One of Sci-Fi Arts true legends Ralph McQuarrie has sadly passed away aged 82, Ralph was the visionary concept artist and illustrator responsible for the look and feel of the original Starwars trilogy . Born and raised in Gary Indiana, Ralph moved to California in the 60′s where he was first employed as a technical llustrator for Boeing. Ralph left in 1965 before becoming a commercial artist and designer working on a variety of projects such as these film posters. At the end of the 60′s as part of a three man team he animated US TV network CBS’s coverage of Nasa’s Apollo space programme this can be seen here (would love to see more of this). Not too long afterwards McQuarrie was approached by George Lucas to discuss plans for a certain sci-Fi fantasy film…
McQuarrie was commissioned by Lucas in 1975, and immediately set out creating concepts for characters, vehicles, set paintings, backdrops etc, these would of course evolve into some of cinema’s most recgonisable and loved Icons. Here’s a great quote from Ralph:
“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.”
Against all odds, Lucas armed with McQuarrie’s wonderful paintings finally managed to twist 20 Century Fox’s arm into comissioning the project, filming in Tunisia would start shortly afterwards. McQuarrie carried on with the Trilogy, working on both sequels, examples of which I’ve included here. Interestingly (I didn’t know this) Ralph also has a uncredited, non speaking part in The Empire Strikes Back, you can see that here kinda funny as he walks across screen in front of one of his own matte paintings.
Though obviously most famous for his work on the Starwars universe, McQuarrie’s highly impressive reseme includes Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of The Third Kind and Cocoon, which earned him an Acadamy Award for visual effects in 1986.
Above and at the head of post are a few of my favourite McQuarrie images, I love the way his imaginings are slightly more streamlined and delicate than the intricate models they became, wonderful stuff!
Here are a few links for futher reading, firstly some great interviews (dating back to 1978) at http://www.ralphmcquarrie.com/interviews/index.html also at his site check through the portfolio sections, I’ll strive to track down some of McQuarrie’s lesser known work for future posting. Also check the Day of the Jedi, for broad collection of Starwars concept art.
Finally to end with here’s a great quote from his website:
His influence on design will be felt forever. There’s no doubt in our hearts that centuries from now amazing spaceships will soar, future cities will rise and someone, somewhere will say…
“that looks like something Ralph McQuarrie painted.”
Sci-Fi-O-Rama presents an analysis and artistic appreciation of five pioneering 8-bit and 16-bit computer games.
The era is the mid to late 80′s, a period fabulously rich in gaming concepts and innovation as developers frantically sought to grasp, harness and subsequently wring every last nanogram of creativity from the available platforms of the day. Each title here contained – for the time – an array of groundbreaking ideas and technologies. What else connects them? well of course I played them way back when and thus they are in some way or another forever burned into the hazy mists of my subconscious.
I’ve been mulling over this one for a while but wasn’t sure quite how to start, hence the recent posting log jam. I wanted to compose an extended retro game feature, but not just to give a rose tinted review of gameplay or mechanics. Here then is a more focused look at the visuals themselves, what fascinated back then and what us still so beautiful and relevant today, 2012.
Hailing way back from 1989 we begin with this wonderful in-game animation, taken from Mike Singleton‘s seminal first person Action/Strategy game ‘Midwinter’. I actually covered the back story and game mechanics in depth a few years back, today the focus is the virtual world itself . This long forgotten classic (23 years old!) featured the implementation of many radical new ideas most notably it’s beautiful, fractal generated landscape, all 160,000 square miles of it. Upon this jagged stage of relentless grey and blue polygons the game would unfold, the above animation shows all of the objects to be found within this bleak digital realm.
This type of spinning model animation was not unique to Midwinter, as you’ll see below, but of them all this (for me) has the most resonance. Back them due to hardware restrictions, there was no texture or bump mapping – at least not in game – graphics could only run with a limited palette, though this was expanded by interlacing or dithering the colours. Seen above this is the checkered, flickering effect as two filled blocks dance between each other. There’s also a real charm with the basic tones of this palette too, earthy terracotta, golden yellows and shades of evergreen jumping straight off the jet black background. A final note and a total giveaway of the era is the speed in which the objects rotate, the simplest and smallest revolving far faster, whilst the emulated 8Mhz processor slows to shift the larger models.
I’ll summerise to say how the subtle, simplistic genius of the design today could easily pass off as abstract pop-art.
