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Ralph McQuarrie at work
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An early concept painting of C-3PO and R2-D2
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C-3PO as he appears in the film
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An early rendering of Han Solo and Chewbacca
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The vision of Chewbacca evolves
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Chewbacca as he appears in the film
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An early version of the stormtrooper
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A stormtrooper as he appears in the film

Ralph McQuarrie on Designing Star Wars)

By Ron Magid

Before you read "The Artist Strikes" in Star Wars Insider #78, be sure to read part one of the interview with artist Ralph McQuarrie from Insider #76, reprinted below for your convenience.

There are few people associated with Star Wars: A New Hope who can say that their contribution helped make George Lucas' film a reality. But through his stunning pre-production artwork, Ralph McQuarrie helped the directors at 20th Century Fox see the power of Lucas' vision, resulting in the funding of a movie then known as The Star Wars.

The artist had moved to California from his native Gary, Ind., nearly a decade before his 1975 date with destiny, but the closest he'd gotten to the entertainment industry involved some jobs drawing movie posters and doing animation for CBS Television's news coverage of the Apollo lunar missions at a little company called Reel Three -- so named for the three artists who did everything.
While McQuarrie and his comrades were creating artwork of the moon's surface and Apollo spacecraft to help people visualize the happenings on the dark side of the moon, from which no television broadcast could emanate, something amazing happened.
"A guy named Hal Barwood visited us in the early 1970s," McQuarrie recalls. "Hal needed some illustrations to help sell a film he wanted to do with his friend Matthew Robbins. He was trying to get into the film business at the time." And a good friend of Barwood and Robbins -- George Lucas -- was trying to get one of his pet projects off the ground.
"I didn't know that at the time," adds McQuarrie, who, at the ripe old age of 45, may have been having second thoughts about the wisdom of pursuing an art career. But all of that was about to change. "When George saw the drawings I had done for Hal and Matt, he was interested in talking to me. He visited with his friends at my place and talked about a big space-fantasy film he wanted to do. It didn't have a title yet. I showed him a proposal I'd worked on in 1972 for a science-fiction film called Galaxy. I imagined this lead-in with a transparent robot standing in a void, backlit, conducting a séance using this holographic machine that produced a three-dimensional image in a laser beam. Well, a couple years went by and George did American Graffiti. I never thought I'd see him again, and then one day he called to see if I'd be interested in doing something for Star Wars."
Soon, McQuarrie was sketching Lucas' heroes, villains and aliens from a dozen different worlds -- not to mention the worlds themselves.

Never Trust Anyone Over 30

Ironically, the artist who would forever change the look of science-fiction fantasy film wasn't particularly interested in science fiction. "When I was young, I'd look at the Buck Rogers comic strip, but I didn't think too much about it," he admits. "I'd worked for Boeing and was in love with airplanes and spacecraft, and I had an interest in fantasy architecture, although I hadn't thought about doing much in science fiction. But I enjoyed working with Hal and Matt so much on their science-fiction film, I felt like that was really the place I should be. I had found what I should be doing."
McQuarrie may have been the first artist Lucas enlisted to visualize his futuristic fantasy, but McQuarrie's industrial-design background provided the template for later hires. Storyboard-artist-designer Joe Johnston, modeler Steve Gawley and others all shared a working knowledge of industrial design, which enabled them to more easily extrapolate futuristic versions from contemporary equipment. What was different with McQuarrie was his age. "I was quite a bit older than most of them," he grins. "There was some sort of a rumor going around that there wasn't anybody over 30 working on [Star Wars], and I was 45. I never really knew what [the other artists] thought about that. I didn't see much of them. I worked at home until I started working on the matte paintings for Star Wars."

McQuarrie's hiring came not a moment too soon for Lucas and his fledgling project, which was almost stillborn after pitches to executives at United Artists and Universal were met with rejection. "I think it was a sin that those people looked at it and didn't grasp the scope of the images George wanted to relay," he says, shaking his head. "But they didn't see any drawings."

Lucas vowed never to depend solely on the imaginations of studio suits. He would use McQuarrie's illustrations to make it abundantly clear what his movie would look like. And, of course, when Lucas finally pitched The Star Wars to 20th Century Fox directors, he was armed with McQuarrie's fabulous paintings. (Fox production chief Alan Ladd Jr. had signed on two years before.)

