RIP Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars and science fiction art legend

Ralph McQuarrie at work. Picture: Empire Magazine

Ralph McQuarrie at work. Picture: Empire Magazine

I ONLY started back at Scyfilove yesterday and already I’m faced with having to write about the death of the great Star Wars artist and illustrator Ralph McQuarrie at 82.

Ralph McQuarrie basically played a massive role in making Star Wars happen in the first place and then in realising George Lucas‘s vision once they had secured the green light.

He did that with a series of magnificent illustrations of characters and moments in the script, the first time they had taken shape in anything other than Lucas’s mind.

Ralph McQuarrie first came onto the scene in 1975 when 20th Century Fox were interested in Star Wars, but hadn’t picked up their initial option because they were unsure and hesitant about what the film would be.

Lucas called in freelance artist McQuarrie and showed him a couple of sketches he’d done of characters and a picture of a lemur, as inspiration for Chewbacca.

Working alongside Lucas who paid him out of his own pocket, McQuarrie came up with five sketches and then paintings from the second draft of the script to bring the film to life and help clinch crucial studio support.

Lucas described their working process like this: “He does a rough sketch and then I correct the rough sketch, then he does another rough sketch and I correct that and we keep doing it until I feel we’re close enough to where he can do a big painting. But Ralph also adds in an enormous amount of his own detail, his own textual and design elements, which are a great help.”

One of the earliest paintings was of Darth Vader facing off against Deak Starkiller, then a key character who would eventually morph into Obi Wan Kenobi but also some of Luke Skywalker too.

Ralph McQuarrie's painting of Darth Vader battling Deak Starkiller

Ralph McQuarrie's painting of Darth Vader battling Deak Starkiller

Ralph McQuarrie said: “For Darth Vader, George just said he would like to have a very tall, dark, fluttering figure that had a spooky feeling like it came in on the wind.

“He mentioned the look of Arab costumes, all tied up in silk and rags. He liked the idea of Vader having a big hat, like a fisherman’s hat, a big long metal thing that came down. George wanted him to have some sort of mask, because they were supposed to leap down from this big ship to a smaller ship that the rebels were in.

“The space suits began as being necessary for their survival in space, but they became part of their characters.”

From that point on, Ralph McQuarrie’s drawings became a key part of the creative process, helping shape the final film and crystallising the work coming out of the fledgling Industrial Light and Magic studio.

ILM staffer Paul Huston remembers one such McQuarrie moment.

“We had wooden tables and were drawing X-Wings all day, but when Ralph McQuarrie came in everybody would go to the front office and there’d be one of Ralph’s illustrations with tissue paper over it.

“One time Ralph folded the tissue paper back to reveal this painting of a TIE fighter over the Death Star with an X-Wing – just an incredibly detailed, beautiful painting.

Ralph McQuarrie's vision of an X-Wing fighter being chased by a TIE Fighter above The Death Star

Ralph McQuarrie's vision of an X-Wing fighter being chased by a TIE Fighter above The Death Star

“I was just knocked out by that vision. Ralph’s illustrations became a focus for everyone involved in the visual work. It unified the whole facility.”

Of course he went on to have a fantastic career after Star Wars, on the sequels but also designing the alien spaceships in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., drafting pictures for the original Battlestar Galactica and winning an Oscar for his work on Cocoon.

But it is for his work in defining the Star Wars universe that Ralph McQuarrie will be remembered and that has secured his legacy among science fiction fans young and old.

As George Lucas said in his tribute: “When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.'”

Rest in peace Ralph.

* Thanks to The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film for the quotes and anecdotes about Ralph McQuarrie’s work on Star Wars.

* You can visit Ralph McQuarrie’s website by clicking here.

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