Ralph McQuarrie (June 13, 1929 – March 3, 2012) was a conceptual designer and illustrator who designed the original Star Wars trilogy, the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Cocoon, for which he won an Academy Award.
Born in Gary, Indiana, McQuarrie moved to California in the 1960s. Initially he worked as a technical illustrator for Boeing, as well designing film posters and animating CBS New’s coverage of the Apollo space program at the three-man company Reel Three. While there, McQuarrie was asked by Hal Barwood to produce some illustrations for a film project he and Matthew Robbins were starting.
Impressed with his work, director George Lucas met with him to discuss his plans for a space-fantasy film. Several years later, in 1975, Lucas commissioned McQuarrie to illustrate several scenes from the script of the film, Star Wars. McQuarrie designed many of the film’s characters, including Darth Vader, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO and drew many concepts for the film’s sets. McQuarrie’s concept paintings, including such scenes as R2-D2 and C-3PO arriving on Tatooine, helped convince 20th Century Fox to fund Star Wars, which became a huge success upon release in 1977. Neil Kendricks of The San Diego Union-Tribune stated McQuarrie “holds a unique position when it comes to defining much of the look of the “Star Wars” universe.” McQuarrie noted “I thought I had the best job that an artist ever had on a film, and I had never worked on a feature film before. I still get fan mail — people wondering if I worked on Episode I or just wanting to have my autograph.”
McQuarrie played the uncredited role of General Pharl McQuarrie in The Empire Strikes Back. An action figure in his likeness as “General McQuarrie” was produced. Action figures based on McQuarrie’s concept art, including conceptual versions of the Imperial Stormtrooper, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3Po, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and other characters have also been made.
McQuarrie designed the alien ships in Steven Spielberg’s films Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), while his work as the conceptual artist on the 1985 film Cocoon earned him the Academy Award for Visual Effects.He also worked on the 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica, and the films Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, *batteries not included and Jurassic Park.
Rick McCallum offered McQuarrie a role as designer for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but he rejected the offer, noting he had “run out of steam” and Industrial Light & Magic animator Doug Chiang was appointed instead. He retired and his Star Wars concept paintings were subsequently displayed in art exhibitions, including the 1999 Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.
Lucas commented after McQuarrie’s death: “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’.”
Rejecting offers to direct ‘Jaws 2’, ‘King Kong’ and ‘Superman’, Spielberg and actor Richard Dreyfuss re-convened to work on a film about UFO’s, which became ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977). One of the rare films both written and directed by Spielberg, Close Encounters was a critical and box office hit, giving Spielberg his first Best Director nomination from the Academy as well as earning six other Academy Award nominations. It won Oscars in two categories (Cinematography, Vilmos Zsigmond, and a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing, Frank E. Warner). This second blockbuster helped to secure Spielberg’s rise. However, his next film, ‘1941’, a big-budgeted World War II farce, was not nearly as successful and though it grossed over $92.4 million dollars worldwide (and did make a small profit for co-producing studios Columbia and Universal) it was seen as a disappointment, mainly with the critics.
Spielberg then revisited his Close Encounters project and, with financial backing from Columbia Pictures, released Close Encounters: The Special Edition in 1980. For this, Spielberg fixed some of the flaws he thought impeded the original 1977 version of the film and also, at the behest of Columbia, and as a condition of Spielberg revising the film, shot additional footage showing the audience the interior of the mothership seen at the end of the film (a decision Spielberg would later regret as he felt the interior of the mothership should have remained a mystery). Nevertheless, the re-release was a moderate success, while the 2001 DVD release of the film restored the original ending.
Next, Spielberg teamed with Star Wars creator and friend George Lucas on an action adventure film, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘ (1981), the first of the Indiana Jones films. The archaeologist and adventurer hero Indiana Jones was played by Harrison Ford. The film was considered an homage to the cliffhanger serials of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It became the biggest film at the box office in 1981, and the recipient of numerous Oscar nominations including Best Director (Spielberg’s second nomination) and Best Picture (the second Spielberg film to be nominated for Best Picture). Raiders is still considered a landmark example of the action-adventure genre. The film also led to Ford’s casting in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
A year later, Spielberg returned to the science fiction genre with ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982). It was the story of a young boy and the alien he befriends, who was accidentally left behind by his companions and is attempting to return home. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial went on to become the top-grossing film of all time. E.T. was also nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
Between 1982 and 1985, Spielberg produced three high-grossing films: ‘Poltergeist’ (1982), for which he also co-wrote the screenplay; a big-screen adaptation of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (1983), for which he directed the segment “Kick The Can”; and ‘The Goonies’ (1984) on which he was executive producer and also wrote the story on which the screenplay was based.
His next directorial feature was the Raiders prequel ‘Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom’ (1984). Teaming up once again with Lucas and Ford, the film was plagued with uncertainty for the material and script. This film and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins led to the creation of the PG-13 rating due to the high level of violence in films targeted at younger audiences. In spite of this, Temple of Doom is rated PG by the MPAA, even though it is the darkest and, possibly, most violent Indy film. Nonetheless, the film was still a huge blockbuster hit in 1984. It was on this project that Spielberg also met his future wife, actress Kate Capshaw.
In 1985, Spielberg released ‘The Color Purple’, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, about a generation of empowered African-American women during depression-era America. Starring Whoopi Goldberg and future talk-show superstar Oprah Winfrey, the film was a box office smash and critics hailed Spielberg’s successful foray into the dramatic genre. Roger Ebert proclaimed it the best film of the year and later entered it into his Great Films archive. The film received eleven Academy Award nominations, including two for Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. However, much to the surprise of many, Spielberg did not get a Best Director nomination.
In 1987, as China began opening to Western capital investment, Spielberg shot the first American film in Shanghai since the 1930s, an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel ‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987) starring John Malkovich and a young Christian Bale. The film garnered much praise from critics and was nominated for several Oscars, but did not yield substantial box office revenues. I’s one of y favourite Spielberg films and was one of the best films of the year.