Jim Bissell is a production designer, former Academy governor and longtime friend of Ron Cobb, also a production designer responsible for so many of the movie creatures and environments we know and love. Jim has worked on films like 300; Goodnight, and Good Luck; and E.T., which is where the two met. Read his tribute to Ron, who died Sept. 21, 2020, here.
Ron Cobb was a polymath who used his vast understanding of aircraft design, biology, anthropology, quantum mechanics and astrophysics to find a way to make objects that didn’t exist, or couldn’t exist, real.
He took Joseph Campbell to heart when he said that one of the purposes of myth was to inform a culture on the nature knowledge of its time. Thus, he used everything he knew and worked to make sure his designs remained engaging and entertaining, but, nonetheless, as accurate as possible with today’s technology and the technology of the foreseeable future.
Ron’s designs for the Nostromo established the visual vocabulary for spaceships in film for the next generation. The movie [exhibits] this contrast between the designs for the Nostromo, which is extraordinarily practical and basically a flying refinery, and then the alien craft that was designed by H.R. Giger, which was this creature from the subconscious that descends into a really organic kind of imagery that was very psychological. In that sense, Ron’s vision for the Nostromo represented the rational and the practical approach to solving problems, whereas the alien one was like a creature from the id.
Ron’s designs were historically relatable while still remaining epic and mythic. He makes a cameo in one of the street scenes selling “lizard on a stick.”
His design for the Starfighter, especially when it transformed into the “Death Blossom,” served as a showcase for his complex engineering talents as well as his sense of humor. The humor is in how it parodies all the stuff that you see in James Bond films. This spaceship transforms itself into this whirling explosive thing that, in its own way, does resonate psychologically with all of our feelings: When you get pushed up against the wall, you just explode and do the last thing you can to win your battle, to solve your problem. But he does it in this extraordinarily witty and very, very realistic way. Everything that happens, you see a reason for.
Also, Centauri’s (Robert Preston) car served as a precursor for Ron’s work on the DeLorean in Back to the Future. Ron became one of the first production designers of the digital age on this film.
Jim Cameron asked Ron to be the production designer, which Ron declined, opting instead to concentrate technically on the design of the sets, costumes and effects. Les Dilley, who had worked with Ron on several projects, including Alien, came on board as the production designer.
As far as the fifth film … I’d like to list several films with specific vehicles or devices that Ron designed that are really fun.
I think all of them show his extraordinarily detailed imagination, and also his range. He’s designing creatures for the Star Wars cantina sequence; he’s designing environments for Conan the Barbarian that are mythic and epic; he’s designing practical spaceships for Alien; he’s designing the Whispercraft, an ingenious and workable VTOL [vertical take-off and landing] high-speed aircraft, for The 6th Day. On Back to the Future, he was principally responsible for the look of the DeLorean. On Cats & Dogs, he designed the clever and amusing doghouse communication device. How do you have this high-tech communication device in a doghouse that dogs, who don’t have opposable digits, can operate? Well, Ron designed all the keypads so that they can swat at things and … it’s a little bit like the Death Star. You hit a button on the bottom of the doghouse, and all of a sudden this thing explodes out that’s been folded into the wall so you wouldn't notice it. It’s like very complicated origami.
He also designed the odd-looking Nazi aircraft in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and contributed to the look of many other films as a concept illustrator.