Two forlorn robots, arguing in a big empty desert beneath a baking sky… The fear-inducing mask of a half-human cyborg from which his rasping electric breaths emanated… An eight-foot tall brown-haired alien with a snarl and a penchant for weapons. These powerful images may be, if you're of a certain age, as much a part of your mental furniture as your first paper route or your first kiss. They're from everyone's favorite space opera, Star Wars, and yup--they're that potent. The man who dreamed them up, being responsible for much of the look and feel of Star Wars, died the other day. He was Ralph McQuarrie, and he was 82.
In addition to Star Wars, McQuarrie was also the designer of key parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and many more futuristic movies. So the odds are that his creations will influence the teenage dreams of generations to come.
Here you can see an iconic moment from the second Star Wars film, with the Empire's version of a heavy tank or perhaps land-based destroyer: The four-footed, blaster-firing, troop-ferrying AT-AT. Like a giant Boston Dynamics Alpha Dog.
Designing a spaceship for a sci-fi movie must be tricky. The things have to be pseudo-believable, but incredible, able to add to the plot line, and preferably memorable. McQuarrie's X-Wing fighter, Luke Skywalker's hot ride, was the Star Wars equivalent of the Spitfire in so many war movies, or perhaps Maverick's Tomcat in Top Gun.
Initially thought up by Industrial Light and Magic employees as a more traditional spacecraft for the movie's heroes, here's a McQuarrie image showing the famous close-quarters battle between X-Wings and the Empire's evil, more alien-looking Tie Fighter craft in the trench of the Death Star--the concluding drama of the first movie.
Tatooine's twin-sunned desert landscape sets up much of the early mood of the first Star Wars film, Episode IV. Here, in what looks like pretty early concept art, Skywalker surveys the desert with his floating landspeeder (reminiscent, perhaps, of 1950s U.S. car design, and supposed to be aged in the movie) and his robots nearby.
The red, dusty emptiness of this planet plays a key but overlooked plot element in the movies: Life there is so hard and boring that Skywalker dreams of leaving. This feeling seeps out of McQuarrie's image.
Did Greedo shoot first? That's a question Star Wars fans and George Lucas himself will fight over for years. The scene happened in the Cantina bar--jammed with dozens of alien species, and with a bizarre live music act as background to the drama. It's all here in McQuarrie's collage.
The second movIe, The Empire Strikes Back, involves a very traditional re-imagining of many an Earthly battle scene: An entrenched resistance fighting a relentlessly oncoming enemy in an inhospitable landscape. Think of the trenches of World War I or better yet, the bitter cold of the Russian Front in WWII. Here's McQuarrie's concept scene for this combat--complete with exhausted Rebel fighters.
Aliens. Gotta love 'em...and/or be faintly terrified by their un-Earthly bodies and habits.
What would you do if asked to imagine the creatures that may live beneath the surface of a swamp on an alien planet? Here's Ralph's take on it in what may be concept art from Yoda's planet Dagobah.
The Sand People of Tatooine play another brief but vital role in the first movie, intervening to introduce Skywalker to his mentor, the famous Obi Wan Kenobi. For a tiny role in the movie, these characters are incredibly well-sketched by Lucas, and their casual, low-brow savagery is palpable. Maybe Lucas has McQuarrie's sketch of them here to thank.
The Emperor here tortures Skywalker with bolts of energy--a perfect manifestation of his evil character, and the classic good versus evil scene. Complete with eerie, perhaps godly, lightning bolts.
In a long-forgotten Star Wars special on VH1, the actor who played C-3PO, British-born Anthony Daniels, once explained how reluctant he was to be in Lucas' movie, until he saw this concept sketch. Asking if it was of the character he'd just badly auditioned for, he got closer. "And he was looking straight out at the, at the viewer, and he looked straight into my eyes, and his eyes went straight down into my soul, and it was the most extraordinary feeling, sensation. Uh, I was sort of taken over."
McQuarrie is credited with the idea that Vader wore a breathing apparatus, leading to the iconic black mask and helmet look of the character and the spine-chilling sound of his breaths.
The lightsabers in this sketch were also important--sound engineer Ben Burtt noted, in that same VH1 documentary, that it was when he saw a McQuarrie sketch just like this one, of the final lightsaber battle between Vader and Kenobi, that he instantly knew what sound they should make: "I knew it would be, it would be sort of a musical sound, but it would have a threatening quality to it, but also, ah, a magical quality."
And thus the sound effects for a billion kid battles with plastic lightsabers were created.
McQuarrie won much fan adoration for Star Wars, but it was his visual effects for Cocoon that won him an Oscar. And he's also behind the alien ship concepts in Close Encounters, he worked on the original Battlestar Galactica TV show, and had key roles in designing Jurassic Park and E.T. (the mystical space ship, in particular).
Paying tribute after his death, Lucas remarked that when he had difficulty explaining a concept in the films to his crew he'd often just point at a McQuarrie image and say "Do it like this."
That's proof positive of just how powerfully this man could imagine the future in his art.