12 Ways Ralph McQuarrie Changed Star Wars

Artist Ralph McQuarrie had one of the biggest influences in Star Wars. While George Lucas created the films, McQuarrie deserves much credit for the look of the movies. The concept designer and illustrator shaped what we know as Star Wars, both live-action and animation.

With Star Wars Rebels resurgence thanks to its ties with the Ahsoka series, it’s a good time to look at McQuarrie’s legacy. His work influenced Rebels’ design and also featured a franchise first. Here are 12 things to know about Ralph McQuarrie.

1. Survivor

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) Movie
Image Credit; Lucasfilms Ltd.

Ralph McQuarrie’s parents raised him on a farm outside of Gary, Indiana. With the United States' involvement in the Korean War, he enlisted and served in the military. During his service, he took a shot to the head. The bullet pierced his helmet, but he survived the attack.

2. Before Hollywood

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) - Movie - Han Solo and Leia Organa
Image Credit: Lucasfilms Ltd.

After studying at Los Angeles’ Art Center School, McQuarrie used his art skills for various industries. Some of these jobs included crafting posters for CBS News, specifically for their features about the Apollo space program, drawing teeth and equipment for a dentistry firm, and illustrating manuals for Boeing. His Hollywood break came during his CBS News work. Filmmakers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins commissioned McQuarrie to create artwork for a project of theirs. 

All of this caught the eye of a particular filmmaker who needed someone to help him pitch a galaxy far, far away.

3. Meeting George

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) Movie
Image Credit: Lucasfilm.

George Lucas knew that his future movie, Star Wars, would take much work to pitch to studios. He wanted to have some visual material to help sell the idea. He bought pieces of artwork from science fiction artist John Berkey, but Lucas wanted to have new art for his movie.

McQuarrie’s creations impressed Lucas, and so the director commissioned the artist to create multiple art pieces. McQuarrie used Berkey’s work as inspiration, but he crafted his own renditions of scenes from Lucas’ script. These paintings proved crucial for Lucas to win over 20th Century Fox to greenlight his movie.

4. Designing Legends

star wars
Image Credit: 20th Century-Fox.

McQuarrie designed some of the most beloved characters in cinematic history. He created the first images of Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewbacca. For Vader, he followed Lucas’ direction wanting the Sith Lord to look like samurai armor in a cape.

It was Ralph McQuarrie who would add Vader’s iconic breathing apparatus. An early script had Vader walking in the vacuum of space, and Lucas thought Vader would wear a space suit. McQuarrie suggested Vader’s helmet also doubles as a breathing mask, leading to one of the most iconic sounds in cinema.

By far, the artist’s most well-known work features Vader. Poised in battle in a hallway, Vader faces Annikin Starkiller, an early version of Luke Skywalker.

5. Swaying Anthony

Anthony Daniels C3PO Star Wars
Image Credit: Lucasfilm.

Ralph McQuarrie also swayed one of Star Wars’ most beloved actors. Anthony Daniels hated science fiction and famously walked out of 2001: A Space Odyssey to ask for his money back. He would later share an appreciation for the film, stating he was wrong and it is a masterpiece.

Lucas wanted Daniels to play C-3PO. The droid would be an incredibly challenging role, and Daniels’ miming skills, in particular, impressed Lucas. Daniels, though, had no interest in some new little space movie, turning down Lucas’ proposal.

Daniels’ agent pushed the actor to meet with Lucas, and the director brought Ralph McQuarrie’s work with him. The early concept for C-3PO was based on the 1927 film Metropolis, which caught Daniels’ eye. He found the artwork intriguing, and it swayed him to accept the role. 

6. Honoring His Work

The Star Wars Holiday Special
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Television.

