star Wars (including several by Ralph) here

2017 marked the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I ran a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

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