“Ralph McQuarrie is the most iconic artist in the history of Star Wars. He worked hand-in-hand with George Lucas to help establish the saga’s visual aesthetic, it’s inimitable look and feel.”
Above text is from the dustjacket of Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie, a massive two volume book set, which illustrates Ralph McQuarrie’s design work on the original Star Wars trilogy. Before Star Wars assignment, McQuarrie worked as an illustrator in the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle. McQuarrie’s first proper film industry assignment was to illustrate a film poster for Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972). While moving from Seattle to Los Angeles McQuarrie established new contacts to people working in the film industry. Director Hal Barwood contacted McQuarrie late in 1971 about illustrating concepts for a new film he was developing.
McQuarrie: “They wanted to make some illustrations to help it get into a production as a feature film. I completed four illustrations, and they had a lot of people interested. But Star Dancing never got into production.”
Hal Barwood: “George Lucas saw a Star Dancing painting of this gigantic RV rolling across a grassland with a guy in a space suit and a couple of moons hanging in the background and he just thought it was great.”
McQuarrie: “George saw the paintings, and he came by my house one evening. He talked about his idea for a galactic war picture – intergalactic war. He said it would involve all the aspects of Flash Gordon, but done in a sort of 2001 manner with real high-fidelity effects.”
In this post, I will focus only on the first book, Volume 1. I will do another blog post about Volume 2 as well. The first volume covers McQuarrie’s design work for A New Hope (1977) and half the work done for The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
In Star Wars: A New Hope’s pre-production, McQuarrie’s design work was perhaps the most extensive of all three films in the original trilogy. McQuarrie lend his technical eye to the spaceship designs as well and defined the modelmakers’ designs. Even though McQuarrie was primarily a technical/mechanical illustrator with background in aviation industry, he was able to design memorable characters as well: C-3PO, R2-D2, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, Imperial stormtroopers, Tusken raiders etc. The most iconic of all McQuarrie’s character design for Star Wars is Darth Vader. In McQuarrie’s early drawings Vader’s design draws heavily from old samurai/shogun war helmets creating a robotic, reptilian looking character.
Ralph McQuarrie did also some matte paintings to the original trilogy. In A New Hope he did the Death Star, Luke’s home planet Tatooine, Rebel base planet Yavin matte paintings. McQuarrie approached these matte paintings realistically, in 2001: Space Odyssey way, said Hal Barwood. The book tells the path that McQuarrie took when designing various object into the Star Wars galaxy. It’s easy to follow the steps that he followed and how he ended up with a particular design and look. There’s also very informative text snippets that provide fascinating background into the design process. Sometimes these text snippets are quotations from McQuarrie commenting on George Lucas’ wishes and his preferred design orientation.