You probably wouldn’t know it, but artist Ralph McQuarrie is one of the key creative minds that helped George Lucas bring his vision for Star Wars to life. Lucas may have been the creator and story architect, but McQuarrie designed many of the franchise’s most iconic characters and vehicles that helped make the franchise so special. Some of McQuarrie’s more notable designs include Darth Vader, Yoda, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3P0, the planet Dagobah, the Death Star, and the Millennium Falcon.
Prior to being recruited by George Lucas to help design his vision for a galaxy far, far away, McQuarrie worked as an aerospace illustrator. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 82 in 2012 due to Parkinson’s disease, but his work continues to influence the Star Wars franchise to this day. And that of course includes Episode IX, the upcoming conclusion to The Skywalker saga.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, J.J. Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, was asked if McQuarrie’s work had any influence on the film. Here’s what he had to say.
“It would be hard to deny that, though I could try to. But I would fail,” said Abrams. “McQuarrie, obviously, is as much the visual architect of Star Wars as anyone. And some of his work still hadn’t been fully realized. Some of his sketches hadn’t been built, some of the sets hadn’t been made. So it was fun to get to take some of that inspiration, and run with it.”
McQuarrie’s work on the original Star Wars film was so visionary and unique, that not only did it influence the original trilogy and Episode IX, but also the popular animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels.
In 2016 Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie was released thanks to the collective efforts of authors Brandon Alinger, Wade Lageose, and David Mandel. The incredible hardcover book included a collection of McQuarrie’s conceptual paintings, costume designs, storyboards, posters, and more, from his time helping Lucas bring Star Wars to life.
Mandel was also interviewed by Vanity Fair and the author spoke of what it was like to see a number of McQuarrie’s concept drawings brought to life in Episode IX, offered insight into why the artist created certain pieces, and more.
“One of my favorite things about all the sequels since The Force Awakens is how much they have kept alive the design language that Ralph helped create all those years ago,” said Mandel. “You see Ralph everywhere in the sequels, but yes, when I saw that ‘spider throne’ and the Y-wing shot I was blown away.”
“The sketch came from Ralph’s work on Return of the Jedi,” said Mandel on the origins of the “spider throne” seen in The Rise of Skywalker trailer. “Like they did on The Empire Strikes Back, Ralph along with Joe Johnston and Nilo Rodis-Jamero started working on ideas with George way before there was an actual script. As the script developed, a lot of those early ideas went away. But Ralph designed both a throne room for the Emperor on a lava planet, which made it into Revenge of the Sith, and this ‘creepier’ spider-like, tentacles throne design which was his Death Star throne room. These sketches never really went past the thumbnail stage, but when you see the drawings they really jump out at you.”
“My coauthors Wade Lageose and Brandon Allinger noticed a few additional things,” continued Mandel. “BB-8’s new robot friend in the movie [known as D-O] has some similar design elements to Ralph’s ‘assassin robot,’ which was an unused design from Return of the Jedi—they are both single-wheel robots that have antennas coming out of their heads. And Finn’s ‘sand ship’ may owe some elements to Ralph’s designs for Jabba’s sail barge and the skiff.”
“The Y-wing started as a design that Colin Cantwell, a designer who built the early ship models, had come up with, and Ralph ran with it and refined it in a number of his Star Wars production paintings including the ‘Battle for the Death Star’—the moment [repurposed] in the new trailer,” said Mandel on the iconic Attack on the Deathstar concept drawing.
The above concept image of the Y-wing making an attack run on the Deathstar is prominently seen in one of the trailers for The Rise of Skywalker. There’s a slight difference in the trailer in that the Y-wing is instead attacking a Star Destroyer, but the reference is unmistakable.
“The Y-wing was way more prominent than the X-wing in early Ralph paintings,” said Mandel. “As the movies went from production art to designing and building actual special effects models, the designs changed as Lucas, McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, and John Dykstra worked on them…. No doubt the scene was from an early draft of the movie and based on George’s conversations with Ralph.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives in theaters December 20.