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Mœbius, McQuarrie, and the mind of modern science fiction

I wanted to write a short post in celebration of the hugely influential work of Ralph McQuarrie and Jean ‘Mœbius’ Giraud (looking completely fucking awesome at an exhibition of his work in 2011, above), who both passed away in the last few days. But in digging out some images I got lost in the tangle of collaboration and cross-pollination that lies behind the look of science-fiction films for the last 40 years and I wrote this hurried look at their interwoven careers instead. Interestingly the paths of McQuarrie and Mœbius only intersect once or twice, but the industry around them was a revolving door of familiar faces.

A lot of this comes out of my long-standing interest in Dune – not just the finished, flawed David Lynch version from 1984, but the abandoned attempts to adapt the book throughout the 1970s, and the 2000 mini series. Not only are the peculiar creative coils and offshoots of the Dune project characteristic of how the wider look of Hollywood sci-fi has been crafted, but the production is also a good starting point for this discussion.

In 1971, six years after Frank Herbert’s book was published, Arthur P. Jacobs bought the film option and lined it up as a $15 million follow-up to his 1968 Planet Of The Apes. In the end Ape sequels dominated his time and the film was dormant when he died in 1973. The following year the rights were bought by a French production group for experimental Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to direct, even though Jodorowsky was a lunatic.

And maybe they were on to something: Jodorowsky assembled what now looks an impossibly awesome team of artists including Mœbius to design characters, Chris Foss to design the space craft, and HR Giger to design the twisted Harkonnen homeworld. Also on board initially was Douglas Trumbull, the special effects craftsman behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Andromeda Strain who’d directed Silent Running in 1972. He didn’t stay long, and was replaced by Dan O’Bannon, who’d worked on Dark Star with John Carpenter.

Mœbius contributed hundreds of concept pieces to the production of the film, but with $2 million spent Jodorowsky’s script was still unfilmable and in 1976 the attempt fell apart. One thing that did come out of the process was a comic book collaboration between Mœbius and Dan O’Bannon called The Long Tomorrow. “Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist,” Mœbius said. “One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of ‘The Long Tomorrow’. A classic police story, but situated in the future.” Mœbius re-drew the storyboards and the finished piece, published in Heavy Metal magazine, was an influential, original blend of science fiction and noir.

Meanwhile Ralph McQuarrie was getting to work with George Lucas on Star Wars. McQuarrie had worked as a technical illustrator for Boeing and on CBS News posters for the Apollo missions, and brought a realistic, used-future style to bear on the project. Lucas said of his work:

His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘do it like this’.

The similarity of McQuarrie’s illustrations to shots familiar from the films show Lucas did just that. He also approached Douglas Trumbull to work on the effects for Star Wars. Trumbull was working on Steven Spielberg’s Close Enounters Of The Third Kind and instead suggested John Dykstra, who’d worked on Silent Running. Following the collapse of Dune, Dan O’Bannon also worked on the film, creating several computer display sequences (an excellent and detailed look at these sequences, and how they would influence Alien and Blade Runner, can be found at Den Of Geek).

What Dan O’Bannon also did after the collapse of Dune was to write the original script for Alien with Ronald Shusett. Ridley Scott directed this script, famously hiring Giger to design the alien, and fellow Dune castaway Mœbius to work on the film’s ships and space suits (the understated realism of the designs again grounding the film’s story excesses).

When Jodorowsky’s Dune collapsed the rights were bought by savvy Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis. After Alien became a hit De Laurentiis sniffed an opportunity and in 1979 he approached Scott about directing his film. Scott agreed, and brought Giger back onto the project to storyboard (this is where Giger’s paintings of non-Harkonnen objects come from, like his astonishing take on Dune’s sandworms.)

Script issues eventually sank Scott’s stab at Dune too, and at the end of 1980 the director left the project to work on Blade Runner, starring Star Wars’ Harrison Ford and with effects from Trumbull. William Gibson, who admitted to having “reeled out of the theater in complete despair” when first watching Blade Runner because of its similarities to his unfinished Neuromancer, remembers a lunch with Scott where both men were clear about their debt to Heavy Metal magazine, to “Mœbius and the others.” Recognising his debt to The Long Tomorrow in particular, Scott invited Mœbius to work on the film’s pre-production, but the artist was busy with French animation Les Maîtres Du Temps. In his place Scott used Syd Mead, who like McQuarrie had worked as a corporate technical illustrator and who would go on to be a similarly influential futurist (his description of science fiction as “reality ahead of schedule” is a good fit for much of the work under discussion here).

Mead’s job right before Blade Runner was designing the V’Ger craft for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film which featured work McQuarrie had done on an abandoned Star Trek feature and emergency effects work from Trumbull. And Mead’s job immediately after Blade Runner was Disney’s Tron, where he designed the impossibly cool and sleek Light Cycles, ridden by digital warriors which were conceived by Mœbius.

And the cycle of collaborations and crossovers continued. McQuarrie drew concept art for The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi (not directed by David Lynch, despite Lucas’ offer), Spielberg’s ET, and eventually Ron Howard’s Cocoon and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Mœbius worked with Howard and Lucas on 1988’s Willow, and with James Cameron on The Abyss in 1989 (Syd Mead had followed up McQuarrie’s craft work on Alien by designing the Sulaco for Cameron’s Aliens in 1986).

Of course that is a very myopic history focused on the careers of these departed artists. But it’s illustrative of the great tangle of ideas and minds behind the images brought to screen. I think about this tangle in two ways. On one level I like the idea of a constant, evolving production, a group of creative souls working in a Hollywood increasingly characterised by special effects to define how we conceive of the future. Since the 1970s look and image has become increasingly central to the identity of American films in particular -these are the men who crafted that look.

And in a more personal way it makes sense of a life spent loving science fiction, of that feeling I would get watching Star Wars and ET and Star Trek and Tron and Blade Runner that they were all somehow part of the same fictional universe, one that I had a special connection to. I’m a particularly good age for this, a child of the 1980s growing up with Hollywood’s special effects industry, absorbing these images and experiences which, in a reflection of the original creative process, fold in on each other and define my tastes and outlook. For that, and for the movies I’ll never stop watching, I thank these two men and the others they worked with.

There’s one image in particular that sums this up and that I’d like to end with – a design for an unmade Star Trek project which Ralph McQuarrie drew in the ’70s. It’s of the Starship Enterprise, but visually it’s pure Star Wars. I suspect it’s the closest these two giants of science fiction will ever get to co-existing.

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