The Origins of Star Wars Part I: Art & Design

Greetings Star Wars nerds, welcome to The Game of Nerds Origins of Star Wars series!

In this six part series leading up to the release of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi in December, we’ll examine integral parts that led to the birth and formation of the first Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope released in 1977.

By examining the process broken up into six categories, we hope to forge into the mind of creator George Lucas and hopefully gain some insight into the events that led to the creation and execution of the first film and what is considered the greatest Hollywood franchise of all time.

Sit back, relax and enjoy!


George Lucas more than anything is a visual artist and since his earliest influences were early century artists and comic books it makes sense to start there.  Since the technology that would go on and help Lucas create the Star Wars universe hadn’t been invented yet, the visions that filled his head would be born from the great visual storytellers of his childhood.  As a young person, Lucas admired all types of art, but mostly narrative, and would spend hours looking at the paintings of Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Frank McCarthy and the drawings of Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon).  It was from these images where Lucas would imagine a universe full of swashbuckling space adventure.

Essentially, Lucas wanted to build and live inside the images in his imagination he just didn’t know how to do it yet.  The world of Star Wars, which feels so bizarrely real in this intangible
way, would be partially born from the canvases of the worlds artists such as Rockwell and Parrish:

“He (Rockwell) was able to sum up the story and make you want to read the story, but actually understand who the people were, what their motives were, everything in one little frame.”

Narrative art tells a story using the power of the visual image to ignite imaginations, evoke emotions and capture universal truths and aspirations. What distinguishes narrative art from other genres is its ability to narrate a story across diverse cultures, preserving it for future generations.  Does this sound like something familiar?  If one was to define Star Wars and it’s affect in it’s simplest form, “its ability to narrate a story across diverse cultures, preserving it for future generations…”, would be it.

As it turns out, selling the early drafts of the script would prove to be difficult as most studio’s couldn’t wrap their heads around it visually and found the concept strange.  So when it came time to actualize the visions in his script Lucas, who’s not one himself, approached an artist named Ralph McQuarrie to illustrate several scenes and characters from an early draft of the script.  McQuarrie had no feature film experience prior to Star Wars but Lucass was impressed enough with his work that he commissioned him in 1975.  These early illustrations and concept paintings would be prove to be invaluable as they would be essential in convincing 20th Century Fox owner Alan Ladd Jr. to fund the film:

“I just did my best to depict what I thought the film should look like, I really liked the idea. 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.” – Ralph McQuarrie

McQuarrie, who died in 2012 at the age of 82, would go on to be the primary artist responsible for many of the designs and aesthetics featured in the Star Wars trilogy.  In fact his work can be seen in many major hit films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Cocoon, and to this day LucasFilms contemporary artists cite his early work as a major influence.  His artwork had such an impact on the look and feel of the original trilogy that Lucas would go on to refer to him as officially the first person he hired.

Beyond the movies, his (Ralph McQuarrie) artwork has inspired at least two generations of younger artists—all of whom learned through Ralph that movies are designed.” – George Lucas

Another one of Lucas’s favorites was Alex Raymond, who was an illustrator/artist who would be responsible for creating the Flash Gordon series of comic strips in the 1930’s.  This work had a massive influence over Lucas to say the least both visually and from a narrative standpoint.  So much in fact, the original plan was to buy the rights to Flash Gordon with the goal of making it into a feature length movie, just with better special effects.  It wasn’t until after he failed to procure the rights that he then decided to write his own space opera.

Lucas would borrow heavily from the Flash Gordon series in terms of looks and design.  If you look at the two images below, it’s not hard to see the similarities between the two properties.  The top one is of course the familiar crawl we see at the beginning of each film, the top left being Flash Gordon and the top right being Star Wars.  Below that we see Flash Gordon’s version of Cloud City on the left, and Empire Strikes Back on the right.


For the design aspects, Lucas commissioned John Barry and Roger Christian to help him create fresh props and sets (based on McQuarrie’s drawings) that had never been seen before in science fiction films.  It was seen as ambitious but Barry and Christian were impressed with Lucas’s vision, Christian in particular said, “(Lucas) didn’t want anything [in Star Wars] to stand out, he wanted it to look all real and used. And I said, ‘Finally somebody’s doing it the right way.'”  He would go on to say, “All science fiction before was very plastic and stupid uniforms and Flash Gordon stuff. Nothing was new. George was going right against that.”

Star Wars has no points of reference to Earth time or space, with which we are familiar, and it is not about the future but some galactic past or some extra-temporal present, it is a decidedly inhabited and used place where the hardware is taken for granted.” – George Lucas

Lucas described a “used future” concept to the production designers in which all devices, ships, and buildings looked aged and dirty. Instead of following the traditional sleekness and futuristic architecture of science fiction films that came before, the Star Wars sets were designed to look inhabited and used.

The design and look of Star Wars was forward in it’s execution as it employed simple yet effective principles mixed with Lucas’s groundbreaking vision.  The proportions, clear forms,  contrasts,  variation of ideas, functional designs and shapes are all meticulously crafted to that they tell a story without the need for characters or dialogue.  Again, this harkens back to Lucas’s love of narrative art  and being a prime mover when it comes to being a true visual artist.

You can clearly see on screen Lucas’s fondness for films such as Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as well as the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 30s and 50s.  In fact, Colin Cantwell who worked on 2001 was recruited by Lucas as a conceptual designer in charge of designing initial spacecraft models.

Lucas tasked Cantwell with designing several vehicles and ships including the X-Wing, Y-Wing, Stardestroyer, Death Star, Tie Fighter, Landspeeder, Millennium Falcon as well as many others. These ship/vehicle drawings would be paired with McQuarrie’s scene art to complete the overall look and feel of Star Wars which would eventually convince the studio to fund the film.

When he started creating models to match the drawings, Cantwell knew that he had to design things so that the audience could tell the difference between the ships of the good guys and bad guys.  This would be a key signature in the development stages of the narrative which is essentially a good versus evil plot.

Since a majority of this work was done pre-production it meant George Lucas himself would have to pay for most of it with profits from American Graffiti. The designer, working in England, would have to beg, borrow and steal whatever they could to get a jump on some of the larger pieces required to fulfill Lucas’s vision. This would end up being a blessing disguise as some of the sets and ships would have that used, industrial look that Lucas had envisioned from the beginning.

In fact, aesthetically, things were going along quite well, when it came time to make these machines move, that would be a different story.

In the next chapter we’ll look at the writing process and how the Adventures of Anakin Starkiller would eventually become Star Wars: A New hope

Till next time…MTFBWY.












Author: gizmorubiks

I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that.

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