But those famous images were the product of months of conferences followed by painstaking doodling that finally yielded some useful designs. "I started with little pencil sketches," McQuarrie remembers. "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."

Instant Icons

One of the most famous images was one of McQuarrie's earliest: C-3PO and R2-D2 in front of a cliff overlooking Tatooine. Beyond the fact that this painting perfectly captures the desert planet as portrayed in the film, it also communicates a tremendous sense of desolation and forlorn barrenness -- a perfect metaphor for the emptiness of young Luke Skywalker's existence. "I think it does," McQuarrie agrees. "I think a lot of my ideas just float up from my subconscious mind like a bubble from the bottom of the lake. George wanted Tatooine to be a desert planet with twin suns and all these factors, so I was thinking, 'Desert ... extreme heat ... no plants ... just rocks and dust,' and all the business of Tatooine just came up in my mind."

While the look of Tatooine may have come easily to McQuarrie, the design of C-3PO was elusive, despite the fact that he was inspired by a very famous cinematic predecessor. "George brought a photograph of the female robot from Metropolis [1927] and said he'd like Threepio to look like that, except to make him a boy," McQuarrie relates, and indeed his first drawing looks like a breastless version of the robotrix. "Yeah, there's a lot of similarity [between the two] in my early sketches, but those were George's instructions. I had a feeling that Threepio should be more elegant and smoothly sculptural, but the truth is he wouldn't have been able to move. The joints and everything had to be solved [so he could] move."

While it's fair to say C-3PO's basic silhouette and sensibility came from McQuarrie's design, with more than a passing nod to Metropolis, the protocol droid's defining characteristic -- that great face that looks perpetually surprised -- was the work of production designer John Barry and sculptor Liz Moore.

"John, George and I had a meeting where John looked at my early sketches," McQuarrie recollects. "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."

On the other hand, McQuarrie's sketches for Chewbacca are much closer to the finished product, thanks to creature maestro Stuart Freeborn. "George said he wanted Chewbacca to look like a lemur, so he had great big limpid eyes in some of my early sketches," McQuarrie says. "George also gave me a drawing he liked from a 1930s illustrator of science fiction that showed a big, apelike, furry beast with a row of female breasts down its chest. So I took the breasts off and added a bandolier and ammunition and weapons, and changed its face so it looked somewhat more like the final character, and I left it at that."

McQuarrie's sketch of Chewbacca's head is just a mass of hair surrounding a doglike nose and mouth, and Freeborn refined that design. McQuarrie points out that Freeborn's Wookiee is a bit leaner and its face a tad more defined than McQuarrie's version: "Well, to me it seemed he added a jawbone from one of the ape creatures he did for 2001: A Space Odyssey in the creation of Chewbacca's chin. Mine doesn't have a chin and his does, which is very important to the way it ultimately appears."

So is McQuarrie happy with Chewie's final design? "Oh sure," he grins, "it's Star Wars! It's the real thing."


Still, it's very different working conceptually versus for film, and McQuarrie feels that not all of his designs translated well to the screen. "Not always," he states, pointing to the gauze and metal protective masks of Tatooine's Sand People, which resemble McQuarrie's sketches but are decidedly more bug-eyed in the film. "They took the drawings I'd done of the Tusken Raiders and made their eyes tubular and projected them out further," the artist says. "They just kind of caricatured what I'd done." Ditto his original stormtrooper helmet, which looks much more like a real fighter-pilot helmet than those in the film, which were made to look more like frowning skulls. "I liked my refined drawing of the stormtrooper's helmet, and it's somewhat grotesque in the film. The people who made the costumes took my helmet, hyped up certain aspects, and made sort of a cartoon of it."

Though much has been made of the influence of World War II fascist uniforms on McQuarrie's designs, the artist denies the influence was a conscious one while acknowledging that by calling the Empire's footsoldiers "stormtroopers," Lucas was deliberately suggesting something Nazi-esque. "It was supposed to be a tooled army that was very efficient, in a sense like the German army," McQuarrie says. "They can't hit a damn thing with their laser guns, but they're very efficient!" he laughs.

