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R.I.P. Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars conceptual artist

Ralph McQuarrie, whose paintings and conceptual illustrations formed the basis for the original Star Wars trilogy, has died at the age of 82. McQuarrie’s death was confirmed with a statement on his website which reads, “His influence on design will be felt forever. There's no doubt in our hearts that centuries from now amazing spaceships will soar, future cities will rise and someone, somewhere will say... 'that looks like something Ralph McQuarrie painted'."

In the meantime, of course, McQuarrie’s visions can be seen in some of the most successful science-fiction works of all time, with McQuarrie also responsible for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Cocoon (for which he won an Academy Award for Visual Effects), and the original incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. His list of credits also includes work on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, *batteries not included, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

But of course, McQuarrie’s largest and most lasting contribution were his designs for Star Wars, where he brought Lucas’ screenplay to life with illustrations that helped convince a skeptical studio to finance it, and more importantly, where he first conceived worlds and characters that have become an indelible part of the pop culture consciousness. It was McQuarrie who first took a stab at what R2D2, C-3PO, and Chewbacca should look like, who gave Darth Vader his menacing breathing apparatus and samurai-inspired helmet, and who then created the worlds of Tattooine, Dagobah, and Bespin for them to live in.

As Lucas said himself in a recently released statement, “When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’” And considering that Lucas’ words are often the worst part of his films, McQuarrie deserves plenty of the credit for making Star Wars a world that so many have wanted to return to over the years. 

McQuarrie—who started his career doing technical illustrating at a dentistry firm and then Boeing before Lucas drafted him into moviemaking—specialized in a realistic aesthetic that was branded “used future,” where the shiny technological advancements nevertheless reflected inevitable abuse and decay, and everything felt appropriately lived-in and real, no matter how fantastical. That aesthetic has been copied consciously or unconsciously in just about every sci-fi movie since, while McQuarrie’s specific Star Wars legacy lives on in the subsequent prequel trilogy and Star Wars: The Clone Wars which—although McQuarrie chose retirement over working on either of those—utilized some of McQuarrie’s leftover designs in addition to staying true to his original work. McQuarrie can also be seen in an uncredited role as General Pharl McQuarrie in The Empire Strikes Back, glimpsed in the opening Echo Base sequence on Hoth—a character that got its very own action figure during Star Wars’ 30th anniversary—­while numerous books, limited-edition toy and trading card sets, and art gallery exhibitions have also paid tribute to his important place in the Star Wars universe.

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