From Vader to Tatooine: The man behind Star Wars' iconic look

Ralph McQuarrie's concept art became the visual bible for George Lucas' space saga that forever changed blockbusters. Now fans can see all his stunning work.

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This Ralph McQuarrie illustration depicts Deak Starkiller, not Luke Skywalker, battling Darth Vader, as described in the second draft of the "Star Wars" screenplay.

(C) 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization

As the "Star Wars" end credits roll to John Williams' rousing score, Ralph McQuarrie's name pops up twice: for production illustration and as "planet and satellite artist." But that barely hints at his role in the Star Wars universe.


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Take one look at the two-volume book "Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie" and you start to get an idea. From his concept drawings of Darth Vader, C-3PO and R2-D2 to his illustrations of a desert landscape that would become Tatooine, he translated George Lucas' fantastical descriptions into visuals, designing a whole new galaxy. In the book's foreword, Lucas said that after meeting McQuarrie and seeing his work, he never considered another artist for the job.

"I truly believe that if there wasn't Ralph, just like if there was no George, you wouldn't have Star Wars," Wade Lageose, one of the book's co-authors, said. "It might not be something entirely different, but it wouldn't be what we know as Star Wars today."

For the movie's 40th anniversary, I talked to the co-authors of the book, which came out late last year. At nearly 20 pounds, it could flatten a Jawa. Two years in the making, the book amasses over 2,000 pieces of the concept artist's work from the original trilogy -- from character and costume sketches to matte paintings for the films to illustrations for posters, holiday cards and book covers. Alongside the art are excerpts from early screenplay drafts and quotes from McQuarrie (who died in 2012); Lucas; others who worked on the films; and famous fans like "Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams and "Interstellar" director Christopher Nolan.

Images that 'suck you in'

The artist was 45 when he began working with Lucas on "The Star Wars," which was in pre-production. He and the filmmaker met in the early '70s through Lucas' friends who were putting together another sci-fi movie, one that never got made. McQuarrie had done a few illustrations for them. When the filmmaker saw his work, he knew McQuarrie was "the one," Lucas wrote in the book's foreword.

"His imaginary lands had histories and his weirder inventions looked plausible," Lucas said.

That's exactly what first drew the book's co-authors to the artist's work.

"You can see why George Lucas wanted to work with this guy and why these production paintings were such successful tools for trying to convey to everyone else the film that he wanted to make," co-author Brandon Alinger said. "They just suck you in."

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Co-author David Mandel compares McQuarrie to great illustrators like Norman Rockwell.

"There was a story element he captured where you were seeing something and wondered 'how did this happen, how did we get here?'"

It wasn't just his talent but his technical ability. "At the same time, he brought that sort of realism that was based on his background as a technical illustrator," said Mandel, who's also the showrunner of HBO's "Veep" and an ardent collector of Star Wars memorabilia. "So even though you were looking at sci-fi, you were looking at something that seemed possible."

Between stints at Boeing as a technical illustrator, McQuarrie served on the front lines of the Korean War and went to art school in Los Angeles. In the late '60s, he worked for a small studio where he did animation for CBS News' coverage of NASA's Apollo program, including the moon landing mission. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.)

The half dozen pre-production paintings McQuarrie created for 1977's "Star Wars" are considered among the most highly regarded concept art in movie history, according to the book. Those early works are some of Lageose's favorites.

"He was just free on the canvas," said Lageose, who's also a graphic designer and artist. McQuarrie, who at the time often worked above his garage in Los Angeles, also wasn't aware of what those paintings were to become, Lageose said. "Of anything that he ever worked on, this is what he felt most comfortable doing. And it just came to him naturally."

Even so, the artist said he considered himself "a craftsman, a draftsman." But Lageose said McQuarrie's "technical abilities allowed him to go into territories where a lot of commercial artists aren't able to go because of the talent this guy had."

Lageose met and became friends with McQuarrie, his childhood hero, in 1997. "He was the most down-to-earth guy. And extremely chatty, once you were alone with him. We would just talk for hours on end," Lageose said. "He had a very good recall of things that he worked on."

Detective work

There have been other books about McQuarrie, but this one was designed to be definitive. Alinger, who also wrote "Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy," said the authors made an effort to understand every piece of work and how it was used. They wanted it all to "unfold to the reader in the same way that Ralph created the artwork, and it would be a journey through the making of those films," he said.

But arranging the art chronologically proved to be a challenge because some of the works didn't have dates. As the book's introduction puts it, "studying his role in each film was akin to forensic research at times."

That meant lots of digging -- poring over McQuarrie's calendars and film production timelines, for instance. But it also produced surprises. Early concept art for the Wookiee planet wasn't originally created for the now-infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special," as previously thought. It turns out Lucas had first entertained the idea of a Wookiee planet for "The Empire Strikes Back," Alinger said.


Ralph McQuarrie working on a matte shot for "The Empire Strikes Back."

(C) 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization

The artist's work as inspiration

"Star Wars," and McQuarrie too, influenced future moviemakers, artists and writers, including Mandel.

"I don't want to sound too crazy. I'm a comedy writer. That's my day job," said Mandel, whose writing credits also include "Saturday Night Live," "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "But Star Wars was definitely part of what got me interested in the notion of movies. It excited me for the notion of wanting to work in Hollywood."

The inextricable pairing of McQuarrie and Star Wars had a reach far beyond individuals. It changed both how studios made movies and the films people wanted to make, Mandel said.

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Moviemaking, though, has become "much more of a modern bureaucracy," Mandel said. There are distinct teams for everything, from production and costume design to marketing. During the original trilogy, McQuarrie was in a unique position, he said.

"It was a credit to Lucas and the sort of startup venture nature of the original Star Wars movie that they let Ralph run where his talent took him, which was everywhere, and that just wouldn't happen today," Mandel said.

Artists working on the new films like "Force Awakens" and "Rogue One" and the TV series "Star Wars Rebels" have looked to McQuarrie's old sketches as inspirations for new designs.

"He created this visual vernacular for Star Wars that's still used today," Lageose said. Look at early sketches of R2-D2 and Chewbacca, and Chopper and Zeb from "Rebels" will come to mind. McQuarrie's work also influenced the final design of droid K-2SO in "Rogue One."

In his later years, McQuarrie seemed content with his role in the Star Wars universe.

"I'm quite happy standing with what I've done for Star Wars and saying: 'I was an artist who created something that was widely seen, and enjoyed,'" he said. "If I had to do it over again I'd do it for nothing. Just to be a part of it, you know."

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