A Galaxy Far, Far Away...
Sunday, March 04, 2012 Filed in: Artists
A Legend left us yesterday. The Internet greeted me last night with the sad news that Ralph McQuarrie had passed away at the age of 82.
Few movies made their mark on my generation in quite the same way that the original Star Wars trilogy did. And while the simple timelessness of the story itself bears much of the responsibility for this, I believe it was largely the visuals that held the greatest sway over those of us who's childhood was largely defined by the collective imaginations of a few.
With his masterful use of traditional materials such as gouache and acrylics, Ralph introduced us to the dread and foreboding figure of Darth Vader, the majesty of Cloud City, the frigid plains of Hoth, and more varieties of spaceships than are seen in any 10 movies of the genre today.
Ralph McQuarrie was invited early on by George Lucas to help him put a face to "A Galaxy Far, Far Away." While the story itself had largely been resolved, Lucas needed an artist who could capture the romantic feeling of his "Space Opera" in such a way that would give it a fresh perspective to an audience whose parents knew of space only through the eyes of Flash Gordon and other serials of the day. Ralph managed to deliver a body of work that not only maintained the high adventure found in these early influences, but also injected them with a majesty and design not seen before. It was largely the vision captured in these seminal paintings that would convince 20th Century Fox to provide funding for a series of movies that, in Ralph's own words "would likely be far too expensive to make, and would probably not do very well on their release".
But none of this is likely to be new information to us. To those of us in the visual communication field, this one man's contributions to the Star Wars galaxy have been thoroughly covered in countless documentaries and books, most of which we poured over as students in an early attempt to absorb some of their magic. What WAS surprising, at least to me was the unassuming scale at which these gems were created.
In 1999 a traveling exhibition entitled "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" found its way to the San Diego Museum of Art. As a senior in art school at the time, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to come face to face with so many artifacts that had played such a major role in my childhood. The show did not disappoint. There were Lightsabers, Droids, Speeder-Bikes, Star Destroyers and even an original Darth Vader costume. From models produced for blue screen, to full scale 1:1 props there were representatives from each and every one of the Holy Trinity... but nothing compared to the walls filled with original gauche and acrylic paintings, most of which did not exceed 12" on their longest side.
It is a testament to the power of these pieces that one expects their scale to be bigger than the reality. In addition to their diminutive size, they are deceptively simple in their execution. The mark making in each piece is so deliberate and controlled that one can only marvel at the confidence required to achieve even one of these pieces with the level of success that Ralph was capable of repeatedly.
While the Star Wars trilogy and the amazing body of work that he would create for it would define his career, his "lesser known" projects would include the original Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Cocoon (for which he would receive an Academy Award in 1985)
It is no exaggeration to say that Ralph spent the bulk of his career building a visual library for some of the most exciting stories told in a generation, and has paved the way for those of us who will spend our own careers attempting to achieve a fraction of the same success.
So it is with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to a master of our craft. Ralph McQuarrie was responsible for creating the visuals to the storybook of my childhood, and it was through his eyes that I first fell in love with A Galaxy Far, Far Away...
all images: Ralph McQuarrie