I feel a little ambivalent about making a Star Wars related post today, because I don’t like feeling obligated to make one. I buy my lovely wife flowers about once or twice a week, when I think she won’t expect it. I do that because I love her, and she deserves flowers for no reason, any time I feel like it. So when Valentine’s Day rolls around, I never buy her flowers. This is partly because they triple in price, but mostly through sheer self-righteous pride. “Go to hell, holiday, I get her candy flowers at random intervals throughout the year, fuck you for making feel obligated to today”. This is the kind of situation I find myself in today. It’s May the 4th, Star Wars day. But really, if you’re one of us, every day is Star Wars Day. But I would like to take the opportunity, to acknowledge and remember a hero of mine, an artist who’s work will endure long after his name is forgotten. When we observe the pyramids of Giza, there is a humbling reverence and awe to the achievement of human ingenuity (and horrible suffering), but we don’t know the name of the engineer who set ink-reed to papyrus and thought “triangles”. A few hundred years from now when we are drawing the Millennium Falcon on our cave walls to tell the legend of Star Wars to our huddled, post-apocalypse wasteland family, we may not remember the man who made it all possible. His name was Ralph McQuarrie.
I first learned his name in Elementary school, when on a weekly basis, I would take out The Empire Strikes Back Notebook from the public library. I poured over the pages of that book, which combined the script with storyboard and concept paintings from the movie, and I learned for the first time that the look of the film, while owing to Joe Johnston, Nilo Rodis-Jamero, Rick Baker, and a few dozen others, was largely influenced by one man, Ralph Angus McQuarrie. With a name like that I assumed he was English, or Australian. That if he opened his mouth he’d sound like Ginger Baker, and probably chase me off his pig farm in Manchester. But Ralph was born in Gary Indiana, 1929. A veteran of the Korean War who survived being shot in the head, he was no lightweight, but from every bit of evidence I can find, a sweet and friendly man who loved his work.
He did technical and medical illustration, working for dentistry firms before designing plane components for Boeing. George Lucas eventually found him, and asked him to help design concepts for Star Wars. Say what you will about George (personally I think he takes way more grief than he deserves, The man built ILM, the highest grossing independent production company in history, the first non-linear digital editing program [edit droid], and a lot of schools and low income housing) but he has an eye for talent, and he recruited some brilliant, as-yet unrecognized minds to help him build his universe. Ralph took to this job with a burst of imagination. Remember, his career was drawing dentistry equipment and airplane landing gear, Suddenly he is handed pages with words like “Death Star” and told “You go paint that”. In his own words,
“I just did my best to depict what I thought the film should look like, I really liked the idea. I didn’t think the film would ever get made. My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn’t be enough of an audience. It’s just too complicated. But George knew a lot of things that I didn’t know.”
Ralph approached the task from the perspective that it was a great idea that would never get made, which gave him the freedom to work from a place unconcerned with budgetary or technical limitations of how the images would have to be realized on film. So fearlessly, he went for broke. The first thing I notice in his work, which is a recurring visual motif and theme throughout the Star Wars Films, is scale. It seems to me that the first thing McQuarrie considers in his paintings is relative scale and perspective. Characters are often juxtaposed in the foreground to huge landscapes, creatures, or vehicles, in the back ground. Massive Sandcrawlers or AT-AT’s bear down on the viewer with real weight and menace. Aside from the look of the creatures, locations, and vehicles, Ralph’s lasting contribution to the Star Wars films is this; the viewer is constantly reminded of their place in this universe. Small, frail characters, dwarfed by places and things bigger than we can imagine. McQuarrie imagined a widescreen, anamorphic, panoramic universe with big characters and bigger machines and places, barreling across the screen and out at the audience. He put the Mask on Darth Vader. If George Lucas had his way, we’d have Orson Welles in a Shogun helmet. But George was smart and sought the input and collaboration of other brilliant artists, and Ralph, sighting script reasons (originally Vader and the Storm troopers blasted a hole in the Blockade Runner and floated aboard, like space pirates) suggested Vader wear a breathing mask. Thank you, Ralph.
Ralph McQuarrie is a man who deserves a more in-depth remembrance than this. He had a full and varied career, and there are simply too many paintings to show and things to say than I can possibly fit here on this page. The man deserves several coffee table books devoted to that. But you can search yourself, and I implore you to. There’s even a documentary on him right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9iBIaQMlOg
But on this hallmark holy day, take a moment to think of Ralph. He was a soft spoken giant with a paint brush, he made your childhood magic. I can only hope his flickering blue Ghost is smiling back at us all today.