Generic titles such as "Production Illustrator" or "Conceptual Artist" were frustratingly inadequate when discussing the invaluable contributions to film made by Ralph McQuarrie. Originally an industrial design artist, McQuarrie's life and career would be forever altered when he was approached by an imaginative and incredibly ambitious young director by the name of George Lucas. As the first design artist hired by Lucas, he proved integral in shaping the very fabric of the universe first seen in "Star Wars" (1977) and its industry-changing sequels. This fruitful collaboration led to important work with other directors like Steven Spielberg on films such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982). McQuarrie was rightfully recognized for his amazing work on the Ron Howard directed science fiction fantasy "Cocoon" (1985) when he won an Academy Award for Visual Effects. He also lent his impressive services to such notable efforts as "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1985), and later proved he was equally adept at working in the genre of horror with his stunning work on Clive Barker's dark fantasy thriller "Night Breed" (1990). As technically accurate as his professional credits may have been, when contemplating the enduring legacy left behind by Ralph McQuarrie, perhaps "visionary" was a more fitting appellation.
Born on June 13, 1929 in Gary, IN, McQuarrie's early career was as an industrial design artist for companies such as the Boeing Company. In the 1960s, he moved to California to study at the Art Center College of Design, later starting a small studio with two other artists, aptly named Three Reel, where a portion of his work entailed creating a number of movie posters, as well as animation for CBS Studios' coverage of the Apollo lunar missions. In the early 1970s, McQuarrie was approached by an aspiring screenwriter named Hal Barwood, who, along with collaborator Matthew Robbins, was attempting to get a motion picture financed and wanted the artist to create some illustrations in order to sell the project. While that film ("Star Dancing") was never produced, the concept paintings McQuarrie created were seen by a friend of Barwood and Robbins - another Hollywood hopeful named George Lucas. Lucas, too, had an idea for an epic space adventure that he was developing and was impressed enough by McQuarrie's work to enlist him to undertake similar work on his project. After an initial meeting with the young director, Lucas began helming his sophomore feature effort, "American Graffiti" (1973). As far as McQuarrie knew, Lucas had moved on and any plans for the envisioned science fiction fantasy had been shelved. That was until 1975, when Lucas once more reached out to the illustrator and proposed they begin working in earnest on concepts and designs for the film that would become "Star Wars" (1977).
Previous attempts to sell both Universal and United Artists on "Star Wars" had met with unqualified rejection, and Lucas decided that never again would he count on the imaginations of studio executives to visualize his intended outer space spectacular. Over a period of months, McQuarrie and Lucas worked on preliminary concepts for characters, spacecraft and landscapes that would not only shape the look of "Star Wars," but, ultimately, the saga itself. One of McQuarrie's paintings that proved instrumental in sealing the deal with 20th Century Fox - an image of the androids C-3PO and R2-D2 on the desert planet Tatooine - was transferred nearly identically to the screen in the completed film. The villainous Darth Vader's costume and helmeted mask, the armored Stormtrooper outfits, and portions of the planet-destroying Death Star were all contributions made by the visionary McQuarrie for the first film. Even as his work on "Star Wars" was winding down, Lucas friend and contemporary Steven Spielberg asked McQuarrie to work on designs for a science fiction story of his own, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). Inspired by the oil refineries along the freeway near Long Beach, CA, the towering upper-section of the massive alien spacecraft in the film sprang from the mind and brush of McQuarrie. Now much in demand, he also provided early concept illustrations for the ambitious sci-fi adventure series "Battlestar Galactica" (ABC, 1978-79), with a contract proviso that should work begin on the sequel to "Star Wars," he would be allowed to bow out of the television project.
McQuarrie would not have to wait long to be called back into service by Lucas. Soon he was working on all new designs for the next episode of the "Star Wars" saga, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), for which he would produce more conceptual drawings than any other in the franchise. Much of the look of the Rebel base on the ice planet Hoth was derived from McQuarrie's early concept designs. Called back into action by Spielberg, a McQuarrie original illustration gave audiences their first glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant unleashing its mystical fury within the pages of an ancient Bible in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). Shortly thereafter, Spielberg went back to the artist and asked McQuarrie to design a spaceship for the title character in his much loved tale about a boy and his alien, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982). The final scene in the film, in which the cuddly visitor's brethren from beyond come to retrieve him in the mother ship, beautifully reflect McQuarrie's substantial efforts. Even before "Raiders" went into production, McQuarrie had already begun working on Lucas' "Return of the Jedi" (1983). Although it would constitute his final effort on a "Star Wars" feature film, his contributions were extensive and significant. Images such as Jabba the Hutt's palace and the slug-like intergalactic crime lord's sail-barge transferred to the screen nearly unaltered from the visions created by McQuarrie in his production designs.
Although it was his indelible work on the "Star Wars" films for which McQuarrie would forever be associated with, it was his collaboration with actor-turned-director Ron Howard that would earn him the film industry's most prestigious honor in his field. "Cocoon" (1985) was the story of a group of retirees in Florida who come into contact with a secret stash of alien pods, giving them a youthful vibrancy they have not felt in years. For his part in envisioning the light-emitting aliens and their spacecraft, McQuarrie received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The following year, he contributed designs to yet another long-running, venerated science fiction franchise with work on "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986), which saw the crew of the Enterprise time-traveling to 20th Century earth in an attempt to save the whales. McQuarrie also designed the Lilliputian spaceships in the sci-fi comedy "*batteries not included" (1987), which brought "Cocoon" stars Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn back to the screen. The final feature film to prominently display McQuarrie's work was the horror fantasy "Night Breed" (1990), written and directed by Clive Barker. For the anti-fairy tale about a society of mutants hidden from humanity, McQuarrie created matte paintings of the underground Necropolis - home of the Night Breed - in addition to a massive 60-foot wall mural which became the basis for the film's opening title sequence, depicting the history of the underground outcasts.
Although invited back to return to the franchise that started it all with "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999), McQuarrie respectfully declined. Still, even in retirement, the wealth of ideas put forth by the designer-artist continued to bear fruit. Early unused designs and illustrations done by McQuarrie for "A New Hope" were later used in such Lucasfilm efforts as the animated spin-off series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Cartoon Network, 2008- ). McQuarrie died of complications due to Parkinson's disease at his home in Berkeley, CA on March 3, 2012. He was 82 years old. Among the fond remembrances offered by former collaborators and life-long fans was that of Lucas, who expressed his appreciation for McQuarrie and his contributions by stating, "When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph's fabulous illustrations and say, 'Do it like this.' "
By Bryce Coleman