Ralph McQuarrie might be the most influential unknown film artist of the 20th century. He’s virtually anonymous outside a small circle of fanatical film geeks, but whether you recognize his name or not, odds are you’ve enjoyed — and probably obsessed over — his work. McQuarrie was a designer for films such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and he won an Academy Award for his work on “Cocoon,” but his biggest claim to (non-)fame was as one of the first concept artists on “Star Wars.” During the earliest stages of pre-production, McQuarrie was brought in by George Lucas to illustrate and clarify his vision of a galaxy far, far away. In his moving obituary for Ain’t It Cool News, Eric “Quint” Vespe outlines the enormous impact McQuarrie had on “Star Wars,” and a universe’s collective imagination:
“Without Ralph McQuarrie we would not have ‘Star Wars,’ plain and simple. George Lucas’ script was being turned down left and right. Nobody was understanding his vision. Lucas realized he couldn’t count on a studio exec having even a small amount of imagination and sought out Ralph McQuarrie to do a series of production art pieces that would visualize the world. Lucas’ first pitch with McQuarrie’s art laid out before him was at 20th Century Fox and you know what happened next. If that had been McQuarrie’s complete legacy we would owe him our eternal thanks, but not only did he grasp the story and imagery Lucas was desperate to put on screen, he set the template for the universe.”
Quint’s piece also contains a number of McQuarrie’s original concept paintings for “Star Wars,” paintings which are shocking both for their beauty and vitality, but also for their direct influence on Lucas’ visual style. Compare, for example, the iconic image from “The Empire Strikes Back” at the top of this post and McQuarrie’s concept painting for that scene on AICN. Beyond a slight change in perspective, they’re almost identical. McQuarrie was one of the key men who helped turned Lucas’ dreams into reality. As a guy who grew up sleeping on “E.T.” bedsheets in “Star Wars” pajamas, I speak on behalf of many people — even those who didn’t previously know his name — when I say he will be missed.