Ralph McQuarrie and the Art of Concept Art March 26, 2012 – Posted in: A Picture's Worth, Blog, Featured Columns
©2012 Mike Pascale (All art/photos © their respective owners.)
As you know, we lost another creative giant a few weeks ago. Ralph McQuarrie, Oscar-winning, Indiana-born visual genius behind the concept art and designs for several blockbusters, classics and a little film called STAR WARS, passed away at the fairly ripe age of 82. I’m not going to rehash all the excellent biographical information and insights you’ve probably read on other sites, but instead talk more personally about the work.
George Lucas admitted that he couldn’t have sold STAR WARS to a studio without RMcQ’s visualizations (apparently he tried a few times alone with no success). If there was something in his head he was having trouble visualizing, McQuarrie was the one to make it look right. Nowhere is that more evident than Ralph’s gorgeous early visualizations for many of the characters, ships and worlds as shown in the original STAR WARS PORTFOLIO. I saw this as a teenager and wanted it immediately. Problem was, it cost 20 to 25 bucks if I recall correctly; a princely sum for a junior high school kid with no job.
Fortunately (or unfortunately if I ever decide to run for President) I had a friend who went thru a kleptomaniacal phase. He shoplifted one for himself and one for me. (Don’t ask me how; they were something like 11 x 14 inches!) As much as I still regret the method by which it was obtained, I am equally delighted, awed and inspired by its contents. His renderings of the characters and environments were both other-worldly and familiar. You could see that, despite their only being preliminaries, they would with mostly small tweaks become the now-familiar faces and bodies we know so well.
I don’t believe Lucas drew sketches for any of the Star Wars characters or main ships. I don’t know what he showed or told RMcQ that resulted in those amazing paintings. But I suspect Ralph McQuarrie could easily be credited as co-creator of many of them the way Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Joe Shuster, Jerry Robinson, Gene Colan, John Romita, Mike Ploog and other comic book artists were for their initial visualizations of others’ character descriptions. (A few sites have said as much and I believe them.)
I also didn’t realize Ralph showed up briefly as a non-speaking Rebel General in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, walking across his own matte painting! Something else to look for when it’s re-released in 3-D in a few years.
This dovetails into a recent discussion on a LinkedIn Concept Artists group to which I belong. A studious student named Jack Eaves was conducting research for a university paper and had a few thought-provoking questions to ask those in the field. While I’m hardly a seasoned vet in that specific area (being more of a storyboard guy), I thought the concept work I’ve done so far, plus all that I’ve studied, allowed me to offer a few opinions. (Who can resist giving their opinions when asked?) So if you’re curious, here’s four Q & A:
1. What skills does a concept artist need?
Imagination, design, drawing and (digital) rendering skills. Concept art is just that–concepting. One needs to first conceive of something that fits the requirements. That design must be both functional, original and aesthetically satisfying (not necessarily beautiful; H. R. Giger’s Alien may be beautiful in a design sense but it’s obviously meant to be frightening). While it’s not possible to constantly reinvent the wheel (or the car, or the light bulb, or the laser pistol or whatever you’re working on), your design still needs to have something unique about it, something to set it apart from all the dozens/hundreds/thousands of other designs for similar things that have appeared over the last 100-plus years of film design.
Once the object/character are created, you need the drawing and rendering chops to make it look convincing. It must be buildable and it must have form. To properly convey that you need the ability to figure out it’s basic structure and use light, shadow, and color to give it believable form. The aforementioned Ralph McQuarrie’s STAR WARS illos are perfect examples. Far from just off-the-cuff roughs (like storyboards can be), many were full color renderings that could hang on a wall. Same with his studio mate, futurist Syd Mead. His BLADE RUNNER and other iconic film designs are expertly crafted, full of brilliant (and mostly believable) design, form and shadow and color. Though not technically finished illustrations meant for print, they are still beautifully rendered. (See more work here and visit his official site.)
Ralph and Syd could render their concepts in markers, gouache or acrylics. These days, I think everyone uses software, tho some dinosaurs like me still start with a primitive pencil (Horrors!). Sketchbook Pro, Photoshop, Painter, Z-Brush, Poser, Bryce and Maya are just a few of what are/have been/can be used.
