Area-born artist was “the force” behind the look of “Star Wars”

From Lake County, Indiana to a Galaxy Far, Far Away


Ralph Angus McQuarrie

If we give thought to the matter at all, most of us attribute the origins of the megahit movies, TV shows, toys, and everything else franchise “Star Wars” to its creator and initial writer, George Lucas — which is certainly correct and fair enough.

But few of us likely realize that what we think of visually with regards to the Star Wars universe — especially its initial design work — from the look of the many spaceships, weapons, and landscapes, to that villain-of-villains, Darth Vader himself, is owed to a Lake County, Indiana man.

Ralph Angus McQuarrie was born June 13th, 1929, in Gary, Indiana, the son of parents who were both artists themselves, though Ralph started his formal art training at the age of 10. McQuarrie’s family moved to Billings, Montana during his childhood, followed by moves to the west coast and Canada. After graduating high school, he went on to serve in the Korean War, where he survived being shot in the head due to the unlikely interference of his helmet lining.

McQuarrie went on to study at the Art Centre College of Design in California after which he took a job with the Boeing Company in Seattle as a technical illustrator. Eventually moving to California, he would produce art for NASA that was used on the CBS News live coverage of the Apollo space program that was viewed by millions. While in California, he began doing freelance artwork for movie studios, painting background scenes for animated programs and generating artwork for movie posters.

It was the rejection of George Lucas’s proposal for his new science fiction fantasy film by two major movie studios that led to McQuarrie’s providential involvement in what would become “Star Wars” — and his artwork was critical in a multitude of ways to not only the project’s success, but its overall look to today. Despite the fact, as McQuarrie would later go on to note, he had no prior interest in the science fiction or fantasy genres.

Lucas had written “Star Wars” but realized he needed a visual proposal to sell the idea to studios, which is where McQuarrie came in in 1975. His conceptual drawings and paintings were unique and original, and — especially as the two collaborated to reach a shared vision of the aesthetics of the story — beautifully suited to conveying the grandeur, complexity and stirring sense of romance, adventure, and fantasy undergirding Lucas’s story.

While the looks of characters like Darth Vader and R2D2, C3PO and Chewbacca (not to mention the array of signature spacecraft so integral to the films) morphed somewhat from McQuarrie’s artwork by the time they hit the big screen, they’re among many visual elements of “Star Wars” that have remained very much intact as the central look of the series from its beginnings.

One of McQuarrie’s earliest paintings became iconic: droids C3PO and R2D2 on the desert planet Tatooine. Anthony Daniels, who went on to play C3PO in the “Star Wars” films, was impacted heavily by the image and later said that, without that painting as inspiration, he would not have become C3PO.

The art convinced 20th Century Fox studios to finance the first “Star Wars” film, which became a blockbuster after its release in 1977. As the New York Times wrote in McQuarrie’s 2012 obituary, the artist had transformed Lucas’s “rudimentary concepts and earliest scripts into lush, vivid images of intergalactic expanse and light-saber combat,” which became the “the visual core of the “Star Wars” saga.”

Star Wars designs including spaceships, weapons, landscapes and even the VHS tape covers were inspired by Lake County resident Ralph Angus McQuarrie.

To put it simply, as the Justacarguy blog wrote in 2021, “Without Ralph McQuarrie, there would be no “Star Wars.”

McQuarrie’s artwork, including background matte paintings, was incorporated into “Star Wars” sequels “The Empire Strikes Back” (which included the big screen debut of one of his most popular designs, that of bounty hunter Boba Fett) in 1980, and “Return of the Jedi” in 1983, and his conceptual artwork was utilized in movies ranging from “E.T.” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to “Jurassic Park.”

Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic company also took home an Academy Award (for Best Visual Effects) in 1985 for the movie “Cocoon,” for which McQuarrie was the concept artist.
And, while McQuarrie declined to apply his craft to the “Star Wars” prequel films of the 1990s and early 2000s, the more recent sequel trilogy pulled in previously unused elements from his conceptual art. That’s also true of some of the franchise’s forays into television. Among others, the character design for Rebel hero Zeb Orrelios from the popular TV series “Rebels” is taken from an early (rejected) design for Chewbacca by McQuarrie.

The Hasbro toy company even created a line of action figures based on his conceptual art, according to his New York Times obituary.

McQuarrie himself noted that his approach is a blend of “the romantic and what looks interesting while half my mind is occupied with practicality,” which perhaps explains the genius of his approach. “Star Wars” exemplifies his mixture of fantasy imagery with down-to-earth aeronautic or military costuming designs.

“I lie down and let it gel unconsciously,” he was quoted as saying about his creative process in his obituary. “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.”

He also affirmed a sense a gratification of seeing his “Star Wars” artwork, in particular, having become “part of the public happening,” and seeing the results of his design on the likes of everything from the cover of Time Magazine to bubblegum wrappers on the street.

Following McQuarrie’s death in 2012, Lucas said of him: “His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘do it like this’. We will all be benefiting from his oeuvre for generations to come.

“Beyond that, I will always remember him as a kind, patient and wonderfully talented friend and collaborator.”

That, and a native Hoosier boy from Lake County.

Jeff Kenney serves as the Museum and Archives Manager for Culver Academies and is a member of the board of trustees of the Historical Society of Culver.

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