Where Wookies come from

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A heavily sourced essay about the origins of Chewbacca? Yes, please.

Chewbacca didn't spring fully formed from George Lucas' head, writes Michael Heilemann. Instead, Chewie's essential Chewiness is built up from a mish-mash of ideas and references, apparently starting with one, Ralph Wookie, a Texan friend of Terry McGovern, a voice actor who worked on Lucas' 1970 film THX 1138.

Chewie went through several visual iterations, and the final inspiration for what we know today as the Chewbacca Look seems to have been copied from an illustration of a George R.R. Martin story. The key change: Ralph McQuarrie removed the breasts.

Ralph McQuarrie: "George also gave me a drawing he liked from a 1930s illustrator of science fiction that showed a big, apelike, furry beast with a row of female breasts down its chest. So I took the breasts off and added a bandolier and ammunition and weapons, and changed its face so it looked somewhat more like the final character, and I left it at that."

As is obvious from the following side-by-side comparison, the illustration McQuarrie is referring to wasn't decades old, but months, being none other than this one by Dune legend John Schoenherr, from the July 1975 issue of Analog.

The point of this essay, though, is not an expose, but rather an in-depth look at how creation works. Bits and pieces come together to form a whole. New ideas have always had inspiration in other people's ideas, which had inspiration in others'. It looks like Chewbacca wouldn't have existed as we know him without John Schoenherr's unintentional contribution to the process, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Personally, I think this visual inspiration gets a little close for comfort, but it's also not like the entire concept of Chewbacca was ripped off. Instead, I think this is a good example of why there needs to be some kind of distinction between using ideas to inform and create new ideas, and simple cut-paste plagiarism. Where to make that distinction is an issue I struggle with a lot, though, and I don't have a solid opinion yet. But it's clear there's a lot more gray area in there then people—including myself—are often willing to admit.

Binary Bonsai: George Lucas Stole Chewbacca, But It's OK

Via Matt Soniak

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  1. Interesting how Chewie’s final weapon ended up looking like the non-Star Wars sketch rather than the McQuarrie sketch.

  2. Wow! This is perfect morning coffee reading. Thanks!
    I had originally thought that Chewbacca was probably inspired by all of the popularity Bigfoot was enjoying in the early seventies. Neat to have an opportunity to look a little more closely.

  3. I always admired Chewie for his efforts to bring nudism into the mainstream. I guess Jabba the Hutt never wore pants either but I don’t know if that counts since he had neither legs nor external genitalia.

  4. If you go to any theatre or film production, you will find a wall in the design studio filled with art clipped from books, magazines, the internet, or any other place an idea might be found. This inspires the designers to create new work or recreate historical periods. Everything is inspired by or based on some other work of art. To think that all art is created in a vacuum is ridiculous. Art is cannibalized left and right, which is the big reason copyright runs counter to creativity. People don’t realize that culture isn’t just something artists create, it’s also something that artists create with. Copyright’s great if you think of art as just a product to sell, but not so great if you think of culture as a form of communication. It’s about sharing ideas.

    And Star Wars had some incredible design work.

    1. Spot on, Anon. I’d also like to add that the tools people use will also dictate design similarities. Pencil drawings by two people might differ widely where images created in adobe illustrator might not.

  5. I think we should all be grateful George Lucas didn’t add the breasts (with rings!!) back in a decade or more after the movie was complete.

  6. removing the boobs = good call. like Matt (#2 above), i always thought chewie came from the popularity of bigfoot. i remember being a kid in colorado in 1976, staying in my grandmother’s cabin up in the rockies, absolutely convinced there were sasquatch outside, somewhere, just out of light’s reach from the window. but chewie never ever scared me.

  7. I always thought the inspiration for Chewbacca came from Bigfoot, and somebody’s Golden Retriever…

    1. For years, I always thought the same: that Chewie was an otherworldly Bigfoot. But then, of course I’d think that.

  8. As I watched the original Star Wars back in 1977, my initial thought was, “Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t the Wookie just a reimagined Kzin, and the light saber a variation on the stasis field sword?” Even the Death Star reminded me of Ringworld.

    1. The technology used to produce the effects.
      And I stole all of these words from a dictionary which was printed long before I was born.

    2. “Star Wars” was never meant to be totally original, it was meant as a reimagining of the old sci-fi serials like “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers.” That’s why Lucas wanted to start with “Episode IV,” so viewers would feel like they were being thrown into the middle of an ongoing series.

