In memoriam: Ralph McQuarrie

>> Monday, March 05, 2012

If you didn't know Ralph McQuarrie's name, you probably should have, at least if you're a science fiction geek: he infected your dreams. McQuarrie painted and sketched pre-and-post-production art for some of the most significant SF films and franchises of the past fifty years, including Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and a slew of others besides. A helluva lot of the pictures McQuarrie pulled out of his head or teased out of the heads of the writers and directors who hired him ended up on theatre and television screens; a lot of what was left over nonetheless ended up adorning tie-in books, records, trading cards, etc.

Out of all the conceptual artwork McQuarrie did over the years, his work on the very first Star Wars in the 1970s may be the most significant--after all, McQuarrie was arguably the most significant force in the making of the film, perhaps, ironically, even exceeding George Lucas' importance. the story, as it's told over at the official McQuarrie website:

...when George Lucas initially showed his script for 'Star Wars' around Hollywood, the reception he received was far from enthusiastic.

In fact by the time it reached United Artists and Universal it was greeted with outright rejection....

George resolved he wouldn't continue relying upon studio execs to use their imagination. He decided he would utilise Ralph's talents to spell out how the movie would look.

When he made his pitch to Alan Ladd Jr. at 20th Century Fox he did so with a table full of Ralph's art.

The rest as the say is history.

Ladd was a ballsy exec, by most accounts, and maybe he would have green-lit Star Wars even without McQuarrie's paintings--and maybe he wouldn't have. Star Wars was such a strange project--a space-western-World-War-II-samurai movie--pitched by a director with an uneven track record (Lucas' first film, THX 1138 was such a massive flop it completely destroyed the indie studio mostly responsible for it and basically bankrupted its owner--Lucas' mentor, Francis Ford Coppola; Lucas' second film, American Graffiti, on the other hand, had been a smash success--and had studios hoping, naturally, that Lucas would want to do more Americana films instead of more weird SF movies); and at a time when SF films were not exactly seen as a profitable investment for studios: indeed, the general sentiment at the time was "science fiction doesn't sell", and the only SF movies that were getting made were adult, dystopian flicks like Rollerball and Logan's Run, not family-friendly romps like Star Wars. McQuarrie's paintings couldn't have hurt the pitch, and it's hard to believe they didn't help, immensely: they gave Lucas something concrete to show financiers--"This is what this film will look like if you give me the chance to make it." And it didn't look like anything else anybody was making at the time: it was going to look a little like '40s pulp covers and a little like Kubrick's 2001 (one of McQuarrie's first jobs was doing technical illustrations for Boeing) and a little like Fritz Lang and a little like Kurosawa; and McQuarrie, amazingly, got all that down on the canvas. "You want me to give you money for a movie that'll look like this? And you can really do it? Who wouldn't want to be a part of a movie that looks like that?!"

McQuarrie was apparently a humble guy and never took all that much credit for it. But he probably deserved a lot of it for getting Star Wars launched. Lucas, however, put it this way:

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 was 82 when he died; Wikipedia says of Parkinson's. He had a good run. Still, thanks are in order: thank you, Mr. McQuarrie, and I'm sorry to be saying it belatedly on the occasion of your passing on. You colored my dreams. Thank you.


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