In the timeline of Star Wars fiction, the new Star Wars Rebels series coming to Disney XD exists in the space between Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, during the dark times of rule by the Empire. But in the history of Star Wars as a franchise, this new series actually goes back to the very, very beginning, drawing inspiration from the work of artist Ralph McQuarrie, the concept artist who worked with George Lucas to develop the look of the first Star Wars film.
We spoke with Star Wars Rebels art director Kilian Plunkett about the qualities of McQuarrie’s art that make it so timeless, and how the new series stays faithful to the spirit of the first original Star Wars art, produced long before the franchise became what it is today.
“We’re going back to the source, to the stuff that inspired George Lucas and the people that made all the props and effects for the original movies, before the movies were even made,” Kilian told us. “We’re going all the way back to the raw visual language of shapes and silhouettes that, because Ralph is so integral to what the movies look like, will feel very familiar to fans.”
“If you think about it, when Ralph was first creating paintings of things like the droids leaving the escape pod and walking through the desert, there wasn’t any movie reference to pull from; it was all Ralph’s imagination. Everything from the surfaces to the colors to the way light bounced around in the environment and on the characters was really just coming purely out of Ralph’s creativity,” explained Kilian, who himself was commissioned to paint these two famous droids for a Star Wars universe comic book cover in 1994.
“Once A New Hope was in place and it came time to do the two sequels, they already knew what the ‘real life’ movie version of those things were. When Ralph painted The Empire Strikes Back paintings, rather than imagining what Luke looked like or extrapolating who Vader might be, there was a much more concrete idea of what those characters were. Then for Return of the Jedi, a lot of what Ralph was doing was post-production paintings, so he was coming in after the movie was being made and creating paintings that were based entirely on what had been shot. What we’re especially keying off for Star Wars Rebels is the earlier work that was done before A New Hope got made, because they’re slightly freer and follow their own path. That’s nice for us because Star Wars Rebels is set five years before A New Hope, and the look of the show gives the slight sensation of this all happening before the story we already know. So it worked out really well for us to be able to use all of Ralph’s art, especially that early masterful stuff, because it fit so well with the vibe we were going for.”
Following in Ralph McQuarrie’s footsteps is a tall order, to say the least, but one that the Star Wars Rebels team is happy to take on. “There is an elegance to Ralph’s work that is all his own, and the best we can do is try and get close,” admits Kilian. “The way he drew, his draftsmanship, was so precise, so clean. He has a somewhat art deco sensibility. He has a sense of proportion that we’ve broken down and looked at; how tall are his figures and what are their internal proportions? Ralph tended to do trademark things like very long torsos, relatively small heads and feet and was always going for a shape and a sense of things. Also, when it came to color, he filled all of his scenes with a huge amount of light and a really airy sense of atmosphere everywhere. So he didn’t go for deep, deep shadows but rather filled things with a very traditional painterly sense of warm and cool. And he took full advantage of the fact that he was painting rather than photographing objects. Ralph McQuarrie paintings don’t necessarily look exactly like cinematography or regular still photography because he was very consciously playing with the things that you could only do with paint. His scenes would actually be much trickier to pull off if you were using photographic equipment and available light. The things that we’ve keyed off are his proportions, his overall sense of color, the bounce and fill light everywhere, and a very traditional painterly composition.”
The artists working on Star Wars Rebels took full advantage of Lucasfilm’s private collection of Star Wars art and historical archives as they developed the new show. But even as a group of die-hard fans, they were surprised by what they found when they went digging into Star Wars’ past. “The sheer amount of stuff that was generated for the original trilogy was staggering,” noted Kilian. “We were lucky enough to visit the archives at Skywalker Ranch early on during the inception of Rebels to look at the original McQuarrie art again. They were kind enough to pull it out of their files and set it up on tables for us. What often doesn’t get printed are the rough quick color studies that Ralph would do for paintings to figure out where his lighting was going to come from and what the overall palette would be. It was really nice to see those because they’re so fast, loose and gestural. As someone who tries to paint or be creative, to see a master just warming up was amazing because the pieces are so fresh.”
The other image that really stuck with Kilian was a famous early painting of a TIE fighter chasing an X-wing through the Death Star trench. “I think seeing that in person is really inspiring because the colors are more vibrant than any version of that image you’ve seen, and there is so much fine texture. It’s also a very good example of Ralph’s technique, which is to build up layers of paint that are not necessarily opaque on top of each other and finish with very fine thin pencil lines to define machinery detail. It’s not something that you’ve seen before, certainly not to this extent in a CG show. Hopefully it’ll give you something truly new and unique. It’s a simple technique, but that’s what any master does — take something simple and use it in a way that no one has before. That was certainly what Ralph did. There is a reason why people are still trying, decades later, to chase the magic Ralph had captured because it is so rare and there’s just something about it that’s so special. If you can even get a little bit of it into your final image, it’s amazing. We’re always trying.”
Star Wars Rebels comes to Disney XD this fall, starting with an hour-long TV movie event.
You can read more about the work of Ralph McQuarrie and see many more of his incredible paintings on StarWars.com, where writer John Scoleri has written “An Annoted Guide To The Star Wars Portfolio by Ralph McQuarrie.”