First released in 1986 The Sentinel (US The Sentry) was an experience like nothing else, a brooding first person 3d puzzler with 10,000 individual levels. A digital mutation of chess and musical statues It’s compelling uniqueness has retrospectively led some to dub it ”the first virtual reality game’ . The objective of each level is the same, traverse and ascend a checkered, angular landscape by teleportation, to do this you must harvest energy by absorbing the worlds various objects. Atop of all stands the ever watching and rotating sentinel, constantly scanning for intruders to consume and destroy. To win you must survive long enough to be able to climb as high as the Sentinel himself, and thus be able to absorb even him . Though the premise may sound somewhat bewildering, gameplay is in fact relatively relatively simple to pick up, though undoubtedly difficult to master.
The Sentinel was developed originally on the 8-Bit BBC Micro by British programming legend Geoff Crammond, it was then subsequently ported across the board. I first played it on a ZX Spectrum, which due to the obvious hardware limitations plays at a slower pace than the Atari St Version demonstrated above, though this only serves to heighten the tension.
With it’s hard edged, selectively colored graphics, there’s something very alien and ethereal about The Sentinel; A voyage through a seemingly endless array of cold, stark and unavailing worlds, It’s eerie desolation matched only by it’s sweaty addictiveness. Truly timeless.
Above The Sentinel Rendered on the BBC Micro, also note the phallic overtones present in the game box art.
Elite (1984) Firebird
BBC Micro / Acorn / ZX Spectrum / Commordore 64 / Amstrad / CPCAmiga / Atari St / IBM-PC / NES
Here we have a game of truly legendary status, and really needs no introduction. The brainchild of Cambridge graduates David Braben and Ian Bell and originally launched in 1984 it’s 3d wireframe graphics enveloped the player in galaxy of space exploration, trading and combat.
As with a few of the other titles here, Elite is something I’ve mentioned on the blog before, firstly when I featured Philip Castle promotional Artwork and of related interest here is a link with some thoughts on Elites extraordinarily ambitious sequel ‘Frontier’ released in 1992.
The movie shoes the IBM-PC version of the games starting animation, this introduces the player to all of the in game objects, essentially the different types of spacecraft you may encounter. Elite was originally written for 8-Bit systems, and featured only black and white wireframe graphics, the upgraded 16-Bit version includes solid polygons, as you can see. I’ve compiled the clip to show the game running in different display modes starting with CGA, then EGA and finally VGA. Bearing in mind that PC’s back then were purely made for the office, CGA graphic mode was severely hamstrung and capable of only a very limited, migraine inducing palette, and you think thats bad, play the game with just the PC speaker for sound and you have a truly ghastly experience! Next up is EGA mode, capable of a more powerful range of colours, expanded by the same interlaced displacement of pixels mentioned earlier. Finally the VGA mode removes the interlacing and shows the cheese shaped objects in a gloriously garish neon spectrum.
Whilst graphically it all obviously seems so primitive today, this was once cutting edge stuff; showing all the objects gave the player a notion to go forth and explore, it’s a visual checklist for things to see inside Braben and Bell’s economically woven synthetic universe. Finally, one really neat thing here is the flickering star, I presume this is to simulate atmospheric heat haze, and not just a hardware limitation!
Above the games original box art, always loved this winged-crest-type thing, though I confess to this day I have no idea what it’s actually supposed to be. The design I presume was created by the afforementioned Philip Castle.
Where as the previous titles can be considered classics, Battle Command slides casually into the ‘obscure and unremarkable’ category. Released in 1990 (yes I know the post title says 80s) the game is a loose sequel to the superb ‘Carrier Command’ whose war-games-esque kitsch cover was featured as one of the very first posts here at Sci-Fi-O-Rama. Battle Command is much more action orientated than it’s better known predecessor and seems to play out like an updated version of Atari’s legendary ‘Battlezone’. I say it’s “seems to” because the truth is 20+ years after owning I’m still not really sure how to play it, even today through emulation I’m none the wiser…
But whilst the gaming experience may still allude, it does have it’s plus points, essentially these boils down to a selection of primitive, but nevertheless, fascinating 3d animations, to be seen compiled in the above movie. The smaller movies show the objective of each mission, presumably what must be destroyed, captured or protected. Theres real charm and a sense of play here, as the camera slowly pans the various objects, the simplistic but striking models shimmer in a gorgeous range of acidic, saturated colours. In keeping with the plastic palette and theme, the in-game protanganist bare a closer resemblance to Lego-like renditions rather than that of the the real thing – toy buildings, tanks, fighter jets poised and ready to be challenged in battle. Finally and as if to underline that, checkout the lovingly crafted intro animation complete with clipping, and slight CPU slowdown. Forget todays hyper-realism, for me this is what computer graphics will forever be about.
