The real, incredibly mundane reason Darth Vader wears a mask

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Darth Vader is one of the coolest—and coolest-looking—characters in science fiction, yet much of his appearance was the result of nothing more than practicality. At least that's how Ralph McQuarrie, the legendary conceptual designer of George Lucas' original Star Wars films, remembers the evolution of the Sith's darkest Dark Lord.

"Darth Vader evolved out of numerous design concepts and discussions with George," McQuarrie said in an exclusive e-mail interview. "He was described in the script as leaping aboard the starship through a hole in the hull, wearing flowing black robes. The first thing I thought was, 'Shouldn't he have some sort of breathing apparatus if he's entering the vacuum of space?' I asked George and he said, 'Fine, give him a breath mask.'"

"It was then decided to give him a samurai helmet, and as I continued to work on the concept it evolved into a close approximation of what you see on screen," McQuarrie continued. "Later on, the storyline was developed to explain the mask and such, but at the time it was a purely practical reason that it was introduced."

Now 80 years old, McQuarrie, who also worked on E.T. and won an Oscar for his contributions to Cocoon, retired long before computer-rendered art came into play. The images in Stars Wars: The Clone Wars—season one was released earlier this month on DVD by Warner Home Video, and season two is currently airing on Cartoon Network—are all realized digitally, with many designed to echo McQuarrie's original concepts. McQuarrie said that he does not dislike the new technology, so long as it does not supplant creativity.

"As a tool, I think they can help the artist do amazing things," he wrote. "However, it's just another tool. It does not replace the skill or technique required to design, compose and execute an illustration. When I used to go to conventions and meet young artists, all too often I would see beautiful renderings of Star Wars imagery, or other existing characters and concepts. The advice I always tried to give was to show imagination in their work, come up with their own ideas and designs."

He added, "While there will always be work for artists capable of rendering other people's properties, for those interested in doing conceptual design, being able to see the evolutionary creative process is oftentimes more important than seeing a fully rendered illustration."