Monday, 27 May 2013




Reviewed by Scott Weller

With the STAR WARS saga’s Thirtieth Anniversary last year, a lot of magazine features and television programmes would often start off declaring: can you imagine a world without STAR WARS. More to the point, however, can you imagine a world without the art of STAR WARS by Ralph McQuarrie?

In case anyone out there has been stranded on an island with the passengers of OCEANIC FLIGHT 815, Ralph McQuarrie is what we South Londoners would call “The Guv’nor”-the man George Lucas looked to in 1975 to create a series of conceptual art pieces that he could use to visually depict the space fantasy film he wanted to make and sell the risky idea to the film studio chiefs that he hoped would finance it. All five of the paintings he would produce would become seminal, iconic classics, including his first work-showing the brilliant METROPOLIS like version of See-Threepio, with a trundling Artoo Detoo trying to catch up behind him, on the desert world of Tatooine. The paintings worked, FOX took the risk of making it, and Ralph McQuarrie was there on and off throughout the film’s Pre and Post-Production periods, creating further art, helping to define the all important characters, hardware and planetary landscapes that we know and love today. As George Lucas fought the studios, the unions, the effects men, to bring his vision to celluloid, McQuarrie was silently, brilliantly helping General George in creating the visual blueprint that the film needed to have, not just on this movie but on the further two sequels it later spawned in the wake of it’s mighty box office success.

The rest, as they say, is history…

I had been aware of Ralph McQuarrie’s name relating to STAR WARS after it’s UK release during Xmas 1977 (though I wasn’t actually able to see the movie until January 1978), but it wasn’t until my brother bought me for a present from his weekend visit to a science fiction convention later in the year that I could see just who Ralph McQuarrie was, and what amazing work he’d done for the movie. That present was the STAR WARS PORTFOLIO comprising the majority of Ralph’s conceptual work for the film. Twenty-one pieces of the artists amazing work for the film. I was blown away by it!! These were probably the first pieces of serious art that I’d ever really appreciated-even at that tender age I knew that this portfolio was very special, far beyond anything I’d seen before or since (for me, none of the Prequel artistry, which I do love, has come anywhere this close in greatness!!). What impressed me was the way the images had been selected and printed on really nice glossy paper (though, thirty years on, they’ve faded a bit, even though I’d kept them in the original packaging), at a size you could really appreciate-and then there were the subtle differences between Ralph’s paintings and what was seen on screen. So much of it had made it to the final movie, but there were some additions to the work that I’d wished had made it to the big screen-I’d have loved to have seen a lightsaber wielding Stormtrooper (and the look of the background of that painting, white and labyrinth, was inspired). I absolutely adored that portfolio (which, along with the MARVEL comic books, inspired me to draw lots of my own little comic book STAR WARS tales (looking at them now, my attempts were pretty rubbish and un-original, but, hey, I was eight!!!)), and the subsequent EMPIRE and JEDI ones, but this first one, for me personally, has a special place in my affections.

Now, in 2008, to celebrate Japan’s theatrical anniversary of the first film, Ralph McQuarrie’s dedicated art representatives, the guys and gals at DREAMS AND VISIONS PRESS, have released a new soft cover book volume specially for the event of Ralph’s work that is, unlike their previous and stunning hardcover book, THE ART OF RALPH McQUARRIE (which was devoted to the artist’s entire career, including STAR WARS) is a full, one hundred per cent concentration on just his STAR WARS artistry. His considerable input to this Saga has had such an effect on pop culture that it continually surprises and amuses me, whenever I listen to Ralph in interviews, that he has always been so humble about his work on the original three films, especially so on the first film-the very genesis for everything to follow in the years, decades, afterwards. That such a generous, hardworking, almost shy person has done such instrumental work often makes me want to shout out “Ralph’s brilliant” to the rooftops (in much the same way Peter Finch did in the movie NETWORK!), and I, like so many other fans, are sad that we’ve never been able to meet him at any conventions. So wide-ranging has his work been, and so many people have become artists because of him, that I think we should be having CELEBRATION RALPH days out there-his visual links to the Saga is such that they’re almost symbiotic!!! And let’s not forget his sequels work, either-especially on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK-for building and improving on material that was already so successful. The amount of material he produced for the first Sequel was probably greater than that for STAR WARS and yet there was no dip in quality and imagination. Consistently beautiful art-always striking, always ingenious, always inspiring, Ralph’s work helped to make the second STAR WARS movie less of a risk visually-helping to make it look even more wondrous and ambitious than the first adventure.

