Ralph McQuarrie

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Ralph McQuarrie
McQuarrie visiting Industrial Light & Magic in 2008
McQuarrie visiting ILM in 2008
Born(1929-06-13)June 13, 1929
DiedMarch 3, 2012(2012-03-03) (aged 82)
Alma materArt Center College of Design
Occupation(s)Illustrator, designer
Notable work
Joan Benjamin
(m. 1983)
AwardsAcademy Award for Best Visual Effects (1985)

Ralph Angus McQuarrie (/məˈkwɒr/; June 13, 1929 – March 3, 2012) was an American conceptual designer who worked in film and television. His career included work on the original Star Wars trilogy, the original Battlestar Galactica television series, the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and the film Cocoon, for which he won an Academy Award.

Early life[edit]

Ralph McQuarrie was born on June 13, 1929, in Gary, Indiana, and was raised on a farm near Billings, Montana.[1] He served in the United States Army during the Korean War, surviving a shot to the head.[1] After returning from the war, McQuarrie moved to California in the 1960s,[2] studying at the Art Center School,[1] then in downtown Los Angeles.


McQuarrie initially worked for a dentistry firm, illustrating teeth and equipment,[1] before working as an Artist and Preliminary Design Illustrator for the Boeing Company, where he drew diagrams for a manual on constructing the 747 Jumbo Jet, as well as designing film posters and animating CBS News' coverage of the Apollo space program at the three-man company Reel Three.[2][3] While there, McQuarrie was asked by Hal Barwood to produce some illustrations for a film project he and Matthew Robbins were starting.[2][3]

Star Wars[edit]

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.

—McQuarrie on Star Wars.[3]

The young filmmaker George Lucas was impressed by McQuarrie's work and met with him to discuss his plans for a space-fantasy film, The Star Wars. Lucas sought visual reference material to support his pitch to film studios and purchased pieces of science fiction artwork by John Berkey.[4] In 1975, Lucas commissioned McQuarrie to illustrate several scenes from the script of the film. McQuarrie may have been inspired by some of Berkey's works, in particular a painting of a rocket-plane diving down through space towards a gigantic mechanical planet (the image had been used as cover art for the 1972 reprint of the short story anthology Star Science Fiction Stories No.4).[5]

McQuarrie's concept paintings were instrumental in helping Lucas to win approval from 20th Century Fox; armed with vivid illustrations of his planned movie, Lucas was able to convince Fox executives to take a gamble and fund his Star Wars project. Despite their scepticism, it became a huge success upon release in 1977.[1][2][3][6] Among McQuarrie's Star Wars portfolio were concept paintings depicting scenes on the planet Tatooine, inside the Mos Eisley cantina, inside the Death Star and on the moon of Yavin. During filming, Lucas ensured that many shots reproduced McQuarrie's paintings exactly, such was his esteem for McQuarrie's work.[7] McQuarrie has said of his work on Star Wars, "I thought I had the best job that an artist ever had on a film, and I had never worked on a feature film before. ... I still get fan mail — people wondering if I worked on Episode I or just wanting to have my autograph."[3]

McQuarrie designed many of the film's characters, including Darth Vader, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO[8][9] and drew many concepts for the film's sets.[2] His production painting of R2-D2 and C-3PO wandering in the desert on the planet Tatooine was the first to be completed. His early concept for C-3PO was visibly inspired by the Art Deco Maschinenmensch robot from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis.[10][11] The painting had a particular impact on actor Anthony Daniels, who was about to turn down the part of C-3PO; "He had painted a face and a figure that had a very wistful, rather yearning, rather bereft quality, which I found very appealing," stated Daniels, and the appeal of McQuarrie's image convinced him to accept the role.[12]

