Another Close Encounter with a Man of Light and vision
The brilliant conceptual artist who painted a "Star wars" universe departs, after shining his talents on "Jedi," to search out new creative challenges.
By SAL MANNA
Ralph McQuarrie is a humble man. Sure, without him, the spunky little droid R2-D2, with whom audiences laughed and cheered, might have looked very different indeed. Granted, Darth Vader, who was booed and hissed through most of the first three Star Wars films, would not have looked like he does either. And he might never have appeared the way he will always remain in memory—helmeted, garbed in black, with a sinister vertical grill where his mouth should be. These characters have become part of American folklore and world film history, and it was McQuarrie, the films' conceptual artist, who helped bring them to life.
But he isn't one to boast about his contributions.
"Who knows what art is? I would like to think my stuff is important, but I don't know if it's any good or not," McQuarrie says. "Artoo could have been any shape. I could have put a tea cup there, and with everyone responding to it, it would take on life. George Lucas isn't too terribly concerned about how it looks as long as it's convincing and not hokey."
But if George Lucas is the father of the Star Wars saga, then McQuarrie is one of its midwives. It was this tall, quiet and pleasant artist who first took Lucas' imaginative tale and made it live on paper. Thanks partially to his initial four paintings (R2-D2 and C-3PO crossing the desert; Luke Skywalker and Vader in a duel with laser swords; a sand-crawler; a fighter diving towards the Death Star), 20th Century-Fox decided in 1975 to give this idea of a "space movie" a chance.
Now, as Return of the Jedi sets box-office records across the country, McQuarrie, like Lucas, has decided to bow out of the Star Wars business for a while.
"I felt I had contributed all that I was going to contribute," says the 55-year-old, white-haired illustrator sitting in his hillside home in Berkeley, California, overlooking San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge glows through the smog in the distance. "I was welcome to continue, but it was time to go on."
Fortunately, McQuarrie's work on Return of the Jedi has followed the route of the previous two films, with 20 of his production paintings collected by Ballantine Books in a large-format portfolio published in May.
Yet, it is those early days of creation that he remembers most with fondness.
"Darth, R2-D2 and all of that came out of those first three or four weeks in early 1975," McQuarrie recalls. "George gave me a script
and I went away for awhile. He said, 'Do what interests you.' It was like hearing music and seeing what you hear. It's whatever comes to you and it becomes yours. That's the fun part. 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.
Photo: Above: C-3P0 and R2-D2 approach Jabba the Hutt's palace in the Tatooine desert. Below: Luke demands that Jabba release his captured friends. McQuarrie's Jedi paintings were executed after he had seen the film, at the request of George Lucas.
"It became more and more difficult to keep my enthusiasm up. It was less easy to come up with new things. So many other films have come out since and we had already done the Star Wars thing. I would think, 'Well, I have to come up with something. ' But what I would get was nothing particularly different. It didn't click anymore."
Then, there was the pressure to be as good or better than last time. "That's not the excitement of creating. You have to just do it and not worry if it's better."
Designs & Portfolios
If Ralph McQuarrie had his way, a few of the characters and some of the hardware in Return of theJedi would have had a different look. Jabba the Hutt, for example.
"With Jabba, I started out with a figure who could walk around," the artist explains.
"George wanted somethfng farther out. My vision wasn't where he was. He kept asking for something more far out. Eventually, Phil Tippett [credited with make-up and creature design, see STARLOG #74] came up with Jabba, using a model. That's how we worked —all of us working on each other's ideas.
"My Jabba had an old man's face, with great, saggy jowls. George wanted a super slob. But when I think of someone powerful and threatening, I think of someone who can move quickly. Even with Sidney Greenstreet, you could sense that if he got angry, he could launch across a room and squash you like a bug. Jabba is powerful because he's like Hitler. He can order his guards around. But it seems to me that the Caesar should be as strong as anyone else and the power should come from him."
McQuarrie also had other ideas for the sail barges. "I was thinking maybe they could be made out of wood. I felt that perhaps at one time thousands of years ago, they were ceremonial barges plying on water and later, they were used in parades. They became metal though because wood seemed so highly improbable on the desert planet of Tatooine. But I think now they could have been wood just as easily."
His original design for the satellite skiff has an art deco look. "I like the Flash Gordon stuff," he admits. "The problem is that art deco dates something. Joe [Johnston, the film's art director for visual effects, see STARLOG #74] put them more into the Moebius area of design and as far out as you can go so as not to relate it to anything specific.
"But, the biggest thing left out of Return of the Jedi was the planet for the rebels. We worked on this Imperial City a long time, but it's never visited in the film. George decided just to have everything take place in space. It's elaborate and quite pretty. But I don't want to reveal what it looks like because George just might use it in the future.
