McQuarrie came from a background in the advertising and aerospace fields, doing work ranging from dental equipment and conceptual work for Boeing. He also did film posters, and supplied the animation CBS used to show what viewers what the Apollo moon landing would entail.
Ralph McQuarrie was approached by George Lucas in 1975 to do presentation artwork to help sell “THE STAR WARS” to film executives unable to envision what the film would look like. He designed the robots C3PO and R2D2, and the iconic Darth Vader, giving him the distinctive helmet and breathing mask.
He was quoted (by the San Diego Union-Tribune as saying:
“I just did my best to depict what I thought the film should look like, I really liked the idea. I didn’t think the film would ever get made.
My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn’t be enough of an audience. It’s just too complicated.
But George knew a lot of things that I didn’t know.”
At Star Wars.com Lucas was quick to praise McQuarrie:
“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’.”
And indeed, many of the scenes and settings in the first three STAR WARS films looked very much like McQuarrie’s paintings come to life.
Ralph McQuarrie also designed several of the the UFOs in Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), including the mothership, inspired by Speilberg’s description of it looking like ‘an oil refinery at night’.
He also did design and production illustrations for E.T: The Extraterrestrial, the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STAR TREK IV, and COCOON (1985), for which he won an Academy Award.
He appeared uncredited as “General McQuarrie” in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and even had an action figure made of his character.
He did design work on a STAR TREK film that did not get made (prior to STAR TREK: The Motion Picture), which featured a radicallly redesigned Enterprise. The study model for this project was eventually used as a background ship on STAR TREK: The Next Generation.
NIGHTBREED (1990), BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED and JURASSIC PARK were other productions on which he worked.
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