A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY – Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars’ Conceptual Artist Passes Away.

Posted on March 4, 2012


It is fairly safe to say that there have been few films that have made such a cultural impact upon their release as Star Wars.There are literally millions of people of a certain age for whom Star Wars wasn’t just a film; it was their fairytale, their playtime fantasy and the steady stream of water that fed their fertile imaginations. Children would fight over who got to be Han and who got to play Luke in their schoolyard games. Toys were lusted after, collected, swapped and fought over by the bucket load. Every kid seemed to own at least one battered VHS copy of the film and would wear their video recorders almost to breaking point with the many repeated viewings. For some of us, myself included, Star Wars was the first film they ever saw. I can attest personally that this film seeped into my pores, was sucked into the bones and now is somehow intrinsically bonded to my DNA. We may be adults now, but many of us are still as passionate about the universe that Star Wars created and the reason is that this world and these characters blurred the line between their fantasy and reality. For us, Star Wars was as much a part of our childhood as our innocence. With all that in mind, it’s hard to believe now that when George Lucas, fresh from his success with American Graffiti, was first trying to pitch his novel science fantasy screenplay, no one wanted to touch it. Science fiction was considered to be a genre that didn’t make big returns and the studios refused to touch it. What Lucas needed was a way in which to convince the studios that this film was not some cardboard matinee production. It may have read like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, but Lucas needed to show that this was a fully realized world, a universe that was populated with real characters and, ultimately, one that, however outlandish, was as complex and as nuanced as our own.

This is where Ralph McQuarrie stepped in. He was able to take what on paper must have felt both fantastical and flimsy, and give it life and substance and dimension. He was able to interpret Lucas’ imaginings and render them in paintings, to not only design the look of key characters and elements of George’s script, but to create a dynamic image that spoke of the drama and emotion of the film they were representing. In each picture there was there was a sense of humanity; there was conflict, or sadness, or excitement, or danger.It was these pictures that really fleshed out the universe of Star Wars, a world that had only previously existed in Lucas’ imagination. Because of this, the studios decided to invest, and the production designers could get to work creating the physical world that McQuarrie had painted so vividly. It is because of his skill as an artist that we have Darth Vader’s towering figure, dressed entirely in black, his helmet a blend of skull and kabuto helmet. Or C-3PO, a golden robot influenced strongly by  Maria, the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. These figures are iconic now. Even those who are not fans of the films must surely know the visage of Vader or the little and large duo of the film’s two droids. The pristine Storm troopers are his interpretation, too. In fact, so much of this beautifully designed and realised world is purely the product of McQuarrie’s designs.McQuarrie went on to design for the subsequent films and was also responsible for the Vipers, Raiders, Basestars and Battlestars of Battlestar Galactica. The Cylons are his, too. McQuarrie chose to step back when it came to the Star Wars prequels and whilst the conceptual designs of those subsequent films are imaginative and beautiful, they are only paying lip service to McQuarrie. Sadly, McQuarrie passed away today, aged 82. His legacy is having given a whole generation an insurmountable amount of joy, having created a world that was fantastic and realistic, futuristic and yet old, imaginative and yet so real to so many of us.