And this new book collection is not only special in the fact that it compiles so much of his Saga work, but there’s the fact that it has also been give a unique position in STAR WARS publishing history. A very special position. Normally, any books written by actor’s/ people involved in the STAR WARS films (i.e. something like Jeremy Bulloch’s recent autobiography), being produced outside of their official license, can only cover a certain amount of pages regarding the STAR WARS film/s they worked on. So, for a book, which has been published outside of LUCASFILM’s own publishing chain, to be given a reality, and such a unique access is a testament to how much the company respects and admires Ralph, and how they, like the fans, want to see this work published at it’s best. DREAMS AND VISIONS PRESS have responded to the challenge and rewarded LUCASFILM, and us, with the kind of publishing present we’ve all been wanting ages for..

Seeing the original Conceptual/ Pre-Production paintings at such a nice size and presentation makes you aware of the talent of the artist more than ever-the depth and detail that you may not have noticed before when many of the recognizable images have been reproduced at smaller sizes, and not as well printed in other magazines over the years. Looking at the art more, closer, you get to discover a lot about the thoughts of the man behind the images. There is a clarity in the art that’s very refreshing and a lovely use of colour and depth to be appreciated.

Anything to do with the genesis and evolution of STAR WARS has always fascinated me, and these artworks are so important-these are the cornerstones of the making of the film series. From the development of the droids, to Darth Vader, to the human characters, this volume is the best reference you’ll get. The evolution of said characters, across all three films in the book, is a fascinating process to behold, and it’s interesting how some of the subtle changes made by Ralph work so well, swiftly becoming so iconic and ingrained in the public consciousness. His look and design style is so strong that, even now, thirty years on, the STAR WARS universe enjoys revisiting it and adhering to its continuity. Just check out the various recent animated series for instance, and you can see his touch everywhere, which is fantastic.

Beautifully designed and executed in this new format, the book is indeed the ultimate compliment to both STAR WARS and Ralph McQuarrie, and also boasts lots of newly discovered pieces of artwork which were found at the artists house after the first ART OF RALPH McQUARRIE hardback had already been released (amongst these new pieces for STAR WARS are early costume designs for Luke, Leia, more details on Threepio, early concepts for Luke’s landspeeder, and unused planetary art composites for the Death Star approaching Yavin and Alderaan, whilst for EMPIRE there are some lovely conceptual images/sketches for Bespin, and some brilliant unused logos/art pieces for cast/crew buckle's (including an unrealized, but wonderful, T-shirt image of Luke on a Tauntaun-they could easily make this as a comercial item now-I'd buy one-it'd sell like hot-cakes!!!). Away from the paintings there are also other equally important items reproduced, like one early document from Ralph’s own hand, from a meeting with George Lucas (I presume from 1975), listing the characters he’d be working on, including the unseen Aquillian Rangers, who were later cut from the first film for budgetary reasons.

As mentioned earlier, besides the new material, this collection volume pretty much, with a few exceptions, reprints all the material first seen, and specially selected by the artist, in the now sold out deluxe hardcover of THE ART OF RALPH McQUARRIE, and is all the more richer for it. Though this book is in a smaller soft cover size, and some design changes have been made, the art images are still just as well reproduced and great care has been taken in the new size transfer, with Ralph’s thumbnail sketches, also printed on the page at a bigger size than they were ever intended to be seen, looking absolutely superb - the detail in those little images is incredible (check out the Vader/Luke duel from EMPIRE as an example). Personal highlights for me? Well, where to start, I could spend all day (it must have been an absolute nightmare, in a good way, though, for the DREAMS AND VISIONS PRESS people working with Ralph on what was going to be selected for inclusion), but must sees for me include THE HOLIDAY SPECIAL images (I love the shot of the Wookiee tree houses and the attention to detail-this was a project, which despite it’s reputation, Ralph actually enjoyed working on), some of the amazing Hoth Rebel base images (many of which have been reproduced for the first time between these two books-love the Tauntaun area shot and some of the stalactite enclosed corridor/fighter bay areas, of which I always wanted EMPIRE to have had more atmospheric establishing shots like these), any images of Darth Vader (who always looks far more scary and malevolent in Ralph’s world than he often looked in parts of the live action movies), and of course, much of the original art work that launched STAR WARS (I’ll always love that Han/Greedo confrontation (so alien looking that the finished film, despite it’s iconic film representation, never quite caught the unusual feel and distinctly dangerous atmosphere of the painting), that TIE fighter cockpit shot as it fires on the Falcon, and the original look of the Alderaan Prison with the TIEs approaching it, before it became the Cloud City of Bespin.

