In 1972 Ralph was approached by Hal Barwood to produce visualizations for a science-fiction movie project he was undertaking with his friend Matthew Robbins called ‘Galaxy’. It just so happened that Hal and Matthew had another friend who was interested in getting his science-fiction movie off the ground, so when George Lucas saw the drawings he met with McQuarrie and explained his vision for a space-fantasy film. Lucas then went on to make ‘American Graffiti’, and two years later he was back to talk to Ralph about his space epic. At that point, United Artists and Universal Studios (who funded America Graffiti) had passed on ‘Star Wars’, but there was modest interest from 20th Century-Fox. The board were not grasping Lucas’s vision for the movie, so McQuarrie was enlisted to produce a series of five concept paintings which would help get the movie greenlit. McQuarrie explains: “George figured it out right away. He said, I’ll give you this script, read it, and when you come to something you like, make a little pencil drawing and we’ll look at it later. I thought, well, that’s really a guy that I would like to work with. Some people want to tell you what color to make it, and, what they want to see. They go off to have dinner and you’re stuck at the drawing table with all these things that need to be done. But I look at it and I think the first thing that comes to my mind is going to be an incredible thing. He had a concept for a big spectacular visual, and it didn’t come across in the script. So I tried to give it scale, juxtaposing the tiny little figures with the great spectacular backgrounds. George would say ‘Don’t worry about how we’re going to do it. We just want to see an impression of what the scenes look like on screen’.”
The five pantings that McQuarrie produced did the trick with 20th Century-Fox. On the strength of the pitch they were given funding to start pre-production on the film and with another round of McQuarrie paintings and illustrations, the film was greenlit and ‘Star Wars’ was underway. McQuarrie recalls his early experience in the production: “I’d sit with a pencil and dream about whatever I could imagine, sort of grotesque imagery. George would come by every week and a half or two weeks, look at what I’d done, and talk to me about what he’d like to see. I was reading the script to start with, but the script sort of got waylaid—the story was changing in his own mind—so George would just come and talk to me about what he wanted to see.”
Among the first sketches that McQuarrie produced were the designs for R2-D2, Darth Vader and C-3PO. With sketches and ideas bouncing between he and Lucas the main characters began to take shape. R2-D2 received his three-leg configuration on Lucas’s suggestion, and C-3PO started life as a cousin of a famous female robot: “George brought a photograph of the female robot from ‘Metropolis’ and said he’d like Threepio to look like that, except to make him a boy.”
Production designer John Barry and sculptor Liz Moore took McQuarrie’s concepts and made changes to C-3PO: “John, George and I had a meeting where John looked at my early sketches. In a few minutes, he’d drawn on a little pad the look of Threepio’s head with the big round eyes. It did have a sort of humorous aspect, and I thought that was very successful.” Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic to execute the herculean task of bringing the ‘Star Wars’ universe to life, and as the first artist employed on the project Ralph McQuarrie became the first ILMer. Ironically, McQuarrie went from being the youngest artist at Boeing to the oldest artist at ILM among an art department where many artists shared his background in industrial design. He worked from his own studio a few miles away from the main ILM studio, and moved on to matte paintings for the project when Lucas headed to England to start production. With no background in matte painting, McQuarrie began his own research visiting Disney Studios and talking to other matte painters. He also studied other movies and was surprised at how little detail was required, once film grain interacted with the paintings. With the runaway success of the first ‘Star Wars’ movie, McQuarrie was genuinely surprised at how the audience for the film responded to his designs. When ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ started production he took on the role of matte painter working from the new ILM facility in Northern California producing highly memorable matte and production paintings. At the conclusion of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, Ralph left ILM and returned to freelance work before coming back for ‘Return of the Jedi’. When George Lucas announced the ‘Star Wars’ prequel in 1995 McQuarrie was invited to head up the design team, as he had done with Joe Johnston twenty years before. However, after arriving he decided that the existing design team (lead by ILM illustrator Doug Chiang) was more than sufficient, and declined to participate.
Though a huge part of Ralph McQuarrie’s professional career, he also worked on a number of projects that were not ‘Star Wars’-related. Notably, he was approached by Glen Larson shortly after ‘Star Wars’ to help design the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ universe. The final spacecraft in the series were virtually identical to his original concepts. McQuarrie was also approached by Steven Spielberg to help design the spaceship for‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’ which after a number of concepts became the friendly spherical craft that left E.T. behind before returning for him. McQuarrie also worked on the movie ‘Cocoon’ as production designer where he was recognized for his work with an Academy Award. Other movie projects that Ralph McQuarrie worked as concept artist include: Clive Barker’s ‘Nightbreed’; ‘*batteries not included’; ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (uncredited); and also on ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ as a visual consultant.
Thinking back on his legacy, Ralph McQuarrie is humble: “I never really thought about it. I just concentrated on the work in progress. It was interesting to me, the whole Star Wars idea that George had. I actually thought it was going to be too difficult. I thought, ‘we’re never going to get a film done with so much that’s got to be totally constructed somehow’. It didn’t seem to be a reasonable endeavor, but it sure was an exciting one!”
There are plenty more images from this, our 2008 interview with Ralph McQuarrie in the Ballistic Publishing EXPOSE 7 book. Dreams and Visions Press released a collection of Ralph McQuarrie art in 2007, titled ‘The Art of Ralph McQuarrie’. Originally available in three editions, the Limited Editions and Lettered Editions quickly sold out while some standard editions remain.