A Concept Artist’s Legacy

Yesterday, Concept Artist Ralph McQuarrie passed away, 82 years old. Ralph McQuarrie was the first person director George Lucas hired to help him envision the universe which was to become known as a movie called “Star Wars”. George Lucas took the first McQuarrie-concept drawings with him to show the different studios to help him finance the movie; however Star Wars was light years ahead of its time, and rejected by many of the major studios at the time. One thing is for sure, without Ralph McQuarrie’s contribution, there would probably be no “Star Wars”, at least not in the visual form as we know it today. Below is my little video tribute to Ralph McQuarrie.

In today’s world, concept art is everywhere. Being traditionally something which was connected to industrial design (product design)/practical design, it is now an inevitable part of movie industry, but also found in the television and gaming and entertainment industry. Much of this development is due to Ralph, indirectly through the popularity of Star Wars which gave pop culture and the adventure movie industry a new boost which paved the way for a revolution within the entertainment industry, everywhere!

To be able to understand how large impact McQuarrie have had in the concept design industry, one have to look at the two major sci-fi movies (“2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes“) at the time before Star Wars with a slightly historical perspective. While Space Odyssey required design drawings to reflect a “futuristic” NASA-like appearance on the sets and locations, Apes concept drawings was to reflect a more primitive (but yet alien) kind of apperance. Robert McCall is known for his space-art (and worked at NASA as a designer and illustrator), and was the concept artist for Space Odyssey.

Concept art by McCall for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Concept art by McCall, reflecting the clean, high-tech, futuristic man-made technology required for the story.

Concept art from "Planet of the Apes" by Don Peters.

Concept art (composite) by Don Peters showing the famous Statue of Liberty scene.

Ralph McQuarrie was a technical illustrator for Boeing when he was hired by George Lucas. Although both Space Odyssey and Apes provided good basis and inspiration for sci-fi conceptual artists at the time, George Lucas’ envision of Star Wars required something very different. The design of Star Wars was to reflect a distant galaxy, it had to be exotic enough, but still made believable. It had to look futuristic and ‘used’ the same time. And not to mention the vast amount of characters in the movie, which all needed a concept design as a basis for the design of costumes and props.

One of the first (and most famous) drawings by Ralph McQuarrie shows R2-D2 and C-3PO after landing on Tatooine, later art works show Tusken Raiders and different environments from both the Death Star exterior and interior, and include the first designs of the major characters Luke Starkiller, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Stormtroopers, Darth Vader etc. What I came to realize after looking at the vast amount of McQuarrie’s art work for Star Wars, is how close the finished movie was to his initial designs. There is no doubt that his art-work shaped the visual aspect of “Star Wars” both in terms of locations, sets and costumes. His contribution to the production of “Star Wars” in my opinion cannot simply be emphasized enough.

One of the earliest concept drawings for Star Wars by Ralph McQuarrie.

One of my favourite Ralph McQuarrie artwork for Star Wars, portraying the harsh and unfriendly environment of the Mos Eisley space port. The icon Stormtrooper/sandtrooper design is also featured here.

During the initial production of Phantom Menace, Ralph McQuarrie was once again asked to join the team at Lucasfilm as a concept artist. Unfortunately, Ralph had to decline the offer. The interesting thing however, is that Doug Chiang (the concept artist who took the job) made the Episode I concept drawings in the same style as McQuarrie. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it sure is fascinating.

Doug Chiang's concept artwork for Phantom Menace. Is it me, or does this one look like McQuarrie's work? 🙂

Doug Chiang concept artwork of the Pod Racing environment.

I can imagine how Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork started a new artwork revolution within the film- and concept art industry. It is not that he was the inventor of this type of production artwork, but he sure contributed in a way that created a new revolution which gave opportunities to not only him, but also other concept artists. Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork has inspired at least two generations of younger artists (and including wanna-be designers/illustrators/artist such as me)—all of whom learned through Ralph that movies are not just created, but designed.

Amazing concept art from the production of "Blade Runner" by concept artist Syd Mead. The futuristic film-noir environment as envisioned in his artwork is just breathtaking...

I will end this post by quoting George Lucas: “His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled 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’.

So thank you Ralph McQuarrie for sharing your work with us, and Rest in Peace. Your legacy will live on.

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