Crowdfunding Friday: The Art Of Ralph McQuarrie

Feature Ryan Lambie
4 Jul 2014 - 07:18

A Kickstarter campaign aims to fund a book devoted to Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who first brought the Star Wars universe to life...

Next December, Star Wars: Episode VII will bring one of the most loved and lucrative franchises back to our screens. But it's worth remembering that, although Star Wars is now a colossally successful property worth millions, its path to the silver screen was by no means an easy one.

In the mid-1970s, George Lucas was still a young filmmaker with two successful but modestly-budgeted movies under his belt. Lucas' idea for his third film was a sci-fi fantasy so outlandish, and so potentially expensive to make that studio executives all over Hollywood simply couldn't see the value in it. Pitches to United Artists and Universal Pictures came to nothing, as Lucas struggled to describe the film he'd hatched in his head.

Determined to show find some way of showing what Star Wars could look like, Lucas turned to Ralph McQuarrie, then a 45-year-old technical illustrator at Boeing, to help him come up with some concept drawings that would demonstrate the film's potential. Over the course of several weeks, McQuarrie and Lucas sat and talked about the designs of all kinds of characters and ships, beginning with rough pencil sketches and then gradually working them up into full-colour paintings. 

When Lucas presented his pitch to 20th Century Fox, this time armed with McQuarrie's art, he finally got the reaction he'd long been looking for: impressed by both Lucas' story ideas and McQuarrie's concepts, the studio agreed to give Star Wars the go-ahead. Here, finally, was a vivid window into Lucas' story in a galaxy far, far away: the battered old ships, the hairy side-kick, Chewbacca, and those droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO.

McQuarrie not only helped Lucas get the greenlight, but also played a pivotal role in defining the shape, colour and texture of the Star Wars universe. The idea of a 'used' future, where buildings and space craft looked tired and utilitarian, sprang directly from McQuarrie's imagination. He continued to define the look of Star Wars for both the 1977 blockbuster and its two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, and some of his illustrations look uncannily like the shots seen in the finished movies. Take, for example, the beautiful rendering McQuarrie created for Return Of The Jedi

Outside Star Wars, McQuarrie continued to work in the movie business through the 70s and 80s. The spectacular mother ship in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, which floated in like a cathedral covered in shimmering lights? That was McQuarrie's design. His other screen credits included the original Battlestar Galactica (1978), Cocoon (1985) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), the adorable flying robot aliens in *batteries not included (1987) and Clive Barker's Night Breed (1990).

Although McQuarrie's name will always be closely associated with the movies and Star Wars in particular, he also created illustrations and artwork for a range of other media, including science fiction and fantasy books and even a videogame: the cover of the Atari 2600 game Vanguard features a decidedly Star Wars-like illustration of a speeding space craft.

McQuarrie sadly passed away in 2012 at the age of 82, leaving behind a huge and diverse body of work. Much of it was collected in a book published in 2007, The Art Of Ralph McQuarrie, which has long since gone out of print. But thanks to a Kickstarter campaign started by its publisher, Dreams and Visions Press, that volume is about to get a new, expanded edition which runs to 432 pages. 

Collecting together McQuarrie's movie work, technical illustrations, book designs, poster artwork as well as his personal art, it promises to be the ultimate archive from one of the 20th century's most influential illustrators.

The Star Wars saga, meanwhile, might be in the hands of a new generation of filmmakers and designers now, but we can be certain that its look and used-future feel will still be informed by McQuarrie's iconic artwork.  

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