While working on our 2015 “Star Wars” Christmas card, I became obsessed with how the composition of this famous poster came about. Apparently, many famous artists contributed to the look from 1971 to 1977, including George Lucas, Ralph McQuarrie, Dan Mollo, Howard Chaykin, Dan Perri, Tom Jung, Brothers Hildebrandt and Tom Chantrell.
Here’s what I found on the magnanimous Internet.
“I conceived [Star Wars] at about the same time I finished THX 1138 [released in 1971], which was my first film. I was getting a lot of pressure from my peers to do something other than these artsy character movies.. I came up with the idea of doing a sort of modern mythology, like Saturday morning serials for kids. I came up with two ideas: one was Indiana Jones and the other was Star Wars.”
— George Lucas, in George Lucas: The Well-Rounded Interview, May 1999, by Well-Rounded Entertainment
In May 1971, Lucas signed a two-film deal with United Artists for American Graffiti and an untitled Flash Gordon-esque space fantasy film (source: Wikipedia). On August 1, 1971, United Artists registered the title “The Star Wars” with the MPAA (source: Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler).
“I loved the Flash Gordon comic books ... I loved the Universal serials with Buster Crabbe. After THX 1138 I wanted to do Flash Gordon and tried to buy the rights [but couldn’t]. ... I realized that I could make up a character as easily as Alex Raymond, who took his character from Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s your basic superhero in outer space. I realized that what I really wanted to do was a contemporary action fantasy.”
— George Lucas, George Lucas Goes Far Out by Stephen Zito, American Film, April 1977
Principal photography for American Graffiti ended on August 4, 1972 and Lucas completed his final cut in December 1972 (source: Wikipedia). He was then free to work on The Star Wars.
“When I finished American Graffiti [in 1972] again I was broke. ... My wife was working, and we were trying to make ends meet, so I said ‘I’ve got to get another picture going here — just to survive.’ So that’s when I decided that I wanted to do a children’s film. .. I’d had this idea for doing a space adventure. In the process of going through film school you end up with a little stack of ideas for great movies that you’d love to make, and I picked one off and said, ‘This space epic is the one I want to do.’ Like American Grafitti, it was such an obvious thing that I was just amazed nobody had ever done it before.”
— George Lucas, The George Lucas Saga by Kerry O’Quinn, Starlog, July 1981
“I began writing Star Wars in January 1973.”
— George Lucas, from the Star Wars Souvenir Program, May 1977, according to The Connoisseur’s Guide to the Scripts of the Star Wars Saga by Björn Wahlberg
The first written version of Star Wars was a two-page partial outline called The Journal of the Whills, Part I, dated January 1973. The first line was “This is the story of Mace Windy, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi, as related to us by C.J. Thorpe, padawaan learner to the famed Jedi.”
The second version, called The Star Wars: Story Synopsis, was given to United Artists for perusal on May 7, 1973.
United Artists declined their option to make the movie. Universal Pictures rejected the film, saying “science fiction wasn’t popular in the mid-’70s” (according to producer Gary Kurtz, interviewed in 2002 by Ken P of IGN). Walt Disney also passed, concerned about the $8M budget (in 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4B). Fortunately, in June 1973, Alan Ladd Jr. of 20th Century Fox signed on.
“I’m interested, I don’t understand this, but I loved American Graffiti and whatever you do is OK with me.”
— Alan Ladd, 20th Century Fox executive, according to The Making of Star Wars by Jim Smith
“I’m working on a western movie set in outer space. Don’t worry, ten-year-old boys will love it.”
— George Lucas, in an interview after the release of American Graffiti in August 1973, according to The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski
“The Star Wars is a mixture of Lawrence of Arabia, the James Bond films and 2001.”
— George Lucas, Chaplin film magazine, Fall 1973
“[The Star Wars] is a space opera in the tradition of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. It’s James Bond and 2001 combined – super fantasy, capes and swords and laser guns and spaceships shooting each other, and all that sort of stuff. But it’s not camp. It’s meant to be an exciting action adventure film.”
— George Lucas, Film Quarterly, Spring 1974
Much of the Star Wars visuals were created by industrial design artist Ralph McQuarrie, from Indiana. George Lucas met McQuarrie through film-maker friends Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.
