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 Ralph Angus McQuarrie  (1929 - 2012)

About: Ralph Angus McQuarrie


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Lived/Active: California/Indiana      Known for: science fiction movie script paintings and drawing, technical illustration

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times online obituary of the artist, by Dennis Hevesi, published March 5, 2012.


Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who transformed George Lucas’s rudimentary concepts and earliest scripts into lush, vivid images of intergalactic expanse and light-saber combat that became the visual core of the “Star Wars” saga, died on Saturday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 82.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Stan Stice, a friend and co-author of the 2007 book The Art of Ralph McQuarrie.

Mr. McQuarrie had a hand in some of the most successful science-fiction and adventure films of the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. He created the original drawings for the mother ship in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the spaceship for Mr. Spielberg’s ET (1982). He also did conceptual art for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Star Trek IV (1986), Batteries Not Included (1987) and Jurassic Park (1993), as well as for the original Battlestar Galactica TV series.

In 1986, he shared an Academy Award for visual effects for the movie Cocoon, about a group of elderly people who regain their youth with the help of aliens.

But Mr. McQuarrie was best known as the concept artist for the first three of the six Star Wars films: Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Mr. Lucas’s tale of cosmic civil war against the evil regime of Emperor Palpatine had been rejected by both United Artists and Universal when Mr. McQuarrie was brought on board.

After Mr. Lucas placed before him illustrations from comic books and several pages from an early script for the first Star Wars film, Mr. McQuarrie came back with a dozen full-color renditions of Mr. Lucas’s imaginings.

Mr. McQuarrie’s paintings, most of them in gouache, would be pivotal in persuading the board of directors of 20th Century Fox to finance the first film in the series, and to distribute the others under the production of Lucasfilm Ltd.

“These paintings helped George get the movie approved by Fox because it gave them something to visualize, instead of just a script,” said Steve Sansweet, the author of 16 Star Wars books and until recently the director of fan relations for Lucasfilm.

Among the original images was a tall, elegant, expressionless Art Decoesque golden female robot. Standing to the side was a small, silver robot with a trashcan-like dome, bearing what looked like a big Swiss army knife with an array of implements. That painting became the model for the two droids in the Star Wars films. The female evolved into the male droid C-3PO; the sidekick became R2-D2.

Another painting depicted a laser-sword fight between two characters. One was swathed in a flowing black cape, a Japanese samurai-like helmet and a mask that filtered a deep, raspy voice; the other was a blond figure wearing a scuba-like breathing mask. They would become the arch-villain Darth Vader and the young hero Luke Skywalker, later revealed to be Darth Vader’s son.

“Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision Star Wars, ” Mr. Lucas said in a written statement. “When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’ ”

He added, “In many ways, he was a generous father to a conceptual art revolution that was born of his artwork, and which seized the imaginations of thousands and propelled them into the film industry.”

Ralph Angus McQuarrie was born June 13, 1929, in Gary, Ind., and grew up on a farm near Billings, Mont. He saw combat with the Army during the Korean War and survived a bullet to the head. After the war he attended what is now known as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

He is survived by his wife of 29 years, the former Joan Benjamin, and a sister, Joan Wolf.

Mr. McQuarrie first worked as a technical illustrator for the Boeing Company. He later joined an animation company in California and produced illustrations for CBS’s coverage of the Apollo space program. He was introduced to Mr. Lucas by two colleagues of the director who had known Mr. Lucas when they were students at the University of Southern California film school.

Mr. McQuarrie’s work has found fans not only among moviegoers. The Hasbro toy company created a line of McQuarrie Signature action figures, based on his initial concepts of Star Wars characters, including Chewbacca, Han Solo and Darth Vader.

And he became one himself.

“He had a cameo in The Empire Strikes Back, dressed as a rebel officer, no dialogue,” Mr. Sansweet said. “Fans loved that, and in 2007, the 30th anniversary of the first Star Wars, Hasbro produced a figure of General McQuarrie, rebel officer. His hands are behind his back; it has a blaster in his holster. It looks just like him.”


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