Credit: Courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd

In the mid-1970s, when George Lucas was struggling to persuade 20th Century Fox that his script about a farmboy who teams up with a wizard, a pirate, and a space-ape to rescue a princess from a black knight was worth doing, he turned to the talents of illustrator Ralph McQuarrie.

McQuarrie, who died in 2012 at age 82, painted countless concept images for the original Star Wars trilogy, creating the iconic landscapes of Tatooine, Hoth, Cloud City, and Dagobah, as well as the visage of characters like Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3PO (pictured above), and many, many more.

His influence can still be found in the details of The Force Awakens, more than 40 years after the artist began visualizing the galaxy far, far away. But in talking with writer-director J.J. Abrams about this first step back into the cosmos, I wanted to know: Who was his Ralph McQuarrie?

In other words — who helped him see the unimaginable?

“I was incredibly blessed to work with Rick Carter, who — beyond being a brilliant production designer — is a font of imagination and associations,” Abrams says, without having to think long, “He is able to make connections to things that no one else can see, and he has such a trove of references and life experience and images and design ideas.”

Carter is a recent Oscar winner for the production design of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (seen below), and he also picked up a trophy for creating the alien forest-world of James Cameron’s Avatar. A frequent collaborator of Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, his other credits include Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future sequels, Cast Away, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. In case you needed to love him more, he also was the art director on The Goonies and 1984’s cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Carter had never worked with Abrams before, but he proved to be as a vital partner as McQuarrie was to Lucas back in the day.

“I brought him in very early on, when I was working, originally, with [screenwriter] Michael Arndt,” Abrams says. “I brought Rick in to our story meetings, which is atypical in a production designer’s job description, but I wanted him there because he was a dreamer — a complete dreamer.”

Abrams described Carter as “a giddy, excited genius, and he was a muse for me in that regard. Not just visually, but also spiritually, and he was just a terrific partner in crime.”

Another person who was Abrams’ Ralph McQuarrie was … Ralph McQuarrie. Even though he’s gone, his illustrations are still influencing Star Wars, and the late artist was a kind of guardian angel for both Abrams and Carter.

“We both knew the importance of what McQuarrie had done, and how critical he was in creating the aesthetic of what we all know is Star Wars,” the director says. “We could have taken another path and said, ‘Okay, everything that we all know about Star Wars has been done; let’s go somewhere else and do something totally different,’ but when you’re lucky enough to inherit the history of this world that we know, there should be a continuum.”

The key to finding a path back to Star Wars, he said, was not just to follow the best idea at the moment, but to look back at what had been done, well … a long time ago.

“I don’t know what a Star Wars movie would look like without TIE fighters, and stormtroopers, and that pill-shaped lighting from the Empire,” Abrams said. “All things that are Ralph McQuarrie’s brainchild.”

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