‘Star Wars Rebels’ artists voyage to Skywalker Ranch for inspiration

Ralph McQuarrie's original paintings inspired many scenes in “Star Wars” films. Now Disney artists are using them for “Rebels.”
Ralph McQuarrie’s original paintings inspired many scenes in “Star Wars” films. Now Disney artists are using them for “Rebels.”
(Ralph McQuarrie)

R2-D2 rests on the floor inside a dimly lit storeroom next to the Ark of the Covenant from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” An array of light sabers fills an entire shelf, enough to rival even the most well-prepared Jedi armory. Bizarre alien masks, including a pig-faced Gamorrean guard from the “Return of the Jedi” Jabba’s palace sequence look down over an armada of models, including the Millennium Falcon, a hulking AT-AT walker and the sinister Imperial Star Destroyer.

We are inside the Lucasfilm archive at the heart of George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Access is strictly controlled and it’s easy to see why. Every prop, costume, painting and file from Lucasfilm’s cinematic legacy, “Star Wars” to “Red Tails,” is stored here.

Kilian Plunkett admits he’ll use any excuse to drive 45 minutes north from his San Francisco office and poke around. As art director for the animated series “Star Wars Rebels,” which debuted Friday on the Disney Channel, he’s finding plenty of reasons to make the trip.

At the moment, he holds in his hands an 18-by-41-centimeter piece of cinematic history: one of artist Ralph McQuarrie’s gouache concept paintings for the original “Star Wars” trilogy.


“I always assumed these things were giant movie poster size,” Plunkett says as he points out the finer details of McQuarrie’s style.

It is smaller than expected, but then again, so is the Mona Lisa. Physical size bears no relation to the impact these paintings have on pop culture.

McQuarrie’s name may not be as instantly recognizable to “Star Wars” fans as Lucas’, but the late artist’s mind dreamed up iconic images including Darth Vader’s imposing mask and many alien landscapes depicted on canvas.

Those paintings, and other “Star Wars” artifacts, may eventually end up in the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art to be built in Chicago. But today they aren’t on display so much as hanging out, free to be handled and examined by the next wave of artists tasked with keeping the “Star Wars” universe alive.

That tactile connection to history has been a great boon for Plunkett and his team, who feel a responsibility to get things right on this first look at the “Star Wars” universe under its new Disney ownership.

For “Star Wars” fans around the world, “Rebels” is a hold-your-breath kind of moment.

Many see the animated series as a bellwether of the franchise’s direction for the many films and offshoots to come under Disney. There was a lot of curiosity and a little apprehension when the series premiered on Friday.

Set in the time period just before the original 1977 “Star Wars” (later retitled “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope”), the new series follows Ezra (Taylor Gray), a teenage thief on a planet ruled by the Empire who stumbles onto the nascent Rebel Alliance that will ultimately save the day. Not a trade route dispute or a Midi-chlorian to be found.

“It’s the origin story of the Rebel Alliance,” executive producer Simon Kinberg told fans at San Diego’s Comic-Con International in July, comparing “Star Wars Rebels” to a story of the American Revolution. “They’re rebels who don’t imagine they’ll be part of a larger organization one day.”

The rebels include Kanan, voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr., a Jedi knight on the run and in hiding; Zeb, a tall alien voiced by Steven Blum and based on McQuarrie’s original designs for Chewbacca; Sabine, a Mandalorian weapons expert played by Tiya Sircar; and Hera, the pilot and mother figure of the group voiced by Vanessa Marshall. Other, more familiar faces appear from time to time.

“ ‘Rebels’ will tell the story of a group of characters; in this way it is more like the original trilogy, which followed Han, Luke and Leia, where the prequels showed us the grand scale and political as well as personal,” says Dave Filoni, who executive produces the series with Kinberg. Filoni will be familiar to fans of the previous “Star Wars” animated series “The Clone Wars,” where he was supervising director.

Luckily, going back to the era of “A New Hope” appears to have paid off. The show debuted to favorable reviews and strong ratings — 2.7 million U.S. viewers for Friday’s episode. Judging by social media reaction following the premiere, “Star Wars Rebels” seems to be as comforting as John Williams’ fanfare and the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

And, in a huge vote of confidence, Disney announced a second-season renewal the day before the first episode aired. The series moves to Disney XD on Oct. 13 for the rest of its run.

Without the guiding hand of Lucas — he sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 — Filoni and his team reached into “Star Wars’” distant past to tap the talents of McQuarrie, who died in 2012.

“We wanted to go back to Ralph’s original paintings, because they were driven much more by imagination,” Plunkett says. “We’re not being inspired by what was on screen. We’re being inspired by the stuff that inspired what ended up on screen.”

Or, in some cases, what didn’t. The “Rebels” team decided early on to look back not just at what had been built before, but at what had been dreamed and remained unrealized.

A number of the rich scenes and environments McQuarrie imagined for the original “Star Wars” never actually made it onto the screen. These images, including a glimpse at the doomed planet Alderaan (destroyed by the Death Star in the original movie), will finally get a chance to breathe, though in altered form, in “Rebels.”

“All this work was done and it only appeared as a big fireball [in ‘A New Hope’], so we’re amazingly lucky to get this peek behind the curtain,” Plunkett says. In the first episode, “Spark of Rebellion,” the heroes hail from the planet Lothal, which bears a strong resemblance to McQuarrie’s Alderaan.

But the series isn’t just evoking the original designs. It’s a computer-animated series in the 21st century with its heart firmly planted in the 1970s.

Everything about this new production is intended to evoke that original trilogy vibe, often in subtle ways. CG effects supervisor Joel Aron studied the lenses used to film “A New Hope,” virtual camera moves are designed to replicate the technology Lucas and company had to work with 37 years ago, and even the grain of the film stock “A New Hope” was shot on is re-created.

The characters are not strapping and heroic, as you would find in most animated series, but lankier, bearing a not-accidental resemblance to those old Kenner “Star Wars” action figures that were ubiquitous in the 1980s.

And the fashion has more in common with the “Saturday Night Fever"-era than anything else, be it mutton chop whiskers on an Imperial officer or a tight polyester vest.

“At one point we had Zeb in bell bottoms,” Filoni says.

But there is a limit to just how far the new series will go to evoke the era. Even if it is a line Plunkett would happily cross.

“I wish we could do matte lines,” Plunkett says, referring to the visual artifact present in many pre-digital era effects films. “I’m just old-school and nostalgic enough that if there were giant chunky black lines around stuff, I’d be fine with it.”

Outside, the sun shines bright on Skywalker Ranch, but instead of taking a dip in the waters of Lake Ewok before heading back to San Francisco and Lucasfilm’s Presidio headquarters, Plunkett remains inside the archive. He can’t resist lifting a model of bounty hunter Boba Fett’s ship, Slave I.

“You realize the way these models look in reality doesn’t always match to how they’re presented on screen,” Plunkett says, pointing out how the pilot hatch in the back of the ship doesn’t exactly align with the cockpit. Or the lack of troop access points in the model of the Galactic Republic’s AT-TE Walkers.

“It looks really cool,” he says, “but when you study it, you realize there’s no way for people to get inside.”

Follow me on Twitter: @patrickkevinday


Rating: TV-Y7 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 7)

‘Star Wars Rebels’

Where: Disney XD

When: 9 p.m. Monday