Above: The box art featuring a pretty mean looking armoured vehicle, off topic I do wonder how much of a role tanks will play on future battlefields, not exactly cutting edge tech are they, and would you really want to drive one in an even fight?. Anyway, enough of that, as you might expect of a long-forgotten 22 year old game cyberspace isn’t awash with information on Battle Command. However, as always, a good place to start is the Wikipedia article.
The final title here, by Philippe Ulrich & Didier Bouchon is from France. As with most things Sci-Fi and Gallic, to say it’s ‘out there’ is a blasphemous understatement, quite how the French do their Sci-Fi which such broad strokes of flair must surely be the subject of a future article, but for now let’s stick this fine example.
Captain Blood’s suitably existential plot involves assuming the role of a game designer flung into his own game, searching the galaxy for a number rouge clones of yourself that were created during an accident soon after the transition to the game world. To track the clones down help is available via variety of alien races who are dotted around the galaxy and to whom who you must voyage too, meet and interview.
Gameplay involves picking and then travelling to a planet where upon arrival you must guide a biological probe called an ‘OORXX’ to the chosen worlds surface. This involves steering a cross hair across a fractal generated psuedo-3d landscape, try to imagine flying through Peter Saville’s iconic Joy Divison LP cover for ‘Unknown Pleasures‘. When the OORXX lands you’ll need to attempt to communicate with the local indigenous species using a complicated universal translating device, the ‘UPCOM’. I’ll pause here and just say, if you hadn’t guessed already Captain Blood It’s totally bizarre, and frankly, quite how it should be. The UPCOM’s GUI has a range of icons each symbolising a different concept, you string them together to form conversation, the machine garbles then out robotic synthisised speech, the alien subsequently responds. Yeap it’s even weirder than it sounds, but I have to say, if there was ever a game that deserves to be remade or re-invented for the tablet gerneration this has got to be it.
If your interested in reliving a few memories or just a spot of retro gaming most of these games are now classed as Abondonware, essentially meaning you can find the ROM’s and play them through the PC emulator DOSBOX. For OSX users this is easier than you think, just visit and download the Boxer App. In addition check Abandonia for a large selection of legally downloadable ROMs.
That’s pretty much it, quick disclaimer on the presentation, this is the first major post I’ve upgrading the site to be mobile responsive, if you spot any design anomolies please let me know. Back soon with more!
OK, as promised, I’m very proud to present an exclusive Sci-Fi-O-Rama feature, this time with Swedish Design and Illustration superstar Kilian Eng. Here we have a total tour de force of the imagination, gloriously twisted, washed in 80′s technicolor and blending only the very finest Sci-Fi and Fantasy references…
I’m quite sure you’ll be familiar with Kilian’s work, he’s built a considerable following since first proliferating through the major design/illustration blogs. Interestingly it was in fact Dan McPharlin that first put me onto Kilian with a post over at But Does it Float, and I’d put these two in the same bracket, pretty much the finest contemporary Science Fiction Illustrators on the planet. Another totally enviable fact is just how prolific Kilian is, check his primary portfolio site at behance.net/KilianEng for a vast array of interstellar work, amassed in just a few years.
So then, in the tradition of the Sci-Fi-O-Rama interview I have set the post up as follows, firstly a selection of Kilian’s work with my notes, then the interview we traded via email, before finishing on a selection of links and further reading. Lets start then with the notes:
Above: This wonderfully surrealistic illustration typifies Kilian’s portfolio, it’s a truly beautiful style that obviously pays homage to French masters such as Moebius and Enki Bilal. For me what really sets this work apart from others is just how hardcore the imaginative elements are – totally out there – a fusion of the surreal, the psychedelic and the technological, re-birthed with just the slickest style. The fact that the above image could easily work as a fashion illustration serves to underline that.
Above: This example highlights several of Kilian’s clever design traits. Firstly we have a lovingly balanced colour palette, subtly and carefully diffused to give a sense of depth. Next up, edginess – this work is the Sci-Fi definition of it – often tinged with darkness as above, but brought back with a wry sense of humour with nods to the 80′s cartoons that thrilled a generation. Ultimately though, the defining ingredient is the otherworldly factor, totally unforced, it’s the product of a powerful, wandering mind.
Above: Love this! A more graphical element is deployed here in one of the most striking examples from Kilian’s portfolio, thus one of my absolute faves.
