John Berkey & The Mechanical Planet

There’s no mistaking a John Berkey painting; at once realistic, yet impressionistic and abstract, it’s a style uniquely his.

It is paradoxical that he should be one of the world’s most renowned science fiction artists – his spaceships distinctly elegant, yet clearly technological and unmistakably Berkian; more inspired by luxury yachts and manta rays than NASA – when he, in his own words, “never cared much about science fiction”[1]. In spite of this, his legacy is inexorably linked with it, and while his direct contribution to Star Wars is considerably less than that of Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston and the many other artists who worked on it, it is nonetheless quite significant if almost unknown, beginning in 1975 when Lucas was first trying to get Star Wars off the ground.

[...]  George Lucas himself personally called Berkey at his home studio and commissioned him to do several paintings to be used as the visual background to try to get a movie studio interested in funding Star Wars[2].
To serve as visual reference material, Lucas purchased several pieces of space artwork from artist John Berkey, then began drafting his fantasy in earnest. One of Berkey’s illustrations — a rocket-plane diving down from space towards a gigantic metal world — seems to have especially caught and held the director’s eye. It would, in fact, be echoed in his film’s climax as squadrons of Rebel X-wing fighters attack the Imperial Death Star. [p72, 3]

Behold, the proto-Death Star, Berkey’s metal planet — the painting, seen here in its correct orientation, was often printed upside down, much like this painting of Ralph McQuarrie’s, which it undoubtedly inspired:


Though they’ve finally gotten a bit more exposure on the 2011 blu-ray release, Colin Cantwell’s models, much like the man himself, have been woefully under-documented by official sources, and so it’s difficult to say whether the models or the paintings came first — my money is on the models — but whatever the case, Berkey’s painting no doubt served as an initial guide for the Death Star’s early cluttered, distinctly metallic surface.


For a man who didn’t care for science fiction, and who indeed did much, if not most of his work outside of the genre, Berkey’s influence on Star Wars was enormous, simply by virtue of having conceptualized the Death Star, one the most powerful symbols to come out of Star Wars period. Though there’s little actual proof to back it up, it’s very likely that the initial naval-look of the Star Destroyers, as well as the off-white color scheme with the blue simple markings on the side, was based off of Berkey’s love of naval-like space craft, which often featured similar antenna-ridden conning towers on top of smooth, though mostly curved, hulls.


There are other Berkeian touches throughout the trilogy — B-wings (that name, for one), Imperial Shuttles, and of course the Mon Calamari ships — but merely in the shape of echoes, and small touches. In the end, his abstract, utopian bubble, yacht-like designs fell outside of the Star Wars aesthetic. He did however go on to do some actual work related to the movie, by illustrating the novel’s cover as well as a number of posters for the film, depicting the battle of Yavin, with several Millennium Falcon’s in the same shot, an honest mistake since he never actually saw the film. This one was a free poster shipped with the very first copies of the Star Wars soundtrack:


His influence on Star Wars might have been considerably bigger, were it not for the trouble brewing between 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios over the similarities between it and Battlestar Galactica, which ironically had state of the art special effects and equipment from the hands of John Dykstra and some of the old ILM crew, as well as art from none other than Ralph McQuarrie (and Frank Frazetta):

Unfortunately, due to a law suit related to work Berkey had done for the 1977 Battlestar Galactica T.V. series and Star Wars simultaneously, he had to legally drop out of doing any more work for either clients. The lawsuit was not directed at Berkey himself but, between the studios backing Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica over the stealing of visual ideas and conceptual similarities between the two films.[2]berkeytribute

Lucas didn’t mind imitation, but he thought “Galactica” was trying to re-create Star Wars. At his urging, Fox sued Universal for copyright infringement, an action unusual in Hollywood, where the major studios try to avoid litigation with one another. Universal [..] countersued Fox, claiming Star Wars was a ripoff of its 1972 release Silent Running, which featured three small robots named Huey, Dewey and Louie. [4]skywalking

After it was all said and done, John had still produced several paintings that currently now sit in the Lucasfilm archives. The most widely used images he did for Lucas were what would become the book cover for the 1977 Star Wars novelization. More recently in 2006 when Lucasfilm re -released the original trilogy on DVD, Berkey’s paintings we’re again used on all the insert chapter listings.[2]berkeytribute


John Berkey went on to work on other movies, including King Kong (1976), The Towering Inferno, and Orca, but the ongoing relationship with Lucas didn’t remain problem free:

“George Lucas called me at 4:00 one morning, from a hospital in England,” he reminisces. “He’d been working on a film in North Africa[^northafrica] and had kind of cracked up, ’cause he was such a perfectionist. It took some effort to make sense out of what he was saying. I caught right away that he was suing Dino DeLaurentis and me for a million and a half dollars. He thought the poster for Jaws looked too much like the one for Orca. I figured selling the three lawnmowers I had at the time might help a little. But when the case went to trial, the judge threw it out immediately.”[^stolenposter] [1]spacecase

Orca was released in 1977, so it figures that the film Lucas was working on at the time was probably Star Wars, which filmed on location in Tunisia, and at various studios in England, and during which Lucas fell ill from stress and exhaustion. It’s unclear why Lucas would call Berkey on behalf of Spielberg and Universal, perhaps it was simply as a courtesy? Whatever the case, Orca as a film, the poster image indeed doesn’t have much in common with Jaws at all.

In a bizarre twist, after the trial the original Orca painting was stolen from the courthouse, and never again seen[5]artoftheposter

During a round of interviews for the John Berkey Observed exhibit in 2005, Berkey professed that he had “yet to see Star Wars. I suppose I should see it one of these days.”[1]spacecase.

He died in 2008, age 75.