Today: February 28, 2024

Ralph McQuarrie

For many kids, this will be their first introduction to the wonderful worlds of Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, and dozens of other holiday staples. What many will be too young to realise is that it was one man who created the look of many of these iconic movies.

Like
Christmas, Easter is traditionally a time when we head to the cinema or all
settle down, as a family, to enjoy a few classic movies on the telly. For many
kids, this will be their first introduction to the wonderful worlds of Star
Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, and dozens of other holiday staples. What many will
be too young to realise is that it was one man who created the look of many of
these iconic movies
. In the business, he was simply RMQ: the
guy you hired if you wanted to make the unbelievable believable. .

Born in Gary, Indiana in 1929, Ralph McQuarrie began his artistic
training at the tender age of ten. High School art and technical drawing
classes followed, landing Ralph his first full-time job with Kaiser Graphics in
the 1950s. He soon made the move to Boeing and then CBS, where his work, if not
his name, became known to millions thanks to the simulation artwork used to
illustrate the story of the Apollo missions for viewers back home. It was this
unique ability to conjure up visions of what was, to many people, unimaginable
which landed him a commission to provide concept art for a new movie. That
movie was Star Wars, and Ralph did
such a good job persuading the finance guys to part with the cash to make it,
that he was rewarded with a job with the company which became Industrial Light and Magic.

A
New Vision

We’re now all so familiar with George Lucas‘ opus that it’s hard to
imagine the impact that McQuarrie’s unique vision had, not only on the Star
Wars, but the whole sci-fi genre. Before A New Hope, sci-fi was still stuck in
the 1950s world of gleaming rocket ships, square jawed heroes and scantily clad
alien women. Space was the brave new frontier and it seemed logical that
rockets ships should be new and, well, rocket shaped. Even in classic movies
like The Day the Earth Stood Still,
the look is pure comic book. What RMQ brought to genre was realism.

His work bore all the hallmarks of his technical
training. Yet he was more than simply an accomplished draftsman. What he
delivered went beyond plan and view. While his depictions of technical detail
were always clear and confident, he was never content just to show the bridge
of a ship, or the docking bay of a carrier. He figured out exactly how all the
elements worked – their functionality. Every image is also a self-contained
story. His illustrations always had a narrative: a single figure, alone on an
alien world, a commander pouring over a tactical display or a burning ship,
spiralling off into the depths of space.

Every
Picture Tells A Story

It’s the job of a conceptual artist to sell the
idea of a movie or TV series to the moneymen. The public are never meant to see
the work in progress, but when they do, it’s often clear just how much these
artists add to the film making process. This was especially true in the case of
RMQ who was directly responsible for some of the most iconic Star Wars imagery.

For instance, Darth Vader wasn’t originally going to wear a mask. The idea came
from a concept drawing showing Vader boarding the Tantive V. RMQ’s reasoning
was that, since he had to travel through space to reach the ship, he would need
breathing apparatus. It was a simple leap of logic, but it gave birth to a
legend which must surely qualify RMQ for a statue in Geek Park, right up there
with Ray Harryhausen and Syd Mead.

Ralph’s work was so inspirational, and so
defined the Star Wars universe, that when A New Hope was released, the
filmmakers took the, then, unusual step of making it available to fans, in a
series of themed, portfolio publications. Suddenly everyone knew who Ralph
McQuarrie was.

Boom
Time

There’s nothing like working on one of the most
successful films of all time to give your career a boost. So it’s no surprise
that after A New Hope, work offers came in thick and fast, with McQuarrie
providing preproduction art on Close
Encounters of the Third Kind
(1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) before signing a deal to work
with Glen Larson on a new, sci-fi serial, Battlestar
Galactica
.

Time hasn’t been generous to Battlestar
Galactica but that has nothing to do with RMQ’s superlative art. If we go back
to his concept drawings, what we see is a lot more innovative and engaging than
the finished product. Much more, in fact, like the re-envisaged Battlestar,
which recaptured the drama and romance of RMQ’s original concepts. So much so
that, when Kenneth Thomson, Jr., who
provided CGI for the series reboot, was asked who had influenced his work he
was quick to cite McQuarrie.

Work on The
Empire Strikes Back
(1980), E.T.
(1982), Return of the Jedi (1983) Batteries Not Included (1987) and Jurassic Park (1993) followed, with
Ralph winning an Oscar for Best Visual
Effects in 1985 for his work on Cocoon
(1985). Even in retirement
McQuarrie’s popularly and influence continued to drive Hollywood’s creative machine.
His unused art from the original Star Wars trilogy was used to help style the The Clone Wars animated TV series. And
action figures and video games, based on his iconic visuals remain high on the
wants list of every geek boy and gall.

Ralph McQuarrie died, aged 82 on March 3rd,
2012, in his home in Berkeley after a long fight against Parkinson’s Disease.
On hearing of his death, Director George Lucas commented: “When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of
Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘do it like this’.”
Fortunately,
thanks to the magic of film, Ralph will
never truly leave us. He lives on in the films that he helped create and which
continue to inspire and enthral us all.

All images courtesy of RalphMcQaurrie.com

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