“When George saw the drawings I had done for Hal and Matt, he was interested in talking to me. He visited with his friends at my place and talked about a big space-fantasy film he wanted to do. It didn’t have a title yet. ... Well, a couple years went by and George did American Graffiti. I never thought I’d see him again, and then one day he called to see if I’d be interested in doing something for Star Wars.”
— Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars Insider #76
Lucas hired Ralph McQuarrie in November 1974, according to How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor, excerpted on Salon.
“Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision Star Wars.”
— George Lucas, source
McQuarrie finished his first “Star Wars” painting on January 2, 1975 (source: Salon) and showed R2-D2 and C3PO.
His second painting in February 1975 showed Darth Vader in “the laser duel.” Lucas suggested the black cape and samurai helmet, and McQuarrie added a gas mask as Vader jumped from ship to ship through the vacuum of space (source: An Annotated Guide to The Star Wars Portfolio by Ralph McQuarrie by John Scoleri). Although McQuarrie envisioned Vader as short, this perspective led to 6'-5" tall final character.
“I thought I had the best job that an artist ever had on a film, and I had never worked on a feature film before.” — Ralph McQuarrie, San Diego Union-Tribue
Click here to see more concept art.
A hero, lightsaber, moon and star.
In 1975, McQuarrie created the first identity image — a decal.
“[The decal] was done while we were working on costumes... It was done as a symbol for the film — to go on film cans and letters. George [Lucas] had had one for American Graffiti, and wanted one for Star Wars.”
“This was how we first pictured Han Solo. It could be a sort of Luke character, but I think it’s more like Han. Anyway, George decided that Han Solo should be a more relaxed character, and his costume was changed. But this decal was designed before the change.”
— Ralph McQuarrie, from the first Official Star Wars Fan Club newsletter, reprinted in Star Wars Scrapbook (Chronicle Books, 1991).
From Anatomy of a Logo: Star Wars by Alex Jay on Tenth Letter of the Alphabet
The “The” was removed in late 1975, between the third draft dated August 1, 1975 and the fourth draft dated January 1, 1976.
In late 1975, Twentieth Century Fox promoted “Star Wars” in its “26 for 76” campaign book (printed in 1975, distributed in 1976).
Also in late 1975, effects artist Joe Johnston revamped the logo using the Precis font family with the now-familiar long-tailed “S” (source: Anatomy of a Logo: Star Wars by Alex Jay, Tenth Letter of the Alphabet).
Johnston’s logo became the official corporate logo, used on letterhead of “The Star Wars Corporation.”
The McQuarrie artwork helped get Fox to green-light the project on December 13, 1975 (source: Salon). John Mollo designed the costumes, and principal photography started in March 1976.
Grouping of heroes with Darth Vader behind, and the Death Star and starships in the background.
To promote the film at comic conventions, famed comic illustrator Howard Chaykin was hired to create the first poster. 1,000 copies were printed and they were distributed in the summer of 1976 at the Worldcon in Kansas City and the Comic-Con in San Diego.
From Every Sage has a Beginning... Star Wars Pre-Release Collectibles by Pete Vilmur at The Star Wars Collectors Archive.
Here is the Joe Johnston logo used in September 1976:
The caption reads: “A very young-looking Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker, poses before a hand-painted banner (art by Ralph McQuarrie, lettering by Joe Johnston) at Star Wars’s “coming out” party at the San Diego Comic Con in the summer of 1976.”
Gave Princess Leia a gun.
Source: The Art of Star Wars (Ballantine Books, 1979).
Judy Lynn Del Rey at Ballantine Books hired McQuarrie to paint the cover of the Star Wars novelization released in fall 1976. This gave Vader a more ominous 3/4 look.
Based on a storyboard panel by Alex Tavoularis, Dan Perri re-designed the Star Wars logo with a vanishing point to be used for the opening crawl titles. It didn’t make the cut for the title, but was used on the poster.
Tom Jung’s “Good Over Evil” fantasy poster was the first movie poster used in the U.S.
As a freelance illustrator in 1977 working for the motion picture advertising boutique of Smolen, Smith and Connolly, Jung was chosen to work on Star Wars. He was given the theme of “Good Over Evil,” and provided with a wealth of photos taken by unit photographers in color and black-and-white, as well as 2.25-inch stills on contact sheets taken from the original 35mm print of the film. Jung’s work was used as the one sheet “Style A” theatrical poster for the film’s advertising campaign (source: Wikipedia).
