When I was a wee lad still earning my space cadet merit badges, my hands-down favorite books were the then-rare Art of Star Wars series (one book for each of the three original movies). The glossy books featured a ton of fantastic conceptual drawings, sketches and paintings by Ralph McQuarrie that shaped the look and feel of the Star Wars movies during preproduction of the films. I don’t remember who gifted me such gems, but if I could ever find out, I would certainly take them out for a dinner and Avatar. Over the years, I had worn the the spine of those books to the point where turning the pages made a cracking sound, before they all just fell apart at the seams, scattering all the photographs at my feet. It led to me ferret out other visual visionaries such as Don Davis, Roger Dean, and Wayne Barlowe, and probably had more than a little influence on propelling me into my career as an astronomy visualizer. These artists have a knack for sparking that fire of exploration within us, and at least in my case, my imagination couldn’t help but turn it into a lifelong blaze.
Before one set was built, before one frame of film was exposed, Ralph McQuarrie took basic concepts from George Lucas and visualized the exotic aliens, gigantic planet-kiling space stations and floating cities that we all came to love. But even more fascinating is the stuff that didn’t make it into the movies, from needly spacefighters to unfilmable aliens to entire lightsaber battles never seen on film. In the best example that a picture is worth a thousand words, McQuarrie’s art worked in reverse for me – it expanded Star Wars from a 2 hour movie with a set cast of characters and locations, to a strange, vibrant Universe where the characters we know and love where given a colorful depth. But McQuarrie’s reach extends far beyond Star Wars; in fact, he’s probably more responsible for the image you have in your head of aliens than any other single person. You can thank the now 80 year old McQuarrie for the design of the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, aspects of Cocoon (which is why Wilford Brimley cannot be killed with conventional weapons – Thanks, Ralph) and the spaceships in Spielberg’s E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and many more that didn’t get to make it to the big screen.
TrekWeb has a great piece up about the story of first Star Trek movie that was to be made in the 1976, Star Trek: Planet of the Titans, slated to be directed by Philip Kaufman, who would later go on to direct Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff. The article goes on to explain the various reasons why the project got killed off – one reason might have the wacky plot, which dealt with Kirk and the Enterprise traveling thousands of years back in time, to introduce fire to primitive humans. Well, now that I think about it, it’s not as crazy as some of the other plots, such as someone stealing Spock’s brain and installing a remote control to help him get it back. As you can see from just the conceptual drawings, the Star Trek we have in our heads today would look quite different if Kaufman had realized McQuarrie’s vision of the Enterprise.
If you’d like to explore more, check out McQuarrie’s official website. The Force is strong with this one.
By complete coincidence, I was browsing through the library yesterday when I came upon a book from another great visualizer of the future and far away places: the legendary Syd Mead.
Mead started out as a designer for the Ford Motor Company in the 50s in its “Advanced Styling Studio” where his futuristic style fit in perfectly as the space age was ramping up. He quickly left to become a freelance visualizer for steel companies, hotels, General Motors, and other corporations who needed a visionary. And c’mon, who doesn’t?
Mead’s talent quickly caught the eye of Hollywood. He got the call to visualize Star Trek’s eventual successful debut on the big screen, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His designs of V’ger, the super-intelligent living machine evolved from a Voyager spacecraft were translated faithfully to the big screen by Director Robert Wise.
Mead and Hollywood were a perfect match. He went on to design the futuristic vehicles in Blade Runner, the light-cycles in Tron, the spaceship Leonov in 2010, and the spaceship Sulaco from in James Cameron’s Aliens among others.
Dive into the world of Syd Mead:
As effects wizard Richard Taylor said so well in that video, Syd Mead’s work “reminds you of something you’ve never seen before.” Here at Chateau Flateau, we just adopted a retired racing greyhound (my fourth over the years), welcoming a new 40 mph couch potato into our lives. Syd must have been reading our dreams many years ago.