"That's the problem with these films. You can only do a little bit of this or that. It's in the nature of what George Lucas set out to do— the premise of the tremendously vast conflict where the figures are seen only briefly. There's so much great stuff that we didn 't do. These three Star Wars films could have easily been 12 with so many intriguing side stories. Instead, you're just swept into the scene. George feels you shouldn't describe everything, like the opening of a door, and then the walking through, then going down the hall and into the elevator. You just see him say, 'I'm going home' and show him going through the front door. As long as the audience understands, the action is condensed down to the ultimate."
Although Jabba's castle is largely his work, production designer Norman Reynolds and others appeared to be doing more of the material which was being accepted to build the Star Wars universe. Early in 1982, McQuarrie decided to leave Lucasfilm after seven years.
"For Star Wars, I did all the concept art [24 paintings] prior to the film going into production," McQuarrie says. "The production designer, the costumer, etc. were all hired afterward and they reflected what I did."
On The Empire Strikes Back, he did twice as many paintings. "For Empire, we went on at greater lengths to get what we wanted. We started before the script was very far along. George had the time and money to want to see as many different things as we could do." But McQuarrie wasn't satisfied with his own work after toiling away at Jedi for two more years. "I was well into it when I left, but the design work was essentially done. Joe Johnston and Nilo [Rodis-Jamero, costume designer] had much more to say than I, so I let them finish. I wasn't feeling well physically either, and that's another reason I left." Sometime after leaving Lucasfilm, however, McQuarrie ran into its namesake at a party. Lucas suggested that, on a freelance basis, the artist complete some of the paintings he had begun and also execute some new ones based on the finished film.
So, while the Star Wars Portfolio (which reportedly sold more than 250,000 copies) and its The Empire Strikes Back sequel were assembled from pre-production paintings, the Return of the Jedi Portfolio actually encompasses only McQuarrie's renderings of the scenes after the film was already concluded. "So, it was an after-the-fact example of what others did," he adds.
He's proud, though, that his first portfolio was a groundbreaker. "Until then," he notes, "the studios hadn't used artwork the same as Fox and Lucas used it—to promote a film. George didn't approach it that way, but that's how it turned out. Star Wars was a natural. The film had all the things every kid wanted in a film, so kid-type things were ideal for toys. And George is a collector, too. He likes comic books. He has a Buck Rogers ray gun and a Jack Armstrong ring." Collectable poster, artwork and merchandise were a natural extension of the mania which followed the films' premieres.
For the Jedi edition, McQuarrie relied on color transparencies of specific scenes taken by the film's still photographer. Occasionally, he asked to view a film clip such as, he says, "for the rocket bike screaming through the forest. I wanted to see the smear of green as it speeds through the forest."
He also had at his disposal the models, miniatures and mock-ups of the various characters and scenes.
"I didn't think it would be so hard, but it was," McQuarrie confesses. "Jabba's chamber was the toughest. There were so many figures. I should have done more research on it, but I didn't bother. I could have done a big production, but I was faking things. I was working in the area of a pre-production painting that isn't a pre-production painting.
"And I allowed myself the freedom to interpret here and there on some paintings while on others I did it cold—just reproducing the model or photograph put in front of me. I did try to do likenesses of the actors at one point, but I finally felt that the paintings looked overworked and it didn't look like my style of painting."
Photos: Above: The heroic droids are taken by a Gamorean guard to Jabba's dungeon. Below: Two of the Rebel A-Wing fighters. The new craft were created by visual effects art director Joe Johnston's team. McQuarrie's paintings are available in portfolio from Ballantine.
Ideas & Executions
Ralph McQuarrie's artistic process is a painstaking one that values the simplicity of getting quickly to the point. 'I start with thumbnail sketches of shapes and pieces usually," he says. "Sometimes I get the idea right away. On Star Wars, many of the first sketches are what finally ended up being done.
"I go off the top of my head. I go for the romantic and what looks interesting while half my mind is occupied with practicality. But much of it operates on the self-conscious level. I don't draw or design something because, let's say, this needs a latch here. I try to think what the audience wants, but it's mostly how I feel."
His industrial design background, however, insists that he be somewhat utilitarian. "I would make up reasons for why things looked the way they did," he explains. "My spaceships, for instance, are based on fantasy propulsion systems. I imagine that gravity is like sitting in a waterfall and the earth is sucking in the particles. They reach a speed when close to the Earth, even if they're super-small, to create a drag which gives you your weight. So, I see my engines as anti-gravity devices. If you cut off the gravity, nullify it, say with a super-heavy, dense umbrella or if you had a magnet that can align the molecules, electrically perhaps, you could generate a fast flow of ether to propel a ship. So, it's like a jet plane, sucking in at one end and blasting out at the other. But there's no flame. You have a glow perhaps, so that lends to the romance and feel. An audience can relate to an engine with heat and sound. They know what's going on then."