      1. Yeah, that’s what he sez now. But it wasn’t “Episode IV” until the 1980 re-release, was it?

        I always get the impression that Lucas enjoys revising history a bit too much.

        1. That’s why I wrote “Lucas wanted to start with ‘Episode IV.'” The official story is that the studio nixed that idea during the initial release so audiences wouldn’t be confused, and I find that explanation quite plausible.

          1. I disbelieve. According to the Annotated Screenplays, the first time Lucas utilized an episodic number was in the second draft of Empire, after Leigh Brackett died upon completion of her first draft. And this second draft is numbered “Episode II.”

            While nosing around, I found reference to a letter that Lucas is said to have written to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse upon the completion of Lost. In part, it reads: “Congratulations on pulling off an amazing show. Don’t tell anyone … but when ‘Star Wars’ first came out, I didn’t know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you’ve planned the whole thing out in advance. Throw in some father issues and references to other stories — let’s call them homages — and you’ve got a series..”

            Don’t know if that’s real or just a gag, but it certainly rings true to me. Lucasfilm’s “official story” has been suspect all along, IMHO.

            Certainly Lucas knew he had a backstory that could comprise prequels, and these days he claims it was meant to be three trilogies all along. I distinctly remember reading as a kid that “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” was meant to be twelve stories, but Jesus that was over 30 years ago. Though his sequel rights were in place, I don’t think he thought in 1976-77 that he’d get a chance to make more than one modestly-budgeted Flash Gordon homage.

            But what do I know? I wasn’t there when he created these things, but the inconsistencies over the years have always bugged me, especially when it came to the prequels. If Lucas ever tried to insist that C-3PO was always intended to be a droid handbuilt out of spare parts by a youthful Darth Vader, rather than an off-the-shelf protocol droid whose warranty has just expired, I’d accuse him of arrant fullashitness.

          2. Oh, I don’t believe for a second that he wanted to call it “Episode IV” because he was planning that prequel trilogy all along, but I do believe that he put “Episode IV” in the opening crawl to create the feeling of picking up the story in the middle of an old sci-fi serial. Exactly when he decided to do that doesn’t really matter.

          3. Actually the first time Lucas used an episodic number was in the second draft: The Adventures of The Starkiller (episode one), The Star Wars. That’s dated January 28, 1975 (Annotated Screenplays, p. 3), though perhaps what you meant was that Lucas didn’t see A New Hope as the middle of a series. That’s probably true when it came out, though he had for a long time seen it as the beginning of one, and certainly had notes on ‘the adventures of young obi-wan’.

            People don’t give Lucas enough credit for just how faithful he’s been to his original ideas and notes. They may not like the execution of those ideas, but at least give him credit for that much.

            Byt the way, I can’t recommend Michael Kasinski’s The Secret History of Star Wars (http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/) enough; it talks extensively about exactly this kind of stuff.

  9. i can’t believe none of you guys aren’t blown away by this.. since i was a kid, i’ve been blown away by mcquarrie’s design genius, and to see that he just flat out copied that sketch is really disappointing. this is the geek equivalent of finding out that sammy sosa took steroids!

    1. Did you read the quoted bit above? Or the article that it’s from? McQuarrie got the picture from Lucas, who told him that it was from the 1930s (which, at the time, could possible have meant that it was in the public domain). You really should read the article, since it shows McQuarrie’s original idea for Wookiees, which is quite different from what ended up on the screen.

      1. There is no evidence that Lucas told McQuarrie it was from the 1930’s. McQuarrie never says that, here merely says that they had an illustration from the 30’s.

  10. Legally, who cares where the ideas came from. In other words, I don’t see any lines worth drawing if you’re trying to figure out “who to prosecute” and “who to leave alone.” Even the most original ideas we can think of have their roots in previous ideas. The concept of “owning” an idea is moronic.

    Aesthetically, it’s a total rip-off. I thought George had a little more imagination than that. Obviously, the character’s personality is another layer that we can’t separate, and ultimately that’s why we love Chewbacca so much- the character, not the visual teddy bear / bigfoot silliness. But man, George gets an “L” for LAME in the creative visuals department.

    But I’m sure that’s all very obvious.