At Lucas' suggestion, McQuarrie designed a breathing apparatus for Darth Vader to wear.[13] In an interview with Star Wars Insider Magazine, McQuarrie stated that Lucas' artistic direction was to portray a malevolent figure in a cape with samurai armour. "For Darth Vader, George [Lucas] just said he would like to have a very tall, dark fluttering figure that had a spooky feeling like it came in on the wind." McQuarrie noted that the script indicated that Vader would travel between spaceships and needed to survive in the vacuum of space, and he proposed that Vader should wear some sort of space suit. Lucas agreed, and McQuarrie combined a full-face breathing mask with a samurai helmet, thus creating one of the most iconic designs of space fantasy cinema.[12][14] A 1975 production painting of Darth Vader engaged in a lightsaber duel with Deak Starkiller (a character prototype for Luke Skywalker) depicts Vader wearing black armour, a flowing cape and an elongated, skull-like mask and helmet. Its similarity to the final design of Vader's costume demonstrates that McQuarrie's earliest conception of Vader was so successful that very little needed to be changed for production.[10] Working from McQuarrie's artwork, the costume designer John Mollo devised a costume that could be worn by an actor on-screen using a combination of clerical robes, a motorcycle suit, a German military helmet and a gas mask.[15] The prop sculptor Brian Muir created the helmet and armour used in the film from McQuarrie's designs.[16]

While McQuarrie was working on visualisation work for Lucas, he was also commissioned by an executive of Ballantine Books, Judy-Lynn del Rey, to produce the cover art of the forthcoming novelization of Star Wars. The first edition of Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker went to press in 1976 featuring McQuarrie's version of Darth Vader's helmet on the cover. Like the film, the book was a runaway success, and McQuarrie began a long relationship with the publisher, producing the artwork for 22 further titles for Del Rey Books between 1978 and 1987.[7]

Star Trek[edit]

Around the time that McQuarrie was completing his work on Star Wars, he was brought on board the design team for a planned cinematic production based on Gene Roddenberry's science fiction television series, Star Trek. Titled Star Trek: Planet of the Titans, the film was to feature a redesigned USS Enterprise starship, and McQuarrie was recruited to provide the visualizations. His triangular ship design has been likened to the appearance of the Star Destroyers featured in Star Wars. Star Trek: Planet of the Titans did not make it past the pre-production phase and the project was cancelled in 1977.[17] The design was later used in 2017's Star Trek: Discovery as the basis of the titular ship.[18]

Star Wars sequels[edit]

Model of the Mother Ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, based on McQuarrie's design

When Lucas began work on his sequel to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), McQuarrie was once again brought in to supply previsualization artwork. His sketches and production paintings established the appearance of some of the saga's most enduring elements, such as the gigantic AT-AT Walkers in the battle on the ice planet Hoth and the wizened elf creature Yoda. McQuarrie's design for Cloud City, a floating city in the clouds, actually originated from his early sketches for Star Wars from 1975, when he was illustrating a concept for the planet Alderaan, as described in Lucas' 1975 draft script, Adventures of the Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars.[7] McQuarrie made an uncredited cameo appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, when he appeared in the film's opening sequence in the Rebel base on Hoth as a character named General Pharl McQuarrie.[1] In 2007, McQuarrie became part of the Star Wars action figure range when an action figure in his likeness as "General McQuarrie" was produced for the Star Wars 30th anniversary in 2007.[1][9] Action figures were also produced based on McQuarrie's concept art, including conceptual versions of the Imperial Stormtrooper, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and other characters.[19]

By the time McQuarrie was engaged on Lucas' third Star Wars picture, Return of the Jedi (1983), he had begun to experience creative fatigue. "It became less fun as time went on. I had done the best part already and I was just rehashing everything. I kept meeting myself in my thinking. It became more and more difficult to keep my enthusiasm up," McQuarrie has said. Despite his earlier success, fewer of his design ideas were included in the final cut of the film.[20]

Other film and TV work[edit]

McQuarrie designed the alien ships in Steven Spielberg's films Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982),[3] while his work as the conceptual artist on the 1985 film Cocoon earned him the Academy Award for Visual Effects.[9][21] He also worked on the 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica,[9] and the films Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and *batteries not included.[6]