While McQuarrie was too young to fight in World War II, he remembers his friends' brothers going to England to fight the Battle of Britain, and he remains fascinated with the war. But he says his Darth Vader helmet design's similarity to a German combat helmet and gas mask did not occur to him as he was sketching early images of Star Wars' übernemesis. What he remembers instead is finding Lucas' original description of Vader at odds with the needs of the script. "George said he wanted a costume that would flutter in on the wind, sort of a dark guy in a black cape with a big helmet, like a Japanese warrior -- maybe with black silk over his face or something like that," McQuarrie recalls. "But the script had Vader crossing between his spaceship and the Rebel Blockade Runner and breaking into that spaceship from outer space, burning his way through a wall so he and his stormtroopers can come charging into this hallway. I thought, 'Gee, Darth Vader has to function in a vacuum,' so I suggested to George that [Vader] might have some sort of spacesuit to enable him to survive this trip through the vacuum, and George said, 'Well, okay, give him some kind of a breathing apparatus.' So along with the big helmet, I put a mask on him."

And what a mask it was -- particularly in McQuarrie's early sketches, where Vader's breathing apparatus boasts a narrow "chin" and high "cheekbones" suggesting a skull, with the helmet perched low and sinister over the dark Jedi's black eye sockets, a look that communicates total malevolence. While McQuarrie's initial design was quite effective, the final helmet, though faithful to the skull-like visage, was a bit bulkier, which had an unexpected but welcome impact on the Dark Lord of the Sith.
"In my drawings, there wasn't any particular thought to his scale, and I thought he looked like a little, hunched, evil, ratlike person," McQuarrie explains. "Of course I liked my original design, but the guys on the English crew who made the costumes took it over and came up with a good idea -- the concept of this huge, towering figure you had to look up at. I think that the big, tall, gigantic look was pivotal. It worked well in the film, so it's hard to argue with."
In fact, it's hard to argue with any of the changes to McQuarrie's designs at this point because the on-screen versions have become such a part of the Star Wars visual vernacular. Nevertheless, McQuarrie contends that some of his original drawings looked more real on paper than when executed on film, and he has some supersized fans backing him up -- including George Lucas. "I continued to modify my original Vader idea when I had the chance, and I modified it again in an illustration I did for the original cover of the Star Wars novelization. George looked at the helmet and said it never looked better!" McQuarrie grins.

Painting by Design

Producer David O. Selznick first coined the term "production designer" to describe William Cameron Menzies' contributions to Gone with the Wind. In many ways, McQuarrie's role on Star Wars very much echoed what Menzies did -- he drew everything, and the production scrupulously adhered to those drawings when setting up shots. Which leads to an interesting paradox: Although he was the primary visual conceptualist on Star Wars, McQuarrie doesn't consider himself a designer. Why? "Because I didn't work at it," the artist says. "But then Star Wars included the sort of stylized design I was interested in when I was at Art Center College of Design, which I never had a chance to work on commercially prior to Star Wars. It sort of wound up being mine because I was given the privilege of designing the sets, the costumes and everything else in the paintings I did for George's presentation to Fox."
He continues, "George and I didn't think the stuff that I did would necessarily be in the film, but he wanted me to show him what I thought would be an ideal solution for each scene. And it turned out he took those paintings along when he went to England to talk to the crew who designed the sets and costumes. And there they were, these paintings I'd done, up on the wall. I think they presented a pretty concise image of what the film could look like, so George could say, 'This is what I want.' They used quite a lot of what I had done in their designs."
And where would science-fiction fantasy film design be if Lucas hadn't met McQuarrie and asked him to do the preliminary concept work on Star Wars? The dramatic style and composition, the dynamic shapes of the characters in frame, and the use of color are uniquely McQuarrie's. "It seems so, doesn't it?" he reflects. "There might've been somebody out there who could've done what I did with George's direction. It's impossible to say. But my work is in there."

In fact, it's difficult when looking at McQuarrie's lush paintings not to help wishing that Lucas had been able to copy some of them a bit more closely in the film. "Yeah, so do I," McQuarrie sighs, "and I think he does, too."

Looking back nearly 30 years later, what does McQuarrie consider his single greatest contribution to Star Wars? "Well, the paintings that I did were on hand the day that George had a meeting with the directors at Fox. The decision was made to go ahead with the film on the strength of George's idea and my compositions. That was my contribution right there."

This interview and images were found at Star

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