McQuarrie was working as a technical illustrator (most notably at CBS for their coverage of NASA’s Apollo program) and film poster designer when a fan of his in the film industry came to him with an offer. The fan had an idea for space epic featuring robots, star ships, knights, weird aliens and exotic planets that he needed to be conveyed to financial backers and studio executives. This fan went to McQuarrie and asked him if the artist would give his ideas shape and substance.
McQuarrie thought that fan’s idea would never make it to the screen–too expensive–but threw himself into the project full-force anyway. He made over 20 drawings to flesh out his fan’s dream, designing numerous worlds, aliens, and characters based on his fan’s script.
That fan, of course, was George Lucas and that concept was what turned out to be Star Wars. Lucas showed McQuarrie’s concept drawings to potential financial backers in order to shore up financing. McQuarrie’s ability to put Lucas’ words into visual images helped many backers and studio executives see that Lucas’ outlandish script could work–and be beautiful. McQuarrie’s art swayed a lot of doubters to Lucas’ side, including comic legend Roy Thomas, who convinced his friend and mentor Stan Lee to reconsider his decision on Marvel Comics doing a promotional Star Wars tie-in comic book series (which I previously covered in detail here).
While most of McQuarrie’s designs were changed quite considerably by the time they got to the screen, I think it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars might have never been made, or at least not as soon as it did and not with the freedom Lucas was given. Yes, we can probably blame McQuarrie for Jar Jar Binks, the incessant marketing tie-ins, and just about anything negative you can apply to the Star Wars franchise. But without his strong concept drawings, we would never have an indelible part of popular culture that not only shaped my generation, but also the generations that have and will come after it.
McQuarrie went on to do concept art for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, doing matte paintings in all three films. He was offered the chance to do the same for the prequel trilogy, but McQuarrie decided to pass the opportunity on to a younger generation of artist.
Lucas did give McQuarrie a form of immortality few conceptual artist ever receieve. He cast McQuarrie as “General McQuarrie” in Empire. Since almost everyone who has appeared on screen for at least a half a second in the franchise gets an action figure, you can track down a small, plastic representation of McQuarrie to interact with the rest of your Star Wars toys (there are also figures based directly on McQuarrie’s original designs, ).
If the first Star Wars trilogy was the only listing on his resume, you could call his career legendary. But McQuarrie went onto contribute iconic images to other iconic films for more than a decade after the first Star Wars film.
McQuarrie designed the spaceships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., worked as an illustrator for ILM on Raiders of the Lost Ark, acted as a “visual consultant” on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and did concept design on *batteries not included, Nightbreed, and Cocoon, winning an Academy Award for the latter.
The worlds of Hollywood, art, pop culture and science fiction lost a legendary light today. Rest in peace, Mr. McQuarrie.