The Art of the Future
Ralph McQuarrie was the first film pre-production artist I knew. I remember seeing his pre-production art in STARLOG and FAMOUS MONSTERS and FANTASTIC FILMS as a kid. And the first original film art I saw was by McQuarrie, at Worldcon 1984. And while it pales in comparison to the size of Comicon these days, even Wondercon from this past weekend, it was a staggering scene for me. Just short of my thirteenth birthday, I alternated working a table for my uncle those four days and zigzagging in and out of the crowds to catch a glimpse of … everything. And in one of the exhibition halls – McQuarrie’s STAR WARS. I don’t remember what pieces I saw, but it was comparable to any museum exhibit I’d seen to that point.
Creature Features in Burbank, California brought back those memories this past Saturday, April 4, with the opening of their month long show, THE ART OF RALPH MCQUARRIE, which will run through April 26. Curated by Stan Stice and John Scoleri in conjunction with the release of their book THE ART OF RALPH MCQUARRIE ARCHIVES, the show brings together some fifty pieces of original production art, sketches, poster drafts, book cover sketches and related from McQuarrie’s career. Some of the usual suspects are there – Darth Vader and Chewbacca as originally sketched on their yellowing paper. But it’s the other pieces, the beyond STAR WARS, that really stand out. Several of his huge full-color background paintings for a proposed FORBIDDEN PLANET remake by Irvin Kershner occupied a large space on the wall. The colors were simply fantastic. They make you yearn for an unrealized film, just to see these vistas brought to life. The deep blues and reds of the Krell machines are simply fascinating. Once could lose oneself in them. Sketches for a Levi Strauss ad campaign using alien-styled samurais evidence his tight pencil work, for me, even more than his STAR WARS sketches.
Beyond that, though, the breadth of his work on display was amazing as well. I’ve always thought of him as a science fiction painter/innovator, adept at envisioning the future. And there is certainly a large portion of that. His book covers for Ballantine Del Rey and Byron Preiss, both the sketches and final paintings give ample tribute to that. But then there was the movies posters he did for WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS and BOOTLEGGERS which show a completely different side. Evoking period pieces, again, it is especially the color palette that was so amazing in these paintings. Really exquisite poster work. And then there was the concept art for the filmed production of Robert Folk’s TO DREAM OF ROSES ballet which is comparable to the pre-production paintings done by Hein Heckroth for THE RED SHOES. Simply fascinating work.
The *BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED portion of the exhibit paired McQuarrie’s original sketches and renderings with the actual prop spaceships from the film while a screen above played the film itself. I only vaguely remembered the film, and not super fondly, but the combination of seeing it coupled with the props – and the drawings – gave me a new appreciation for the film. Seeing the rough sketches, the battered models, added a new layer of personality to the funky little ships. Gave them life, more so than even the original stop motion. That is the measure of art.
Stice and Scoleri’s tome is much more than a companion to the exhibit. It’s the entrée to the appetizer of the exhibit. It’s a massive volume to be treasured and savored. At 400+ pages, it easily quadruples the art of the exhibit, covering everything from McQuarrie’s early work at Boeing and his youthful sketches as a soldier in Korea during the Korean War through onto the end of his career, covering more than 50 years. By eschewing the more famous STAR WARS film work it leaves room for so much of the work to breathe. An incredible 46 pages of the FORBIDDEN PLANET art is one of the definite centerpieces of the book. But the page count allows for an investigation of his work for Pepsi, his work on the aborted START TREK: PLANET OF THE TITANS from the mid-70s, and even room for the odder STAR WARS projects, such as his unused sketches for a Lando Calrissian novel in the early-80s. A thick pencil and Billy Dee Williams never looked so good.
Scoleri’s deft texts illuminate the time and place of the works, setting the context, and draws the reader into the nuances of McQuarrie’s work. In an age where so many art books are about the design team (yes, I’m looking at Chip Kidd), it’s refreshing to find an art book like this that draws attention to the artist himself. Make no mistake, this is a beautiful book; I took the dust jacket off and was amazed by the cover design underneath, but it’s all done to celebrate the beauty of McQuarrie’s work. Hand in hand, Stice’s design for the pages is clean and spare, allowing the sketches and paintings to breathe. Especially in sections such as the discussion of the mural done for Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED, this is welcome. This is an art book to be savored over and over again.
Check out Creature Features website at: http://creaturefeatures.com/ for a glimpse of this show and future shows. And if you are in Southern California this month, go see the show.
THE ART OF RALPH MCQUARRIE ARCHIVES is available from Dreams and Visions press at http://dreamsandvisionspress.com/ along with several other McQuarrie related books. Check them out. It’s worth it. Well worth it.