Ralph McQuarrie’s long-lost ‘Star Wars’ art is headed to Orlando


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Forget The Force, ‘Star Wars’ fans can thank a balky old furnace in Berkeley for the discovery of some nearly lost treasures from the earliest days of the Jedi universe.

When George Lucas was first pitching the idea of a cosmic fantasy that happened a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, it was the vivid artwork of Ralph McQuarrie that the young filmmaker used to communicate his strange, otherworldly concepts and characters (some of the most famous paintings, of the droids in the desert, can be seen below). McQuarrie became renowned for his art labors on the film, and for years ‘Star Wars’ scholars have analyzed and discussed every sketch and painting -- well, not every one, it turns out.

In the months after the lavish, 400-page retrospective ‘The Art of Ralph McQuarrie’ was published in 2007, the illustrator was dealing with a far more mundane life event as a repair team came to his house to deal with a failing furnace. Steve Sansweet, the Lucasfilm director of content management and head of fan relations, said the homeowner nuisance delivered a moment of archival serendipity.

‘We thought that we had seen all of Ralph’s ‘Star Wars’ work here at Lucasfilm — literally hundreds of production paintings, matte paintings and sketches, all carefully photographed, inventoried and preserved,’ Sansweet said. ‘But because his home furnace needed to be repaired a few years ago, and a forgotten bookshelf unit had to be moved to let the repairman get at it, Ralph discovered an old box on a shelf that was filled with the treasures.’

It was too late to put them in the art book, but now Lucasfilm has incorporated these ‘lost’ pieces into a McQuarrie masterworks exhibit that will be staged at Celebration V in Orlando, Fla., in August. There will be 100 original pieces from McQuarrie’s personal collection -- design work on characters, creatures, spacecraft, weapons and worlds. There are numerous thumbnail sketches and pencil drawings, such as the one at the top, that were used in the making of the now iconic ‘Star Wars’ production paintings, Christmas cards and other items.

‘Star Wars’ was the first film McQuarrie worked on, and it led to golden opportunities for him; he lent his art talents to Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica’ as well as the 1985 film Cocoon,’ for which he won an Academy Award in the visual effects category. But McQuarrie, 81, will always be remembered by film fans for his work in the realm of the Jedi.

‘It’s unusual that an artist becomes almost as well known to fans as the actors in a significant movie,’ Sansweet said. ‘But almost from the start, ‘Star Wars’ fans have been as interested in how the films were made as who was in them. For them, Ralph McQuarrie is a legend, the man who helped turn visual the ideas in George Lucas’ mind. They were great collaborators.’


Of particular interest, perhaps, are the cache of sketches from Day One -- the drawings that McQuarrie made the day he received the ‘Star Wars’ script from Lucas. Also, Lucasfilm has assembled the exhibit to trace the evolution of some signature pieces, from the nascent sketches up through finished paintings.

At the top of this post, published for the first time anywhere, is a Darth Vader sketch made by McQuarrie that has special resonance this year, as this is the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back’.

‘This was a rediscovered piece that we had not seen before,’ Sansweet said. “This Ralph McQuarrie sketch from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ was done to prepare for a production painting of the lightsaber battle on Cloud City between the Dark Lord and his son, Luke Skywalker.”

Sansweet said the latest discoveries and ongoing passion for ‘Star Wars’ will only add to the legacy of the Indiana native who looked down at a blank piece of paper and gave line and form to the words of Lucas.

‘Ralph is a truly gentle man who has spun mind-blowing stories from his imagination; I’ve had the privilege of listening to some late at night. He has done commercial art, concept art and personal art — all with the same care, the sparsest of lines and vivid use of color. And he has inspired so many of the men and women who became artists and went into the entertainment business.’

-- Geoff Boucher


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Artwork and photo: At top, a recovered Ralph McQuarrie sketch showing Darth Vader leaping (Lucasfilm). Second, one of the famous concept paintings for the first ‘Star Wars’ film (Lucasfilm). Third, McQuarrie at work (Associated Press photo)

Updated: A previous version of this post suggested that the McQuarrie exhibit in Orlando would contain reproductions of the rediscovered pieces; the exhibit will contain the originals of the long-lost art and some reproductions of other McQuarrie works that are in the Lucasfilm archives.

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