I’m little, not sure how old exactly. Young enough that this is an imperfect picture in my head. I’m sitting up in a tiny storage alcove in my father’s workshop. It’s a small space, but to me it is a refuge. I’m staring at a piece of cardboard. I’m not sure where it came from. It wasn’t mine. Likely a cast off from one of my older brothers. It was small, maybe 8 x 10, but in my mind it was another galaxy. A window to something long ago and far far away.
Through this window I could see an image of two figures ready for battle. Darth Vader vs. Deak Starkilller.Now I’m transported into this image and it had me–in the moment and for life. An imposing figure in black slightly leaning toward me with laser sword raised and “me,” crouching in the light, poised ready for the attack. Both figures squaring up in a hallway on… what? A spaceship? A futuristic building? A space station? Wherever it was, I wanted to be there. There was adventure there; there was excitement there. Yes, I craved these things.
Imagination is such an abstract and elusive thing. Like the future, it is always in motion and difficult to capture. Ralph McQuarrie, however, managed to harness it in that one painting that somehow made its way into my secret basement hideout. Star Wars to me was still unknown at this point, but when I found this print, discarded in the basement, I saw imagination. I saw what thousands had seen and what thousands more would see: a galaxy filled with heroes and villains; light and dark (and grey); reality and fantasy; fear and hope. This fantastical galaxy had been opened for me and in a way, so to had the real world I was in. Ralph captured them both. He pulled from his imagination a composition that perfectly demonstrated the struggle, and with it, the drama that makes the real and the fictitious so interesting.
So sitting there, surrounded by scraps of wood and other “dad” stuff, that I had transformed into the controls of my spaceship, I was Deak Starkiller facing down what would become the greatest villain ever created. I became part of Ralph’s imagination and in turn part of George’s (more on George Lucas in the future). I could live and fight and save the day in a universe I knew nothing about, but it didn’t matter because I had my imagination.
Later I discovered Star Wars (I think it had recently been subtitled A New Hope) and learned that my hero Luke Skywalker never actually faced Darth Vader to match the image, and I even later discovered that the picture represented a part of an early draft that was discarded. But that doesn’t really lessen the impact of the image because Ralph’s imagination is still in Star Wars. In some ways it is Star Wars. He helped give a visual language–an aesthetic that defined a universe. It worked its way into my subconscious as I wore out my VHS tapes and laid in bed watching the movie in my head willing myself (I was always Luke) to face Vader and save the galaxy. I finally got that chance in Empire though at a cost. Ralph was there with me. And I got the chance again to defeat Vader in Jedi but took the noble path and became a Jedi like my father before me. Ralph again was there. Putting the pictures in my head. Allowing my imagination to continue the story. And 33 years later, Ralph was still there.
Ralph McQuarrie’s contribution has been well documented in various mediums. I suggest J. W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars as a good in depth source. For a discussion of his impact try listening to Rebel Force Radio‘s “Star Wars Influences” podcast with Jimmy Mac and Paul Bateman. Also, check out this post on StarWars.com: An annotated guide to the Star Wars portfolio by Ralph MacQuarrie.