Rick McCallum offered McQuarrie a role as designer for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but he declined, noting he had "run out of steam" and Industrial Light & Magic animator Doug Chiang was appointed instead. McQuarrie retired and his Star Wars concept paintings were subsequently displayed in art exhibitions, including the 1999 Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.[3] Several of McQuarrie's unused designs from the original trilogy were utilized for the Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels animated TV series,[22] including the planet Orto Plutonia, which was based on McQuarrie's original design of Hoth,[23] and the characters Zeb Orrelios and Chopper, based on his original designs for Chewbacca and R2-D2, respectively.[24][25]

Personal life[edit]

McQuarrie married Joan Benjamin in 1983 and stayed married until his death at age 82 on March 3, 2012, in his Berkeley, CA home.[26] McQuarrie died from complications of Parkinson's disease.[1][6][9]

Critical assessment[edit]

Christian Blauvelt of Entertainment Weekly praised McQuarrie's works as "pioneering of the 'used future' aesthetic" which unlike other science-fiction, "imagined a lived-in galaxy that was gritty, dirty, and in advance states of decay." He described McQuarrie's style as "strongly geometric subjects rendered in muted colors against a flat, purposefully compressed backdrop. A McQuarrie Star Wars design looks like what would have resulted if Salvador Dalí had sketched concepts for Universal's 1936 Flash Gordon serial by way of Sergio Leone's Old West."[23]

Neil Kendricks of The San Diego Union-Tribune emphasised McQuarrie's importance to the Star Wars franchise, saying that the artist "holds a unique position when it comes to defining much of the look of the "Star Wars" universe."[3]

After McQuarrie's death, George Lucas said: "His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph's fabulous illustrations and say, 'do it like this'."[27]


The current Lucasfilm creative team is employing parts of McQuarrie's original unused concept art from the seventies and eighties in the development of new Star Wars-related media.[28]

For Star Wars Day in 2023, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga released a free DLC character named Luke Starkiller, based on McQuarrie's design.[29]




McQuarrie's previsualization artwork, production sketches and paintings, and matte paintings feature prominently in the first three volumes of The Art of Star Wars book series.

