The Indiana-born McQuarrie began his career as a designer after moving to California in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, he was hired by Lucas to design Chewbacca and Darth Vader, in addition to other visual elements found in what would become one of the biggest box office hits in history.
“I just did my best to depict what I thought the film should look like, I really liked the idea,” McQuarrie would later tell the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I didn’t think the film would ever get made. My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn’t be enough of an audience. It’s just too complicated. But George knew a lot of things that I didn’t know.”
McQuarrie also worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He had a minor role as General McQuarrie in the former.
Additionally, he collaborated with Steven Spielberg on his own sci-fi/fantasy forays: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Jurassic Park, besides the Lucas-Spielberg adventure blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“So, Steven was very impressed with my work on Star Wars. He was a good friend of George Lucas, and when it came time to do this space ship for Close Encounters, he approached it sort of incrementally.
“They had filmed a lower section of the spacecraft that was a spherical shape. A big black box came out, lowered down, the box opened up, and the aliens came out of the box.
“Steven was happy enough with what he saw, but he felt the whole spacecraft needed to be seen and this is where he thought of me because he knew I’d done space ships.
“He was leaving for India to do some location work and he left word with somebody at [Douglas Trumbull]’s outfit to call me up and see if I could come up with a design for the top half.
“He said ‘Let’s make it look something like an oil refinery.’ He had been driving through parts of Los Angeles where you can see these oil refineries with lights, pipes, tanks and stuff. It kind of impressed him and he thought it could look something like that.
“Steven saw the painting and liked it apparently, so he had a model made and it looked almost exactly like my design.”
McQuarrie won a Best Visual Effects Oscar (along with Ken Ralston, Scott Farrar, and David Berry) for Ron Howard’s 1985 fantasy Cocoon. Other credits include Matthew Robbins’ *batteries not included, Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, and the 1978 television series Battlestar Galactica.
McQuarrie’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind quote / photo via ralphmcquarrie.com.