Above: This frenzied, sinister illustration shows Kilian at his most detailed and linear, note the carefully selected tones, only 5 or so colours to define the background – cloud or cave? – there is something of a feel of Fighting Fantasy’s Russ Nicholson here.
Above: We move once more onto the surreal tip here, this fabulous, dreamlike image forms part of a small series called ‘The Statue’ check the rest here: http://bit.ly/vFW9Ae
Above: This image is just one of many, fantastical environments Kilian is able to – seemingly – effortlessly create.
Above: In addition to his linear drawing and the graphical facets, Kilian also is capable of working in this quintessentially 80′s ‘Robo’ mode – note the much heavier diffusing and neon glows. It’s a style that looks almost effortless (though trust me it isn’t!) and again mixing in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy creates something truly haunting.
Above: Another rendering in the aforementioned ‘Robo’ mode. As usual it’s mind bending stuff, suffice to say it’s another personal fave, would love to see this entity in motion.
So that brings to a close my small selection (bonus after the interview). As I alluded to earlier I’ve barely scratched the surface so if it’s more imagery you seek, head directly to behance.net/KilianEng
Hi Kilian, tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a 29 year old illustrator and live in Stockholm/Sweden. My commercial work as an illustrator began around 4 years ago when I started to do record covers for bands in the electronic music scene. However I had been drawing on my own stories long before and exploring different sides in my work. My education was at Konstfack, University of Arts Craft & Design in Stockholm at the graphic Design & Illustration department which is also called storytelling at Master’s level. From there I graduated in 2010 with an animated short film and I have continued to work on this afterwards so its soon to be completed.
You have a very distinctive style, how would you best describe your work?
Well its perhaps easier for others to put a label on it but I would say something like “often rich in colour with a surreal sci-fi approach with alot of focus on environments and architecture”. Perhaps not exactly what I would say if someone asked me on the street, but I hope it explains something of what I do.
Your portfolio oozes Sci-Fi and Fantasy references, but is there a visual style/genre you identify with more than others? (ie Cyberpunk, Post Apocalyptic, Surrealist?)
I would say that all those themes visit my work from time to time. Its always hard and certainly not necessary to sort out exactly what takes place in the pictures but I would say that a rather surrealistic approach often comes back, both in motive and the way that some work is being created. Surrealism is of course a huge area with limitless approach, but for me some of the best moments in the work process is when the subconscious is allowed to take part. It doesn’t happen too often but from time to time things just go almost by themselves and you can create like 5 pieces without thinking or analysing the process. Afterwards you start to put in the meaning and you try to understand what it is you have in front of you. At that point you can start to see explanations and the meaning or at least hopefully something that can be interesting to look at. When I do commissioned work I plan it much more and think about what kind of themes/genre I want to include, there you have to respect and be aware of the expectations from others on the outcome.
Do you work straight to screen (via Wacom) or does part of your workflow still involve pen and paper?
At the moment almost all of my work is drawn with the Wacom board, some exceptions are black and white outline illustrations that i scan and the color in the computer. Then I draw a lot of rough ideas in the sketchbook offcourse.
And following on from that, which part of the creative process do you enjoy the most?
I love to create shapes and plan the composition and space in images so I would say to build the environment where everything takes place. If you look at a lot of my work your can see that many times it puts focus on the room, often the surroundings are dominating the image and the character’s just passing trough or standing there without really doing anything, just taking in whats around them.
What are you working on at the moment? anything exciting coming up?
I’m just finishing a commission as concept designer for a sci-fi short film, the details around this project is still top secret but I have a very good feeling about the whole thing. Other than that I’m doing some cover artwork and trying to develop and improve my work with animation. Then there wil be a little book with my work in preparation. It will hopefully be available in december this year. (Sci-Fi-O-Rama says, more on this soon!)
**A couple Sci-Fi-O-Rama generic question’s
What’s the best piece of Sci-Fi related material you’ve come across and been impressed by recently (book, film, artist)
As many others I’m really into H.P Lovecraft and just found out that in the 80′s a great Swedish Actor called Ernst Hugo Järegård read Lovecraft stories to tape and they are available as audiobooks. So far I have just been listening to a short preview of the reading but it sounds fantastic. What makes this so great is that I can’t think of any other actor here in Sweden who would fit better to read Lovecraft for an audience. This is of course very local as its only in my native language but it made me very happy to find out about!
Finally a follow on to the last question, any classic Sci-Fi material (book, film, artist) you could recommend think reader’s might not know of or have overlooked?
Some time ago i watched two short movies by Saul Bass and Elaine Bass called Phase IV and Quest, amazing and visually very strong films.