Ralph McQuarrie RIP
Ralph McQuarrie, the man who inspired generations of artists with his iconic artwork for the original Star Wars films, has died at the age of 82.

We were lucky enough to interview him last year for our celebratory Star Wars issue. We spoke about his industrial design background, his work technique, and how a chance meeting with a young George Lucas changed everything.

Here is the interview, as it appeared in the October issue of ImagineFX.

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Without Ralph McQuarrie there would be no Star Wars.

In 1975 a young George Lucas was touting his idea for a space extravaganza around Hollywood. United Artists turned it down. Universal couldn’t grasp the idea. Men in suits used to counting bottom lines failed to connect with a universe of a myriad boggle-eyed creatures, rebellious galactic princesses and space-knights wielding pseudo-religious doctrine. Lucas needed someone to visualise his ideas…

At the same time Ralph was fresh from California’s Art Center College of Design and, after a stint at CBS creating paintings and animation for the Apollo moon landing, took a job with Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins on a movie pitch called Galactic. “There were furry blue aliens with lights on their chests, robots that climbed up the wall [and] a big vehicle they explored this planet with” recalls Ralph. “I really enjoyed the work. I felt like I was where I should be as an artist with these illustrations.”

Although Galactic never reached the big screen, Hal and Matthew introduced Ralph to their friend George Lucas, who was struggling to get his intergalactic war film made. “It sounded like a neat idea, but I didn’t expect to ever hear from him again,” says Ralph, remembering his first, casual meeting with the filmmaker. But soon George was back and needed Ralph’s help with one last pitch, to 20th Century Fox, to create paintings that would enable the executives to understand the scope of the film George had in mind. “While I was working on these things, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if some of these actually made it into the movie!”

Making movies

While the pitch went smoothly – Star Wars was up and running – it was the result of three months’ hard work. Ralph had been given reference material edited together by George, from which he would create his art. Then the film-maker would come by, indicate which he liked and those which needed changes.

Of course, Ralph also had an early draft of the script on his desk. “I was captivated by it,” says the artist as he remembers the first time he read the script for Star Wars. “The day I got the script from George and Gary [Kurtz], I started sketching right away. I did some thumbnails of the ships flying around the planet being chased by rebel fighters. I think I had it all wrong in terms of what was finally filmed, but those were the first illustrations I did for Star Wars.”  

Industrial influence

By the time filming began George had hired an art team to visualise his story. Although Ralph worked from home, rarely visiting the sets, his work on the pre-production designs influenced the whole film, including those artists who were hired. Like Ralph, new storyboard artist Joe Johnston and modeller Steve Gawley had a similar industrial design background. “While at Art Center, Syd Mead was one that we all looked up to,” recalls Ralph.

Eventually even the script was waylaid as Ralph’s imagination took hold, with George preferring to talk through ideas before writing them down. This creative approach led to many of the film’s key designs, including Darth Vader, R2-D2 and the Sandcrawler. However, the most iconic design was the Death Star.

“At the time, I imagine many of my illustrations would have been considered ‘out there’,” says Ralph. He explains how his design for the Death Star would have looked more like one of his favourite photo enlargers he uses for painting – focusing a gigantic laser cannon. “George liked the sphere, based on some science-fiction illustrations he had seen by John Berkey. I felt the sphere was such a comfortable form, but I have to say it worked well in the film.”

Traditional skills

Ralph retired before digital art took hold, yet his process is similar to many concept artists working today in Photoshop. He would start with a drawing the same size as he was going to paint, which for production paintings was 15x8.5 inches. Often Ralph would use his image enlarger to blow-up a thumbnail drawing, before refining the sketch on tissue. “I might use several layers of tissue representing different levels in the painting,” says Ralph. He’d tape off a piece of illustration board the size of the painting and put a coat of acrylic on it to get rid of the white. “I would then put my drawing down on the illustration board and trace down what I was going to paint. I’d paint my way from the background to the foreground, painting in silhouettes for foreground objects, and then trace down the details from original illustration into the silhouette. I’d paint in the details until I felt the piece was finished.”

Ralph would regularly need to refine his paintings as filming and production developed. While he painted concepts for the X-wing and TIE fighter craft, the likes of Joe Johnston and Colin Cantwell would take them on and refine them at the modelling stage. Likewise, some of Ralph’s most popular designs came about by sheer luck. Like many of us, Ralph had a tendency to doodle in meetings. As George led a meeting about Empire Strikes Back, Ralph etched out a helmet design in his notes. “When we were done, George looked at it and said we should use that for a bounty hunter,” Ralph says, explaining how Boba Fett’s iconic look came about. “It was just one of many concepts I worked on for the films,” says Ralph modestly.

Many of Ralph’s pre-production paintings weren’t meant to make it to the film, yet they were so concise, fresh and dynamic that George took them down to the set to help him express how he wanted Star Wars to look.

Still going strong

Later Ralph returned to his paintings in the book The Illustrated Star Wars Universe, revisiting some ideas from his production paintings. “I was able to complete additional paintings of Dagobah, Cloud City and the Imperial City that would finally appear on screen in the prequels,” says Ralph. His original production paintings were used again for the very same purpose when work began on Star Wars Episode I, under the leadership of Doug Chiang. Concepts and scenes that went unused from the original trilogy, including designs for the Imperial City for Return of the Jedi, eventually made it into the prequels, which proved just how timeless Ralph’s concepts were.

From Star Wars, Ralph went on to work on a number of other films, including Battlestar Galactica, ET and Cocoon – for which he won an Academy Award. He has also illustrated science-fiction book covers and two volumes of Isaac Asmiov’s short stories on robots. “As a result of Star Wars, my work has been seen by millions, reproduced the world over and collected in numerous art books,” says Ralph acknowledging the impact those first three months in 1975 had on his life. “Many artists work their entire lives without such recognition, so I realise how fortunate I am. And I owe it all to Star Wars.”

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Issues of the original print edition of our special Star Wars issue are still available.

Or you can get the digital issue for Apple's Newsstand.

Android users can also get their digital editions.