A spontaneous enthusiasm, eruption of unvoiced nerd-love that has been simmering in my soul since I was twelve or thirteen, prompts this quick reflection on Ron Cobb. As an artist, Cobb contributed plentifully to how I understood and visualized the science fiction with which I grew up; as a concept artist specifically his drawings and paintings played a generative role in films like Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) — movies we now recognize as classics in part because of their rich, world-creating visual design.
To judge from the catalog of his work featured in Colorvision (1981), Cobb’s influence on the production of these films appears to have been both piecemeal and foundational: a handful of his bizarre creatures populate the Mos Eisley cantina, and his designs for Alien were limited to the interior and exterior of the Nostromo, with H. R. Giger’s biomechanics providing the movie’s black and glistening core. But in another way, Cobb’s work reflects an animating spirit of cinematic science fiction in the 1970s, which increasingly in the wake of Star Trek (1966-1969) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) demanded an engineer’s and architect’s eye to lend their futuristic worlds the fascination of function.
I’ve been studying concept artists like Cobb — Brian Froud is a cognate, as are Syd Mead and in a previous age Chesley Bonestell — as part of a broader research project on illustration. I hope to have more to say about this shortly, but for now I will simply note the archeological pleasure of paging through Cobb’s designs (like the one above, “Tug,” an early version of Alien‘s Nostromo) to find, not the final object as recorded on film, but — like the panda’s thumb — an evolutionary step toward it. The special property of cinematic concept art is not just that it exists prior to the film we later come to know, but that it serves as a “draft,” freezing for our later study a dialogue among director, crew, consultants as they move toward consensus. Cobb’s visualization does not just visualize an artifact of production; it is such an artifact, and as such it offers us, alongside the creation of a beloved film, the genesis of our own imaginary.
More on Cobb and the Nostromo here.