Having completed thumbnail sketches, McQuarrie proceeds to the next step in the process. Working with a graphite pencil or fine tip felt pens of various colors, he makes a larger pencil drawing on tissue, sometimes putting different elements of the scene on different levels. He'll then begin painting the background. Using the tissues to transfer the sketch to a 9x20-inch illustration board, he gradually works his way up to the foreground.
"My approach is strictly to give enough information so it feels real, but I'm not after realism. I'm concerned with light but I don't want it to look slavishly like a photograph. On the other hand, I'm not interested in paint qualities either. I've seen some illustrations which are abstract—such as making the picture slant, but I feel people aren't interested in that type of stuff.
"I try to keep the big shapes working. George wanted a 2001 style, grandeur. So, I tried to get that scale into the paintings and capture whatever richness is there. Sometimes, I let things go because the scene will actually look like that. I want people to say instantly, 'This picture's about..
From the start, McQuarrie's involvement with Star Wars (STARLOG #17) was a simple case of the correct solution meeting the problem it was awaiting. "I was the right person to do Star Wars, " he admits. "1 just had the right background."
His first break came in 1969 when he was hired to help illustrate the Apollo space missions for CBS News. McQuarrie drew the backgrounds and the objects, such as rockets and spacecraft, for the cel animation used to demonstrate what would be happening on the NASA adventure between Farth and the Moon.
A couple of young filmmakers, Hal Bar-wood and Matthew Robbins, heard of McQuarrie's work and asked him to do pre-production paintings to help sell a science-fiction script called Star Dancing. But while that project didn't get off the ground, the Ralph McQuarrie at work on Jedi. filmmakers (who would later create Dragonslayer) showed McQuarrie's efforts to their film school friend, George Lucas, then working on American Graffiti.
Dreams & Challenges
Since that time, McQuarrie has lent his talents to other films in addition to the Star Wars trilogy. He is responsible for the spaceship design in both E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (STARLOG #12, 13).
"Four or five years before Close Encounters, " he recalls, "I dreamed that I was sitting in a living room alone and feeling I should go outside to the backyard. I did. No one was around. I looked up and here's this incredible structure coming through the clouds with stairways hanging down. 'It must be a spaceship from outer space,' I said in my dream. I'm about to go to a neighbor's house to confirm this sighting and a voice says, 'Go back into the house and forget you ever saw this object.'
"Years later, Steven Spielberg calls because he had this bowl-shaped idea for a spaceship. At first, he wanted to just show the bottom of it coming down, but then, he decided to show the whole thing. He needed a grander finale. It had to be the big Christmas tree. So, without thinking about it, I designed the spaceship as it looked in my dream! It had stairways and tubes hanging down. But I had designed it upside down! Steven put all that stuff on top!"
McQuarrie also worked on a version of Star Trek—The Motion Picture which never made it to the screen. He collaborated with production designer Ken Adam (who did most of the early James Bond films) and director Phil (Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake) Kaufman (now at the helm of The Right Stuff) for 10 weeks before Star Trek scion Gene Roddenberry told them to stop.
"I don't want to see anything you guys have done," Roddenberry, according to McQuarrie, said. "I don't like the script. ' Battlestar Galactica was another McQuarrie project but, the artist notes, he won't do anything like that again.
"I've had offers to do other films, but they were all just like Star Wars, such as Battlestar. I didn't think George wanted that conflict again."
As for his future, now that he's on his own, McQuarrie says he isn't quite sure what it holds for him.
"I like films but L don't know where I fit in," he says, "I have to be the right person and ready as I was with Star Wars. In the meantime, I want to develop my own style, explore what I'm curious about. I would like to work on some paintings, do some painting from life, explore my own subconscious and use the dreams in my mind, maybe do more stylized paintings of just pattern and color, more arty things.
"Those types of work are not something I've done much of and some of my friends are convinced I'm full of it because they don't see anything I'm working on that is like that. But you go along getting more and more important things to do until you're challenged beyond your capabilities."
And if Lucas should call? "I suppose I might work on the next one," McQuarrie admits. "George says he's not going to get into the next Star Wars film for another five years. I might have renewed myself by then and, of course, the environment would be different."
He's satisfied with his very popular work. "It's really a nice feeling to go down the street and see, on the sidewalk, a bubblegum wrapper with Darth Vader's picture on it. And Darth's face on the cover of Time, too. It's interesting to have done something out in the world that everyone looks at all the time. You become part of the public happening."
He's certainly also pleased that he no longer qualifies as a starving artist. "George gave me a small percentage of both Empire and Jedi," Ralph McQuarrie says with a smile, adding humbly, "It's all a happy accident. You just take your best shot."
SAL MANNA, a freelancer based in Santa Monica, California, has written for Omni, Oui, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. This is his first article for STARLOG.
[Source: Starlog #75, October 1983 P.36-39, 60]