The Man Who Draws The Movies

As I think we’ve seen, set design in science fiction follows particular rules and tends towards particular looks. It does not, in general, have the jury-rigged aesthetic that you’d see on actual spacecraft, or long term habitations like the ISS. Which is fair enough. No-one really wants to see high drama carried out in the sort of cramped compartments astronauts have to survive in for months at a time. No, spacecraft in Hollywood are roomy affairs, filled with high-ceilinged, dramatically lit rooms that bizarrely are connected by low, dark corridors.

I put the blame for the look of Hollywood spacecraft squarely onto one man’s shoulders. He’s been a seminal influence on fantastic (as in cinema of the…, although his work is never less than brilliant) set design since the seventies, and was pivotal in creating the look of some of the greatest films of the genre.

I’m talking about Ron Cobb, of course.

His career began at UCLA in the early seventies. Working alongside a fledgeling director by the name of John Carpenter, Ron’s first piece of design was on Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star. Although the clean lines of Star Trek were still in evidence in the ship design, the tiny bridge room he put together was a clever way of working within a budget that was not so much tight as gonad-squeezing. All three astronauts are crammed into a tiny set, but by placing them face-to-face and stacked along the frame, he allowed Carpenter to build in long dialogue takes without needing to intercut. His work on Dark Star is smart and sharp, and makes a student film look much, much more expensive.

The work for which he’s best known would come with his collaboration with Ridley Scott on Alien. Taking a cue from Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune project, Scott assembled some of the best known SF illustrators of the day for their takes on the gigantic space tug Nostromo, the alien craft they discover, and the creature they bring back with them.

Cobb interiors. The second image is from Walt Simonson's fantastic adaptation of the film. Equally influential.

Cobb’s drawings of the interior of the Nostromo were a part of my childhood. One of my most prized possessions as a boy was a book on the making of Alien. This had a wealth of pre-production drawings from the likes of Cobb, Chris Foss and of course HR Giger. I wish I could tell you what happened to that book. It somehow managed to disappear during one of the many moves my family made while I was a teenager. I was drawn especially to Cobb’s boxy, solid interiors, and used to pore over the details, obsessing for hours over how he had managed to do so much with such apparent ease.

It was thanks to him that I started to draw, filling notebooks with carefully drafted approximations of his work. He helped me figure out perspective, shading and modelling. Even now, my choice of art materials skews towards the technical. Sharpies, Rotrings and markers rather than pastels, oils and charcoal. Tie that into my enduring love of comics, and the discovery that actually I’m not a bad cartoonist, and my path has been set artistically ever since. I’m a black line boy.

Ron is still working, of course, and it’s great to see his mantle taken up by other, equally talented film designers like Nigel Phelps. But I see his influence in comics and graphic work of all hues and persuasions as well. His boxy vehicle designs are very much echoed in current production line models like the Kia Soul, the Scion and most obviously to my mind, the Nissan Cube with it’s asymmetrical wrap-around window. The modern MRI scanner owes more than a tip of the hat to his medbay drawings for the Nostromo. It seems we all live in Ron Cobb’s world now.

If only I could remember what I’d done with that Alien artbook…

(once again, a tip of the hat to John Eaves and his excellent website, from whence a lot of these images have been ganked.)


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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