Sadly, Ralph’s contributions to the final film of the Original Trilogy are good but too few, due to the fact that he left the project in its Pre-Production phase and then came back only to work on the film in the capacity of handling its commercial art portfolio a year later. Looking at the nearly thirty pages devoted to RETURN OF THE JEDI in this instance, I love the early work the most-the Pre-Production stuff he had a chance to work on, like Jabba’s Palace, and the Sail Barge (which is still one of the greatest alien vehicles ever designed for the big screen, let alone STAR WARS or any other science fiction movie)- rather than the Art Portfolio work that’s also included, which look too much like stills photos from the finished film, with very few connections to the kind of original pieces Ralph should have been allowed to compose-the kind of freshness and unique interpretive feel of the artist we had liked from the earlier films is not present (the later JEDI situation was indeed one that Ralph disliked, feeling that he was being pushed into that area of making the images more like the finished film for the Portfolio by, we assume, the merchandise bosses at LUCASFILM).

As well as the huge amount of material of Ralph’s that made it in to the films there’s also the tremendous amount of great material of his thatdidn’t make the final cut, and a treasure trove is here to discover, like sampling the mysterious abandoned city on Hoth (with Han and Chewbacca trundling through the snow fields nearby (one of the first pieces of work that Ralph did for George on the film in 1978/9)), and the Ion Cannon control room, for EMPIRE, the amazing vistas for the Emperor’s Throne Room deep in the DANTES INFERNO like bowels of Imperial Homeworld (before it became Coruscant in the Expanded Universe) for both EMPIRE and RETURN OF THE JEDI, and the chilling, almost vampire like bat visage for the Emperor as it attacks Luke Skywalker, from the latter’s Portfolio-what a challenge for the make up team that look would have been if it had ever been approved back in 1981, eh!! Ralph even shows us the very first pieces of thumb nail space art he did for George Lucas back in 1975!!!

Additionally, beyond the film, the book also has some of the pleasing Xmas card art he did for LUCASFILM for a few years whilst the early films were being made (loved the Santa Chewie pic, with his red hat on!!), as well as the classic STAR WARS FAN CLUB Death Star trench battle poster, and the EMPIRE Bounty Hunters at Cloud City (one of Ralph’s favourite pieces of work for STAR WARS, which he spent a long time on getting just right as a composition/final piece. Twenty eight years on, it’s just as terrific as ever and looks great in its large reproduction).

In comparison to the earlier McQuarrie book there are, however, for reasons of space, pieces of art missing from this new volume- some of the early Yoda and Jabba the Hutt designs, a page of Bespin inhabitants images, a selection of thumbnail art pieces from all three movies, and material he did for the ILLUSTRATED STAR WARS UNIVERSE book from 1995 (of which Ralph contributed new planetary depictions for Alderaan, Imperial Homeworld and Tatooine) but, in fairness, these omissions aren’t as important as what has been selected for reproduction in this new volume-the newly discovered material more than counterbalances the loss. For the moment, there are no plan to release this book with an English text, either (however, this is STAR WARS, a land where “never again” doesn’t necessarily mean that!!), but the images speak louder than words, anyway, so just settle back and enjoy the visual cornucopia-the range of art from across the three films.

A beautiful production that you’ll always want to dip into, STAR WARS: THE ART OF RALPH McQUARRIE is a warm tribute to the great artist and his work on the classic films. Don’t delay, pick up a copy from, or, for more information, head over (and look out for that companies also available to buy RALPH McQUARRIE: ILLUSTRATOR DVD release, which interviews the artist about his fascinating life and career, and a lot about STAR WARS, too!!).

With thanks to John Scoleri at DREAMS AND VISIONS PRESS for all his research help.

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