Ron Cobb, a pioneering production designer who worked on films like Alien and Back to the Future, died on Sept. 21. He created a blueprint for so many of the onscreen sci-fi creations we know today. Here, James Bissell honors his friend and colleague.
Ron was such an enthusiastic character. He was a polymath who just studied everything: the sciences, anthropology, sociology. Steven [Spielberg] met Ron through John Milius and hired him to design the interiors of the alien spacecraft for Close Encounter: Special Edition. And he asked Ron to direct this movie that he was developing called Night Skies. John Sayles was writing the script, Rick Baker was designing creatures, and Ron was going to actually guide the process and direct it.
The story, as I understood it, was that Steven went off to do Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then during long nights in Tunisia, he, Melissa Mathison and Harrison Ford sat around and riffed on the idea that maybe, instead of making a horror movie out of it, it would be nice to have a children’s movie. Melissa pitched this whole idea of the E.T. that we know. When Steven came back from Tunisia, he decided that he was going to take over the project and make it into a kids’ movie. So Ron Cobb was the original director for E.T.! There was no animosity. He went off to be the production designer on Conan the Barbarian.
When he came back from designing Conan in Spain, he dropped by the set of E.T. (I was the production designer on the film) and when he said hi to Steven, Steven said, “Well, you should go by and introduce yourself to the production designer,” and he came by the art department and introduced himself. That’s how I came to know him. We became friends right off the bat. I just loved him.
He started working for Digital Productions, John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos’ company, where they were doing photo-realistic renderings. They were trying to hawk it all through Hollywood at this point, I think this was ’83. And they finally sold this project to Lorimar called The Last Starfighter. They hired me as the production designer. I was really keen to do it because Ron had been telling me all about this new digital dawn. So I started working on the movie, and then realized that he’d done so much advance work on the alien environments and everything else that a lot of my designs would have to be based on his designs.
I said, “Tell you what, why don’t you be the production designer and I’ll be an art director and I’ll handle all the live-action stuff? I can pick the locations for the trailer park and design all the interactive things that tied into the digital stuff.” We were really groping around in the dark. We had no idea what this stuff was actually going to look like because they were writing all the code while we were making the movie. But we had a really good time. Ron and I had lunch together almost every day, and we talked about everything except movies. And then we would work our little butts off doing the movie, and that cemented our relationship.
Ron was interested in so many things. He was interested in justice, in humanity, but he had this extraordinary gift for practical engineering. He could do pencil sketches on grid paper that could show you what a spaceship looked like. I brought him onboard The 6th Day to design the Whispercraft, which was this thing that was both a helicopter and a jet aircraft. He designed something that was so practical, I’m surprised they never made it.
He used to draw when he was a kid. He went to Burbank High School and he graduated and got drafted into the army and he served in Vietnam. He came back and he worked for Disney Studios for a little while, and at that point, he started developing his political sense. That was during the turbulent ’60s, so he did Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine covers, he did an album cover [for Jefferson Airplane]. Then he started doing this political stand-up and touring with Phil Ochs, and that’s, incidentally, how he met his wife, because she was the head of the Australian Union of Students and they hired Phil and Ron to come down and go to campuses and do their bit.
During the ’60s, there was an underground newspaper called the L.A. Free Press, and he did political cartooning for them. These are incredibly intricate, wildly imaginative drawings and he had one called “Earthquake.” It’s this very satirical look at Los Angeles crumbling into the ocean with a big earthquake. I had that poster on my wall when I went to college at the University of North Carolina, and I loved that thing. It took me a long time after I met him to realize that was the guy who did the poster I had on my wall in college.
Ron never went to college, but he was always reading, he was always curious. One thing always led to another, and he was just wildly enthusiastic about all the things that were being discovered. He just liked staying on top of it all. If I needed to know something about quantum mechanics, if there was something I didn’t understand about subatomic particles, I’d call Ron and he would tell me.
Ron would examine a design problem and he would find a practical engineering solution to it that resonated with technologies that we all know, and then he would incorporate that so that the environments that he created, you could look at them and see how everything functioned in that environment, and it made perfect sense.
What Ron did was he opened the door to me to just all sorts of new authors and perspectives on life. He turned me onto the Harvard scientist and entomologist E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, David Wright. He also turned me onto this really wonderful book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He was really interested in how the brain worked, why we are the way that we are. It was such an important part of his overall philosophy and approach to design—all the stories are basically the same, it’s just in the retelling of the stories that we constantly keep folding in what we now know.
He taught me that design was not just about using great colors and delineating volumes. It was about really understanding the world that he lived in and using that world that we knew as a context for the stories we were telling.
I think the real lesson is: Look at the world around you. Use the world as it exists as the context for your stories. It goes right back to truth and beauty. The truth part is the hard part, sometimes, because it just means you have to stay current on all the stuff that’s going on. The beauty part is finding the beauty in what we’re discovering about the world that we live in. And that’s something that Ron would always do.
It’s about that love and passion for life itself. That means really being able to look at it on its own terms, not on some sort of idealized terms. I think that’s why he never liked working at Disney. He was pretty pragmatic about, well, “This is pretty ugly, but it’s the way things are.”
I wrestled with this on the last movie I worked on [The Midnight Sky] because it involves spaceships, and the director, the brilliant George Clooney, said, “I want it to look like a spaceship that we haven’t seen before.” Now, that meant designing a spaceship that didn’t look like a Ron Cobb spaceship, because Ron Cobb, in Alien, basically set the visual language for spaceships for the next 40, 50 years. If you look at Ron’s designs—first the one he did for John Carpenter’s Dark Star and then the designs he did for Alien, specifically the Nostromo—you can see how he influenced the way spaceships looked for decades to come, because they’re all practically engineered and he understood the forces of space.
The only thing he never addressed—which nobody wanted to address because it was just too difficult—was the whole notion of artificial gravity. It’s like, “Well, why are these people walking around like they’re on Earth?” The only real substitute for artificial gravity is centrifugal force, so I keyed off of that. Then, I went into things that didn’t exist when he was designing spaceships, like inflatable habitats and this whole new aesthetic, which is called topological optimization. You basically give an engineering problem to a superpowerful computer, and it designs it in a way where you get exactly what you need to solve the basic engineering. What you wind up with is stuff that’s very much more like Gaudí in space than a warehouse in space.
That was the direction I went, and it was funny—the whole time I’m doing it, I’m going, “Thank you, Ron, for doing the other work and for doing it so well that it’s become overused.” I was working on this spaceship, and every time I would give a young designer a problem, they would come up with something that looked like Ron’s work. And I’d say, “As much as I love this, you know who Ron Cobb is?” And they would go, “No, who is he?” They had no idea because all the stuff is perpetuating itself because it was so practical and so logical. And it was interesting how it became the standard. Nobody even knew that it was all his stuff.