  11. >The point of this essay, though, is not an expose

    I think we need to re-spell the word “exposeh” for all us newbs who can’t be bothered to find the proper e-with-graveh character on our annoyingly amerocentric keyboards.

    like, cafeh, eh?

    (ALT-187 on an undercover cedilla!)

    1. Lack of a regulatory body (along with being the de facto language of a succession of colonial superpowers) has always been the English language’s strongest feature. So long as both you and I understand what the other is trying to say, then whatever our usage is, that is the correct usage. Aside from perhaps considering some titillating puns, no one is at all confused about Maggie’s lack of accented Es, which means her spelling is entirely justified and correct.

      In fact, if you truly wish to uphold the racial purity of English grammar, I would look to your own post before pointing fingers. You’re using a manner of quotation, derived from SMTP protocol, which would have horrified grammarians as little as twenty years ago. Strunk and White are rolling in their graves right now. There’s no attribution, no proper bracketing, it’s not even italicized. You’re relying on context to identify the quotation’s source, like this is some kind of street slang. For shame, sir.

  12. The proper answer to ‘Where Wookies come from’ starts like this

    “When a father Wookie loves a mother Wookie very much…”

    Glad to see John Schoenherr getting the love, after all these years. Makes my investment in his art all those years ago start to pay off now.

  13. Anyway, I’m ashamed of all you nerds. Not one of you has yet bothered to correct the spelling of “Wookiees.”

  14. OK. This is interesting.

    I have two copies of the first edition of the Star Wars novelization. It was printed in early 1977, and was on book racks before the trailer started running. Purple cover, big Darth Vader helmet looming over little painted representations of the heroes.

    In fact, I saw it on the book rack in Sun Drug, looked at the blurb, and thought “Eh!” It looked like just another piece of Ballantine Books quicky trash.

    Then, a few weeks later, I saw THE TRAILER. Which, to a young SF fan, was like an espresso and crack enema.

    I bought the book on the way home from the theater.

    I mention this because the wookie on the cover looks a LOT like the McQuarrie concept. I wonder if it was painted from concept art rather than the movie.

    1. The cover for the novelization was done from late july to early/mid-august (Making of Star Wars, p218). Which is funny, because all the characters looks like McQuarries own work, rather than the costumes, which by this point would have been done and even filmed.

  15. Funny thought occurred to me the other day. What if Chewbacca was a long hair/hippie and most Wookies kept their hair short, shaved, or buzz cut.

    1. Funny thought occurred to me the other day. What if Chewbacca was a long hair/hippie and most Wookies kept their hair short, shaved, or buzz cut.

      Even better: what if the gang took a trip to Kashyyyk and realized that Chewbacca was the only Wookiee who wasn’t wearing pants?

      1. “I apologize for my earlier mistranslation, Captain Solo. It appears that what he actually said was, ‘Let the little Wookiee waggle in the wind.'”

          1. Or so he thought. And yet he never asked about the pants?

            Some Wookiee wants to plop his bare dingleberried tuchis down on my cockpit upholstery, I’d at least demand he utilize a towel or *some* kind of ass-gasket.

    2. Anon # 28: Actually, that was the preferred style of the Chewbacca’s parent’s (and grand-parent’s) generation(s).

      Styles change.
      Fashion changes.

  16. Also, the underside and legs of the imperial walker are from a design by Syd Mead, and the Jawa sand crawler is from a Japanese comic book. Comment #4 has it right.

  17. I wonder if Mr. Lucas “legally” cares where ideas come from or if he was just in it to “share” his ideas. Just take the Wookie, give him a minor tweak and put him in your next money making piece of media. I’m sure Mr. Lucas and his lawyers can draw lines on “who to prosecute.”

    Most people expect compensation for their “work”, as I am sure you would expect to be. Was McQuarrie compensated for his work? Was Lucas for his little indy arthouse trilogy? Having personally known Shoenherr, and having seen the originals of his work, I know that he certainly never was.

    Lastly, you don’t need to take my word that Lucas is exploitive, ask Chewy himself. He pilots the ship that is pivotal in saving the princess and defeating the empire and he does not even get a damn medal at the end of the movie. Really? I guess he was like George’s dog after all.

  18. I’m sure Lucas would be fine with someone using something as close to Chewy as Chewy is to the Shoenherr beast. I mean from what I know of Lucas he’s very generous with his IP.

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