How Star Wars’ Original Designer Is Still Influencing The New Stuff

Ralph McQuarrie was the artist behind the original trilogy. And his work lives on, like an unspoken code, at Disney.

Since buying Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars in 2012, no one at Disney has been so bold as to denounce the Jar-Jar laden prequels, full of CGI-created ships and architecture that felt incongruous with the original, stoically gritty trilogy. But as more reports from Disney’s new Star Wars projects come in, it seems there’s an unwritten code going on at Disney: Ditch the newer stuff, and return to the aesthetic that made Star Wars the beloved sci-fi franchise that it is today.


That aesthetic was largely created by Ralph McQuarrie, the concept artist who George Lucas hired to draw out his original trilogy. When you look back at his illustrations, McQuarrie’s influence speaks for itself. Not only did he conceive Darth Vader as the masked epitome of darkness, many of the original trilogy’s most thrilling scenes–our first look at Han Solo’s Millenium Falcon, to X-Wing pilots blasting TIE fighters, to the stark climax where Vader reveals his relation to Luke Skywalker–are nearly identical to the original artwork. McQuarrie both fleshed out characters and directed their scenes, all from paper.

Ralph McQuarrie/Lucasfilm/Dreams And Vision Press

McQuarrie actually passed on Lucasfilm’s offer to work on the Star Wars prequels–a data point that we should probably weigh against our criticisms of George Lucas–but that isn’t stopping Disney, who now owns unrestricted access to all of McQuarrie’s original work, from mining it in their new productions. Set leaks from JJ Abrams’s new trilogy show McQuarrie’s aesthetic, full of dilapidated starships and giant slug monsters, is alive and well.

In addition to the upcoming films, Disney’s new animated series, Star Wars Rebels, is closely referencing McQuarrie’s old work. The LA Times recently profiled the series art director Kilian Plunkett and producer Dave Filoni digging through old models and concept art that are carefully cataloged at Skywalker ranch. From the article:


Kilian Plunkett admits he’ll use any excuse to drive 45 minutes north from his San Francisco office and poke around…At the moment, he holds in his hands an 18-by-41-centimeter piece of cinematic history: one of artist Ralph McQuarrie’s gouache concept paintings for the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

“I always assumed these things were giant movie poster size,” Plunkett says as he points out the finer details of McQuarrie’s style.

According to the team, these details–whatever they may be–aren’t even necessarily translated to the original trilogy. They’re special to the original concepts.

“We wanted to go back to Ralph’s original paintings, because they were driven much more by imagination,” Plunkett says. “We’re not being inspired by what was on screen. We’re being inspired by the stuff that inspired what ended up on screen.”

Or, in some cases, what didn’t. The “Rebels” team decided early on to look back not just at what had been built before, but at what had been dreamed and remained unrealized.

A number of the rich scenes and environments McQuarrie imagined for the original “Star Wars” never actually made it onto the screen. These images, including a glimpse at the doomed planet Alderaan (destroyed by the Death Star in the original movie), will finally get a chance to breathe, though in altered form, in “Rebels.”

It’s worth noting that the very existence of this article by the Los Angeles Times is a peek into Disney’s promotional psyche around new incarnations of Star Wars. They’re offering journalists access to broadcast what they’re too kind to say: “Yes, we know the prequels didn’t really feel like Star Wars. But don’t worry, we have the raw material to discover that feeling again.”

Read more here.


About the author

Mark Wilson is the Global Design Editor at Fast Company. He has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years


Call for Most Innovative Companies entries! Apply now.

500+ winners will be featured on Final deadline: 9/23.