Obituary: Ralph McQuarrie
As the great combine-harvester of time savagely cuts on I seem to be writing more and more obituaries of famous illustrators and designers. It was with a dizzy mixture of nostalgia and sadness that I discovered that the American concept artist Ralph McQuarrie passed away on the 3rd of March.
Most people know McQuarrie’s name for the concept illustrations he produced for the original Star Wars trilogy. But his work covered many successful sci-fi films of the 1980’s including: the robot designs from Batteries not Included; the mother-ship from Close Encounters of the Third kind, various scenes and the spaceship design from ET; concepts for Jurassic Park and even elements from Cocoon.
Ralph was in the Korean war. He survived a bullet wound to the head before going to study at the prestigious Art Center School in LA. His early career saw him working for Boeing in aeronautical technical illustration followed by a stint creating illustrations for CBS News on the Apollo space program. Undoubtedly this unique blend of experiences would fortify his credentials for the concept work in science fiction films he was about to embark on.
The first film that Ralph worked on as a concept artist was Star Wars with George Lucas. It is not an understatement to say that the entire Star Wars franchise owes the most to this man. Without him the style of the films would probably never had made it past the screen test. Blending a style that was akin to popular 1970’s Sci-fi novel cover art with his technical knowledge and incredible imagination, he paved the way for the settings, spacecraft and characters that we know and love from the trilogy. George Lucas must have been overwhelmed by his interpretative skills. Indeed, when you understand his background, you start realise why Ralph’s designs were so eloquently viable. They were, in-fact, an extension of the real technology he had been exposed to. To be a concept artist of his calibre requires a multi-faceted knowledge of many extra-curricular subjects… Architecture, botany, physics etc…
On inspiration Ralph once said:
“I used to try squeezing work out, but it’s like toothpaste in a tube that will only come out so fast … There’s no point pounding my brain – the best thing I can do is collect my thoughts as soon as I’m told what’s needed. Then I lie down and let it gel unconsciously. I sort of semi-sleep, and somewhere along the way of going to sleep or coming out of it, I get exactly what I need – it’s just there, rising like the bubbles in champagne from somewhere inside.”
Ralph was truly a visionary. The ideas in his head undoubtedly pushed the envelope of some of the greatest sci-fi films of the past. He will be missed, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say that his work has (and continues to) inspire many of the concept artists out there.
RIP Ralph, old chap.