I was three years old when my parents first introduced me to one of the movies that would radically shape my childhood. The movie, was ET: The Extra Terrestrial. I still remember the chills going down my spine as the camera panned down over the Redwood Forest down to a valley where ET’s iconic space shit landed. It was so beautiful, almost like a giant had left his Russian Fabreche Christmas ornament on the ground. The beauty of that illusion as created by four people, director Steven Spielberg, Screenwriter Melissa Matheson, Composer John Williams, and finally concept artist Ralph McQuarrie.
I would later discover some of the other films he worked on including the original Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Jurassic Park. He was responsible for helping design such iconic Star Wars characters as Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Storm Troopers. In fact, it was his concept art that helped convince 20th Century Fox to fund Star Wars. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy shows the government bureaucrats a picture of the Ark of the Covenant, it is his painting in the Bible.
Ralph began his career as a technical illustrator for the Boeing corporation, and designed posters and animatics for the CBS News coverage of the Apollo program. Then, in 1975 he met an aspiring film maker by the name of George Lucas, and the rest as cliché as it sounds, was history. His work was so important to fans that a few years ago, Hasbro released Star Wars action figures based on his concepts for characters including Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Yoda and Chewie. He even had an action figure based in his own likeness as his character of a random Rebel officer on the ice planet Hoth in Empire Strikes Back.
He was a name largely unknown to most, save the die-hard fans of such films. However, his work on those titles is enough to transcend public knowledge. He died today at the age of 82. He left us all with a host of iconic images. Without him, these classic movies we have come to love would not have been as breathtaking. We probably would still think of alien space ships in sci-fi movies as flying saucers, not the gems that were the ships in CET3K or ET, and dinosaurs would probably still look cheesy on film had he not contributed to Jurassic Park.
I am no painter, just a writer. But I know full well, that the visual arts, much like writing or music, is form of story telling, with film being the amalgamation of all those forms. It is perhaps the second oldest form of story telling ( after the Oral Tradition) and when it comes to concept art for films he was one of the masters at his craft. There are few of this caliber anymore, and that is a shame.
Thank you, Ralph. Your paint brush has helped us travel to a galaxy far, a far away, make that Close Encounter at Devil’s Tower, helped ET get home, and even helped us discover the Ark. For that, a generation of movie goers and beyond will always be indebted to you.