The Man Who Helped Imagine Star Wars
March 6, 2012
Simply put, without Ralph McQuarrie the Star Wars films would not have been possible. The 82-year old artist died this past Saturday in his home in California, nearly 40 years after he helped alter the course of pop culture and cinema. Without McQuarrie’s efforts, the world would never have experienced the thrill of cosmic dogfights nor witnessed the heights of pulp modernist drama George Lucas cobbled together from a profane mix of Shakespeare and 1940′s sci-fi serials. The cultural landscape of an entire generation would have been significantly changed, while the micro-blogging literacy of millennials would have lost entire vocabularies of meme-able resources to draw from. Still, we would have been spared the shameless gimmicks of the unrelenting merchandising empire that would become Lucasfilm, which continues to plunder the archives to further exploit McQuarrie’s influential work.
McQuarrie’s now famous panoramic gouaches convinced 20th Century Fox to give Lucas–the shy nerd with glasses who longingly observed the drag races and drive-in romances of American Graffiti from afar–a chance. With just a script and an awkward disposition, the young filmmaker had little luck shopping his epic around Hollywood. After several dismal meetings, Lucas hired McQuarrie. an illustrator formerly employed by Boeing and CBS for, among other things, drawings of the Apollo space program, to draft visuals which would accompany the scripted scenes. Won over by McQuarrie’s dozen or so conceptual paintings, the executives at Fox green-lit the space production, providing Lucas with the initial funding he needed and sending him on his way. Continue.
All images: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Among McQuarrie’s initial drawings were the beginnings of the films’ most iconic characters and settings. From a lightsaber duel between Darth Vader, here rendered with an anguished Japanese samurai mask and debonair blaster on his side, and Luke Skywalker, pictured wearing a breathing device resembling a scuba mask, to the dark, dingy Mos Eisley dive where two bountyhunters, an indecipherable Han Solo and a rodent-like rendition of Greedo, face off as a pair of Metropolis-esque droids look on, this first set of paintings would firmly establish the look and feel of the Star Wars universe.
In subsequent tableaux McQuarrie, whom Lucas would keep on throughout the development of the series, further fleshed out the aesthetics and tectonics of the films’ built environment. McQuarrie gave form to the architectural and socio-political polarities between the Galactic Empire and the fledgling rebel alliance; the rigor of the mechanistic, streamlined interiors of the Death Star, for example, extends to the design of everything from the Emperor’s diverse array of ships and weaponry, not to mention the cities of conquered planets, to the uniforms of his lowly subjects (think Apple’s design hegemony) and cohere a pointed contrast to the weathered world inhabited by the rebels. Paintings depicting the state of the latter possess an earthy quality that both evokes the somberness associated with the romantic ruin and a certain Rossi-esque timelessness of contemporary “ruins in reverse” that characterize the rebel base at Yavin, what is essentially a campus of Brutalist structures (i.e. monumental bunkers) which entomb a fleet of salvaged X-and Y-wings. (Though the fact that the quasi-sanctified palace in which Princess Leia officiates the medal ceremony that concludes Episode IV eerily recalls Albert Speer’s Nuremburg Cathedral of Light hints at the possibility that the rebels’ interests aren’t entirely noble.)
At the same time, though much of it would find its way onto the screen, McQuarrie’s work differs in tone with that of Lucas’s, at times, unabashedly hokey space opera. Granted, while the films themselves would progressively darken as new characters and situations would be absorbed into the narrative, they would never quite embody the moody, survivalist bent exhibited by McQuarrie’s paintings, which oscillate between the fantasy of Tolkeinian imagery and the dystopic chill of Blade Runner (as most evidenced by the Mos Eisely Cantina, Cloud City at dusk, and the almost urban conglomerations of space ships in outer space).
Lucas was right in asserting, in a statement issued in reaction to the news of the artist’s death, that McQuarrie was “a generous father to a conceptual art revolution that was born of his artwork, and which seized the imaginations of thousands and propelled them into the film industry.” McQuarrie, who would go onto work on several blockbuster films, including Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., plus Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Trek IV, developed the template for all future sci-fi films whose reach can still be felt today, as in films such as James Cameron’s Avatar and even Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Lucas himself probably summed it up best: “Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision ‘Star Wars,’ ” Mr. Lucas said in a written statement. “When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’”