Lucasfilm constantly referenced McQuarrie’s artwork throughout their projects. The Star Wars Holiday Special used many of his designs to build the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk. The artist continued to work with Lucas filming The Empire Strikes Back, designing iconic locations like Cloud City and Hoth. His sketches for Yoda helped craft the puppet of the wise Jedi Master. Lucas held McQuarrie’s artwork in such high esteem that he would recreate shots from the paintings in his movies, such as the Rebel soldiers in the snowy trenches of Hoth. When Return of the Jedi’s filming came around, McQuarrie felt creative burnout and stepped back from the project. Still, his impact on Lucasfilm lasted.

7. Star Wars Rebels

Star Wars: Rebels (2014)
Image Credit: Lucasfilms.

While McQuarrie’s artwork would remain a constant reference throughout the franchise, one piece of Star Wars media pulled from it directly. Star Wars Rebels was the first project of the Disney era of Star Wars. Creator Dave Filoni and his crew took heavy inspiration from the artist’s work.

Darth Vader and the stormtroopers were designed in McQuarrie’s style, symbolizing an earlier time in the Empire. Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios ushered in a new species called the Lasat, based on the early concept artwork of Chewbacca. The villain Azmorigan and the E-XD infiltrator droid came from the early Jabba the Hutt and C-3PO designs.

By far, the biggest inspiration was the planet of Lothal. The creators used early paintings of Tatooine to craft the prairies and rock spires of the central world—more on this in the next entry.

8. On-Screen History Made

Agent Kallus, Colonel Yularen, Star Wars Rebels
Image Credit: Lucasfilm.

For all of McQuarrie’s contributions to Star Wars, it’s surprising that it took so long for this first to happen. His artwork had never been on screen until Star Wars Rebels. In the episode “Through Imperial Eyes,” his original painting hangs in Grand Admiral Thrawn’s office. It’s the early concept artwork for A New Hope and what would inspire the planet of Lothal.

The creators point it out in the behind the scene webseries Rebels Recon. It can also appears in the episode’s gallery on StarWars.com in a photo featuring Agent Kallus shaking Colonel Yularen’s hand. McQuarrie’s artwork is behind them.

With Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork acting as such a direct inspiration for the series, it’s fitting the show framed his work for the on-screen first.

9. Quarrie

Image Credit: LucasFilm.

Star Wars Rebels honored McQuarrie in the episode “Wings of the Master.” The Ghost crew, led by Hera Syndulla, sought out a Mon Cala ship designer named Quarrie. This character crafted the first B-wing, which Hera would pilot. She convinced Quarrie to let the Rebel Alliance use the ship to fight the Empire.

Quarrie returned in the non-canon but still excellent series LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures. The ship builder played a significant role in the second season, assisting the Freemaker family in their fight against the Empire. In both series, Quarrie was voiced by longtime Lucasfilm animation voice actor Corey Burton.

10. Outside Star Wars

Steven Spielberg & George Lucas
Image Credit: Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock.

It’s no secret that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are close friends. Their careers intertwine constantly, from composer John Williams's musical contributions to Ralph McQuarrie's artwork. Some of McQuarrie’s designs for Spielberg included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

He won an Academy Award for his design on the film Cocoon, was the concept and production illustrator for 1978's Battlestar Galactica, and was the uncredited concept artist for Universal’s Back to the Future: The Ride.

11. To Boldly Go

Image Credit: Paramount.

Star Wars wasn’t the only major franchise McQuarrie helped shape. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wished to make his own Star Trek film and enlisted McQuarrie to craft possible redesigns for the iconic vessel, the USS Enterprise. While McQuarrie’s design would not be used in Star Trek: Planet of the Titans, it inspired the ship's look in 2017s Star Trek: Discovery.

12. Retirement

As Lucas prepared for the next phase of Star Wars in the early stages of the Prequel Trilogy, Lucasfilm offered McQuarrie a job to return. By then, McQuarrie felt he was worn out and ready to retire. He lived peacefully in Berkeley, California, until he passed away in 2012 from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

After McQuarrie’s passing, George Lucas shared with the LA Times, “[McQuarrie’s] genial contribution, in the form of unequaled 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.'”