“We had a problem with Carrie Fisher because they wanted to make her more glamorous. I got my wife to pose for the drawing, and I changed the hairdo and shoved the paint around until I came up with the figure you see now.
Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, loved the poster. She called David Weitzner at Fox’s advertising department and asked if she could have the painting, so he asked me to do a duplicate painting, which is now hanging in Carrie Fisher’s house. The original painting is at Skywalker Ranch.”
— Tom Jung, Cinefantastique by Lawrence French, Feb 1997
The high-fantasy style is possibly due to the influence of 20th Century Fox publicity director Charles Lippincott, who, in September 1976, hoped the poster would be painted by fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta (source: Children of the Night magazine from March 1977, interview in Sept 1976 by Derek Jensen, via TheForce.net).
Tom posed his son Jeff as Luke Skywalker and his wife Kay as Princess Leia (source: Star Wars, Selling The Force by Lawrence French, Cinefantastique, issue #124 Vol 28 #7, 1997, via Wikipedia).
“The actual painting is done on 20x30 double-weight illustration board, half of a standard 30x40 board. I used acrylics, I can use it transparently or opaquely; it dries quickly and is permanent and can be reworked. I’d use airbrushing for large areas of background, color pencils, and inks and dyes and tempera and whatever else I think that may give me the desired result. Sandpaper. Brillo. A single-edge razor blade. Whatever works.”
— Tom Jung, about the 1974 poster The Man with the Golden Gun, on Illustrated007 by Peter Lorenz, 2010, via Wikipedia
The Tom Jung version (left) and Brothers Hildebrandt version (right).
According to the Star Wars Poster Book, Lucasfilm felt the Tom Jung artwork was “too dark” and wanted another version. Twin brothers Tim and Greg Hildebrandt turned one around in 36 hours.
“The reason they called us is because Tim and I had just done the Lord of the Rings calendar, and we had a fan following. We had come through literally overnight for them on a poster for Young Frankenstein. It wasn’t used, but we did it overnight, so they called us and said we need a poster fast.”
— Greg Hildebrandt, Star Wars Poster Book
Although the U.S. market chose to stay with the Tom Jung Style A version, the British market used the Hildebrandt Style B poster, in the British horizontal “quad” format.
According to Starlog Magazine (1978), the Hildebrandt poster was used for about two months in the U.K. (where the movie opened on Nov 28, 1977) before being replaced by the Style C Chantrell poster in late Jan 1978. (Source : 1, 2)
With both the style A and B posters, producer Gary Kurtz deemed the key characters to be too anonymous. So Kurtz hired British artist Tom Chantrell in November 1977 to make a Style C poster.
“Tom was given an invite to the premier showing and we all went along as a family. As soon as he’d seen the film he had the synopsis, the 10” x 8” press stills and then he started to think about how he was going to tackle the project. From beginning to end it took one month, which is a lot of work for one poster. He’d never taken that long before and I don’t think he did again."
Chantrell painted Luke based on a promotional photo.
“[Tom felt that Star Wars] was going to be something special... and he really wanted to make the best of the poster. He’s very thorough when he needs to do a job; he’ll painstakingly work to make sure it’s right. If he’s not given a good enough photograph by the film’s studio he’ll make one himself.”
— Shirley Chantrell, Film On Paper, 2013
The face of Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) is based on a movie still.
The movie still did not show Leia’s body, so Chantrell took reference photos of his wife in the back garden.
“Probably the most famous [reference photograph] I did for him is the Star Wars poster where I’m posing with a sword to mimic the pose that Princess Leia is making with a gun on the poster.”
— Shirley Chantrell, Film On Paper, 2013
Here’s a picture of the original acetate painting by Tom Chantrell.
Here are some other promotional shots of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.
The Chantrell Style “C” poster is also known as the “Oscar” poster, as later prints included the Oscar nominations. This makes the original non-Oscars version a rarity — in 2012, Christies sold a non-Oscars Chantrell quad poster for £5,000.
Of course, this got me going on Tom Chantrell posters.
Lucasfilm remade the artwork in Photoshop for the 2006 DVD.
Of course, all this leads to the most famous version of all, the House of Hudson parody.