  • Titelman, Carol; Hoffman, Valerie, eds. (1979). The Art of Star Wars (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0345282736.
    Reprinted 1994 ISBN 9781852865832
  • Bulluck, Vic; Hoffman, Valerie (1980). Call, Deborah (ed.). The Art of The Empire Strikes Back (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 9780345293350.
    Reprinted 1994 ISBN 9780345392039
  • Kasdan, Lawrence; Lucas, George (1983). The Art of Return of the Jedi - Star Wars (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0345312549.
    Reprinted 1995 ISBN 9781852865856
  • Anderson, Kevin J.; Carabetta, Michael (1996). Star Wars, the art of Ralph McQuarrie. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. ISBN 9780811813204.
  • McQuarrie, Ralph; Alinger, Brandon; Lageose, Wade; Mandel, David; Ltd, LucasFilm (2016). Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie. Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 9781419717932. Retrieved 21 June 2017.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Rees Shapiro, T. (2012-03-05). "Ralph McQuarrie, artist who drew Darth Vader, C-3PO, dies at 82". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
  2. ^ a b c d e Magid, Ron (2004-09-28). "Ralph McQuarrie on Designing Star Wars". Star Wars Insider #76 via RalphMcQuarrie.com. Archived from the original on March 5, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Kendricks, Neil (1999-09-23). "Behind The Force 'Star Wars: The Magic of Myth' showcases the work of artists who collaborated with the head Jedi, a.k.a. George Lucas". San Diego Union-Tribune. p. NIGHT & DAY-32.
  4. ^ Cohen, Ben. "John Berkey's art inspired the Death Star in 'Star Wars'". Star Tribune. Archived from the original on 15 September 2017. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  5. ^ Heilemann, Michael (15 February 2013). "John Berkey & The Mechanical Planet". Kitbashed. Archived from the original on 15 September 2017. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  6. ^ a b c White, James (2012-03-04). "Ralph McQuarrie Has Died". Empire. Retrieved 2012-03-04.
  7. ^ a b c Scoleri, John (14 January 2014). "An Annotated Guide to The Star Wars Portfolio by Ralph McQuarrie". StarWars.com. Lucasfilm. Archived from the original on 24 June 2017. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  8. ^ Michael Heilemann: George Lucas Stole Chewbacca, But It's Okay, binarybonsai.com,18. September 2010, Sep 18, '10
  9. ^ a b c d e "Star Wars artist Ralph McQuarrie dies aged 82". BBC News. 2012-03-04. Retrieved 2012-03-04.
  10. ^ a b "Ralph McQuarrie's Most Memorable Masterpieces | StarWars.com". StarWars.com. 16 August 2016. Archived from the original on 22 June 2017. Retrieved 22 June 2017.
  11. ^ "The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Metropolis | StarWars.com". StarWars.com. 18 August 2014. Archived from the original on 23 June 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  12. ^ a b Casey, Dan (2015). "64. Ralph McQuarrie, the Conceptual Mastermind". 100 Things Star Wars Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Triumph Books. ISBN 9781633193451. Retrieved 22 June 2017.
  13. ^ Rinzler, J.W. (2007). The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0-09-192499-7.
  14. ^ "The Old Master: Ralph McQuarrie on Designing Star Wars". Star Wars Insider (76). June 2004.
  15. ^ Gilbey, Ryan (1 November 2017). "John Mollo obituary: Star Wars costume designer who dressed Darth Vader". the Guardian. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  16. ^ "Sculpting the Sith: An interview with Brian Muir". Star Wars Insider (116). 24 March 2010. Archived from the original on 9 August 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  17. ^ Anders, Charlie Jane (December 31, 2010). "Ralph McQuarrie's concept art for a Star Trek movie in 1976–1977". io9. Retrieved July 28, 2013.
  18. ^ Trendacosta, Katharine (July 23, 2016). "Star Trek: Discovery Officially Takes Place in the Prime Universe". io9. United States: Univision Communications. Archived from the original on July 28, 2016. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  19. ^ Szadkowski, Joseph (2007-08-04). "Star Wars' concept art turned into action figures". The Washington Times. p. C09.
  20. ^ Gilbey, Ryan (6 March 2012). "Ralph McQuarrie obituary". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 23 June 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  21. ^ Spelling, Ian (2009-11-24). "The real, incredibly mundane reason Darth Vader wears a mask". Sci Fi Wire.
  22. ^ Hibberd, James (January 23, 2014). "'Star Wars Rebels' interview: New series goes to dark places, embraces 1977 film's spirit". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  23. ^ a b Blauvelt, Christian (2012-03-04). "Ralph McQuarrie, legendary 'Star Wars' concept artist, dies at 82: A tribute to the man who designed that Galaxy Far, Far Away". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
  24. ^ Goldman, Eric (18 February 2014). "Star Wars Rebels Exclusive First Look: Meet Zeb". IGN. Retrieved 14 June 2014.
  25. ^ Hibberd, James (Jan 28, 2014). "'Star Wars Rebels': New droid revealed". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved February 13, 2014.
  26. ^ Watercutter, Angela (4 March 2012). "Star Wars Conceptual Artist Ralph McQuarrie Dies at 82". Wired.com. Retrieved 5 March 2012.
  27. ^ "Ralph McQuarrie Remembered". Star Wars.com. 2012-03-03. Retrieved 2012-03-04.
  28. ^ Sciretta, Peter (1 December 2014). "See How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Was Inspired By Ralph McQuarrie's Unused Concept Art". Slashfilm.com. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  29. ^ Doolan, Liam (2023-05-05). "LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga Adds Luke Starkiller Minifigure For Free". Nintendo Life. Retrieved 2023-05-06.

General and cited references[edit]

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