The tightness needed will of course depend on the budget, deadline and requirements/preferences of the client—all of which should be known *before* starting the art so you know how much you have to do, how much it will be and how long you have to get it done.
2. Which are your opinions on Aesthetics vs. Functionality (appearance vs. practicality) in concept art?
The best concept artists (such as McQuarrie and Mead) can deftly combine both. That is everyone’s goal, I’m sure. But movies and games are *visual* media, and if a design “works” but looks wrong or clunky or unappealing, what “looks right” (or cool) will usually win out. When it comes to creatures, I think the anatomy needs to work above all–because I’ve spent so long studying it, when something is wrong it sticks out like seeing two left hands or seven toes. (I realize that most people wouldn’t know the difference but it still has to look right.) As mentioned last week regarding the Tharks for the JOHN CARTER film, I don’t understand where the shoulder muscles (deltoids) and upper arm bones (humera) on the lower set would be attached or how they would move. For the average movie-goer, though, it works; and it’s what creator Edgar Rice Burroughs described, so you have to make it work (and I think the designers on JC did a great job).
When it comes to things (guns, vehicles, buildings), I would say aesthetics are more important to me, especially if it’s a fantasy environment. Anything that uses magic isn’t bound by natural laws so I can go nuts with it. If it’s sci-fi or horror, it should have some logic to it, of course, but I’d really want it to look “cool” to the viewer first. As with anything, the more knowledge and experience you have in a field or with an object, the more you’ll see design flaws, but when thinking of the average viewer, it usually comes down to appearance. If you can use your expertise in a field to make something appealing that’s also logical and practical, all the better. But your job is to first please the production designer and director.
3. Similarly, do you think one is more dominant in the entertainment industry?
I think if you look at most movies, you’ll see form tends to trump function in most cases. Perhaps not as badly as it did in the 30s, 40s and 50s, but still to a noticeable degree. Heck, look at the ridiculous “Tumbler” (Batmobile Hummer on steroids) from BATMAN BEGINS. No way could that thing ever navigate the streets of Manhattan like it did in the film. Think of the weight, width and fuel consumption (“I’ve got you, Joker! Err, right after I fill up”). Plus, it sounds like a jet engine when it starts–not great for inconspicuously tracking bad guys. The Batcycle? You have to lie down while driving it; that’s why Bale wiped out on it and only his stunt double can drive it. How ‘bout the George Barris Batmobile from the TV show? While it looks über-cool (my favorite car of all time), it really wouldn’t make much sense, especially for maintaining a low profile, parking or handling. If you’re fighting crime, I think the last thing you want to do is stick out like a flaming beacon! (The Green Hornet’s Black Beauty, my 2nd favorite, makes more sense. Yet I know several film folks who think it’s hideous.)
4. What do you think about the concept artist having his/her own input and influence vs. following exactly the client’s demands?
If we’re asked to be concept artists, we have to conceive. Otherwise they can hire an illustrator. (In most film credits, there are separate titles for Concept Artist and Illustrator. The latter provides more fully rendered final pieces to provide more complete reference for the crew. Of course, McQuarrie and Mead have been both.)
Personally, my value lies more in my imagination, style and personality than my rendering skills–which is also why I never really considered myself an “illustrator.” Of course, I need the client’s direction to begin; and I prefer to try to bring to life what’s in the client’s head than throw conceptual darts at the wall till one sticks. (Nothing’s worse than hearing, “I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it”…Which I’ve heard more than once!) That situation often results in “360-degree design”–going in circles. If I’m getting paid per piece, then I’ll happily doodle different iterations till doomsday. But usually it’s per project or concept unit (creature, vehicle, whatever) so I prefer some kind of concrete direction–whether in written form, a thumbnail or napkin doodle. Give me my box, regardless of size, so I can think outside it and draw inside it.
So there you have it. Concept art perspective from a lightweight along with a variety of pics from two of the heaviest heavyweights the industry has known. And a little tribute to one of the greatest in the field who began a long, long time ago and stood far, far and away above all the rest.
Thanks to Ralph McQuarrie for being the conceptual force behind The Force.
P.S.: If you have a concept and would like some art for it, I’d love to bring it to life! Just ask Craig here.