Ralph McQuarrie, the legendary, Oscar-winning Star Wars concept artist who’s largely responsible for creating the look of that Galaxy Far, Far Away, died this Saturday in Berkeley, Calif. after a long struggle with Parkinson’s. He was 82.
During the course of his brief but highly influential Hollywood career McQuarrie also contributed to the designs of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, *batteries not included, Nightbreed, and Cocoon, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1986.
A statement posted to McQuarrie’s official website Saturday read, “There’s no doubt in our hearts that centuries from now amazing spaceships will soar, future cities will rise, and someone, somewhere will say… that looks like something Ralph McQuarrie painted.”
Born in Gary, Ind., McQuarrie moved to California to work as a technical illustrator for Boeing. He designed movie posters on the side and contributed animation to CBS for their coverage of the Apollo moon missions in the late ’60s. But for legions of fans the world over, it’s his striking, otherworldly designs for the original Star Wars trilogy that will be remembered with the greatest affection. While George Lucas was still honing the script for (the later retitled) Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope in 1974/75, he hired McQuarrie to visualize his ideas for a then skeptical 20th Century Fox. McQuarrie went on to create the iconic designs of characters like Darth Vader, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, and Boba Fett, in addition to environments like sun-drenched Tatooine, icy Hoth, swamp-infested Dagobah, and free-floating Cloud City. It’s entirely likely that without his concept art Star Wars might never have been greenlit.
In a statement on StarWars.com Saturday, George Lucas said, “Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision Star Wars. His genial contribution, in the form of unequaled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’”
Anthony Daniels, who played C-3PO in all six Star Wars films tweeted, “Without his inspirational art I would not be C-3PO. I once said to him, ‘This is all YOUR fault!’ Then I thanked him.” Longtime Star Wars fan (and new Clone Wars recruit) Simon Pegg wrote, “RIP Ralph McQuarrie, an extraordinary artist whose work fueled my dreams, fantasies and imagination. His paintings will live forever.” Even Middle Earth weighed in, with Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood tweeting, “a disturbance in the force, Ralph McQuarrie has passed. may the force be with him.”
McQuarrie’s great achievement with his Star Wars designs, and his enduring legacy for all of science fiction, was his pioneering of the “used future” aesthetic. Whereas most previous sci-fi — from the borderline camp of Star Trek to the experimental visions of 2001: A Space Odyssey — featured environments that were scrubbed clean, brightly lit, often monochromatic, and generally antiseptic, McQuarrie’s “used future” designs for Star Wars imagined a lived-in galaxy that was gritty, dirty, and in advance states of decay. In short, the perfect home for ever more freaky forms of scum and villainy. And, yet because of his laser-focused attention to that Galaxy Far, Far Away’s grainy details, McQuarrie’s Star Wars concept art also possesses an element of surrealism. One famous design, showing prototype versions of C-3PO and R2-D2 against the craggy Jundland Wastes of Tatooine, best exemplifies his style: strongly geometric subjects rendered in muted colors against a flat, purposefully compressed backdrop. A McQuarrie Star Wars design looks like what would have resulted if Salvador Dali had sketched concepts for Universal’s 1936 Flash Gordon serial by way of Sergio Leone’s Old West.
Though he declined to work on the prequels, McQuarrie’s influence is still being keenly felt on Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series, now in its fourth season. A gorgeous cerulean Hoth design that was untenable for The Empire Strikes Back’s Norway shoot in 1979 became the icy world Orto Plutonia in season one. And more recently, an undercover Obi-Wan Kenobi donned the helmet that McQuarrie designed for one of his earliest drawings of Boba Fett.
It just goes to show that even 35 years after Star Wars’ debut McQuarrie’s art remains one of the key ingredients that gives George Lucas’ cosmic cocktail its heady kick. And as long as kids play “Rebels and Stormtroopers,” that’ll never change.