The filmmaking process is a complicated endeavor that involves hundreds of people performing myriad tasks and jobs. While the director and writer may have a vision for the project, it takes talented designers, artists, prop masters, set builders, and costumers to realize those images. When it comes to Star Wars one of the most pivotal members of that creative team was Ralph McQuarrie.
As a conceptual designer and illustrator, McQuarrie has worked on Battlestar Galactica, E.T., and Cocoon, but he is most known for Star Wars. He created the used futuristic look in the series, going against most science fiction designs which relied on a sterile, clean look for futuristic creatures, props, and designs. McQuarrie made futuristic technology and vehicles look well worn and used, even dirty and in need of repair. His contributions to Star Wars were significant factors in the series’ success.
McQuarrie was born on June 13, 1929 in Gary, Indiana, then grew up on a farm near Billings, Montana. After serving in the army during the Korean War he moved to California to study at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. His early artist jobs involved drawing teeth and equipment for a dentistry firm, then he drew diagrams of jets as an artist and preliminary design illustrator for Boeing Company. Next he designed film posters and animation for CBS News’ coverage of the Apollo space program. His next job defined the trajectory of his career.
Producer-writer-director Hal Barwood hired McQuarrie to create some illustrations for a film idea. George Lucas was impressed with McQuarrie’s work, so the pair met to discuss a new science fiction film, and by 1975 Lucas commissioned McQuarrie to illustrate scenes for Star Wars. McQuarrie ended up designing some of the most notable characters, including Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewbacca, as well as drawing many concepts for the sets.
McQuarrie’s concept work was a crucial part of getting 20th Century Fox on board for the film. His concept paintings included scenes on Tatooine, inside the Mos Eisley cantina, inside the Death Star, and the moon of Yavin. Once they were given approval, Lucas made sure that scenes in the movie matched McQuarrie’s paintings.
His painting of Artoo and Threepio in the desert of Tatooine were the first to be completed. That early interpretation of Threepio resembled the robot in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, and inspired C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels to take the part.
When it came to the film’s main villain, Lucas wanted his costume to resemble the look of Samurai armor. Since Darth Vader needed to travel between ships, McQuarrie was the first to suggest that Darth Vader should have a breathing device and be in a space suit. Lucas agreed with the suggestion, so McQuarrie combined the two concepts, blending a breathing mask with a Samurai helmet.
With his success on the film, McQuarrie was the obvious choice to produce cover art for the Star Wars novelization. The first edition, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, was published in 1976 depicting his version of Darth Vader’s helmet on the cover. He was commissioned to create art for 22 more titles for Del Rey Books over the next decade.
Once Lucas started working on The Empire Strikes Back, McQuarrie was hired for conceptual artwork. His art established the iconic looks of Yoda and the AT-AT Walkers, and his design for the Cloud City was adapted from one of his early sketches of Alderaan made in 1975 for an early draft of Star Wars.
He added actor to his résumé during Empire with an uncredited cameo. During the opening sequence, he was on the Rebel base as a character named General Pharl McQuarrie. He was added to the action figure line as General McQuarrie in 2007 for the 30th anniversary. Other figures were made based on his conceptual versions of Vader, Han Solo, Boba Fett, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, Artoo, Threepio, and the Imperial Stormtrooper.
By the time of Return of the Jedi, he was dealing with some creative fatigue since he felt that his best designs were already in the series. Fewer of his design ideas were used in the final version of Jedi.
He was offered the position of designer for the prequel trilogy, but turned it down. Once McQuarrie retired from the series, his concept paintings were displayed in art exhibitions.
McQuarrie died on March 3, 2012 when he was 82 years old. He was survived by his wife Joan, who he married in ’83.
The current films and related media are still utilizing McQuarrie’s concepts from 30 to 40 years ago. Some of his unused designs made it into the animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. The planet Orto Plutonia was based on his original design of Hoth; Zeb Orrelios was based on Chewbacca; and Chopper was based on R2-D2.
McQuarrie’s realization of Lucas’ visions established the look of the Star Wars universe. His contributions brought imagination to life with creativity, functionality, fanciful realism, even some dirt.