Alien: Ron Cobb's design philosophy

leading from
Alien: The Nostromo

Dan O'Bannon with Ron Cobb

a) Cobb the Frustrated engineer
As a concept designer, Ron Cobb imagined himself to be a frustrated engineer. He had lots of opinions about how certain problems could be solved using present technology or even speculating about near future technology. So when he worked on a film, he liked to take this challenge, pushing to do something interesting but with believable speculations and so design a spacecraft as though it were absolutely real, right down to the fuel tolerances, the centers of gravity, the ways the engine should function, radiation shielding and so on, and after that he would reshape the whole idea into something that would be appropriate for the film.

b) Working on the Nostromo
He was very concerned with how Nostromo might really look and how it would function while he knew that Ridley was just concerned with creating a fantastic ship, and when we are talking about the Nostromo, we are also talking about the tug in combination with its refinery in tow which in some versions of the idea was also part of the same ship. Ron understood that Ridley liked the idea of the ship being a cross between a tramp steamer and a cathedral. Ron tried to reflect this in drawings but also sneak in some little suggestions about how a ship might really work.  On the other hand, the idea of having the ship look like a gothic castle became part of the conversation to the extent that Ridley wanted the refinery towers to look like something out of Disneyland and this annoyed Ron who even thought that the idea of it being like a castle was a bit too much

The design team was being pressured a lot to bend technology to have a somewhat similar look to Star Wars, sort of half believable, but rather highly stylized - or perhaps would be romanticized. The interior of the ship looked like a deco dance hall, or a World War II bomber, and a genuine projection of what a space ship of the future might look like - or a combination of all of them.

Creating a realistic space ship was important to Ron because he found that the more realism he put into something, the more original it would look and the sense of realism would suck the audience in. A lot of time, there isn't the chance to do this and instead the work would be about recycling a lot of silly props from every idiotic movie that's ever been made. He did as much as he could and would make sketches of the interiors as seen from the outside.

Ron Cobb's yellow Nostromo

c) Coming to design inside and outside
He wasn't supposed to be designing both since at first Chris Foss was supposed to be designing the exterior of the human's ship , and this was frustrating to him because because he always designed from the skin in. One of the things he would always do is want the interior to appear to fit the exterior and eventually there was a kind of a compromise made. And soon it turned out that Chris Foss would leave and Ron would design the Nostromo. In the art department, they covered the walls with drawings, and slowly but surely, Alien emerged.

d) Concerns for realism
With the Nostromo, he went as far as to wanted a contrast smooth underside for a heat shield on the underside of the vehicle and the details on the upper part but the modeling team had to go a different direction and cover the whole things with details creating surface breakup with wiggeting to make the model more interesting.

There's a certain awkwardness of the naturalistic portrayal of the space flight, partly because most of the people involved in this film had never made one like it before. They didn't understand what they were getting into, and were put off by concepts like no sound in space, and all the gravitational effects. They didn't want to be bothered, so it's all just virtually forgotten about.

The design team were being pressured to bend technology to have a somewhat similar look to Star Wars, a style that was almost half believable, rather highly stylized and perhaps would be romanticized. Ron thought that the interior of the ship resembled perhaps a 1920s Art Deco Dancehall or even a World War 2 bomber, mixed with a genuine projection of what a space ship of the future might look like - or even a combination of all of them.

e) Ship on the backstage
Ron felt that such a thing as a space craft in the movie should take the back stage of the film, he wasn't happy about a movie that should rely entirely on their visual effects in the way that scifi movies are notorious for. A lot of effort should be expended toward rendering the environment of the spaceship or space travel, whatever the fantastic setting of the story should be, as convincing as possible but always in the background. If it were a film dealing with a story set on an ocean liner, one might expect bits of footage to explain what the ship was liked docked or at sea but it should remain in the background of the story and that would be the same with science fiction.

f) The carrying out of Ron Cobb's ideas
The look of the film kept evolving as it went along. Ron would have liked to have stuck to a particular style or approach but there were a lot of other people involved who kept changing their minds, so the ship went through many phases of design. On the whole, Ron was pretty happy with the way his ideas were eventually realised, it was fascinating for him to watch the process all the way through, even some of the set dressings. He was pleased with the things that he had a fair amount of control over, but the things that he didn't personally oversee were a little disappointing for him.

However there were always surprising contributions from draftsmen and other people who would occasionally design a set that would turn out very very well. It was a mixed bag of many styles and many approaches.

A key thing to note about the film was how everything , including in the production evolved and grew as it went along, often in unexpected ways.

Quote sources
  1. Ron Cobb: I resent films that are so shallow they rely entirely on their visual effects, and of course science fiction films are notorious for this. I've always felt that there's another way to do it; a lot of effort should be expended toward rendering the environment of the spaceship, or space travel, whatever the fantastic setting of your story should be - as convincing as possible, but always in the background. That way the story and the characters emerge, and they become more real. If you were to set a story on an ocean liner, there would be bits of footage to explain what the ship was like docked or at sea, but it would remain in the background of the story. It should be the same with science fiction. (Book of Alien by Scanlon and Gross)
  2. Ron Cobb: I'm sort of a  frustrated engineer because I have lots of opinions about how certain problems could be solved using present technology or even speculating about near-future technology. So in working on a film I like to take this challenge and design a spaceship as though it was absolutely real, right down to the fuel tolerances, the centers of gravity, the way the engines function, radiation shielding, whatever.  And after I do that, I like to deal with how I can take this idea and hammer, bend and twist it into something that will be appropriate to the film. (Book of Alien by Scanlon and Gross)
  3. Bill Pearson: When I met Ron, he was very adamant that they were very realistic. He wanted a heat shield on the underside of the Nostromo lander. He wanted a contrast between the smooth underside of the heat shield and the detailed upper surface. However this was not to be. Our instructions was to encrust the whole craft. When it came down, we weren't seeing a craft come through an atmosphere; there was no re-entry. Ron was concerned that it should be there if that type of action was present. Ron is very much into the believability of things. He created wonderful background histories about his designs.(Sci-Fi & Fantasy FX  #48, p27)
  4. Spiky Bits: The original Ron Cobb pictures were very streamlined. Cobb had wanted the ship to look 100% feasible, with very smooth underside, like heat shields of NASA technology, but director Ridley Scott insisted on a lot of surface break-up to make the model interesting. He was shooting a horror film, after all. (SFX#6, p34)
  5. Ron Cobb: I had a design for that, but it was a deep space design and they couldn't understand it. It was crazy. The lander is semi-streamlined because it has to land on planets with atmospheres, but even there I couldn't make the distinction between a deep-space ship, and a reentry shell. I had to give up being terribly accurate so the section of the ship that detaches and lands is semi streamlined, but it has got the deep space look that everybody seems to like. It looks a bit like Galactica - it's textured a bit like it. (Fantastic Films, July 1979 p30)
  6. Ron Cobb: The only thing I could do to save it was that I drew the bottom of the shop as a re-entry shield and the top is sort of deep space so that it could come in belly-first. The top would be in a vacuum so it wouldn't have to be too streamlined. I haven't actually seen the model of it. (Fantastic Films, July 1979 p30)
  7. Ron Cobb: So it's pretty much right off my drawings. But the platform behind: I had an idea I thought would have been a lot of fun, big cargo modules with no gravity orientation to them. It was a line of a thrust orientation and they couldn't understand that. They wanted gravity a orientated look because the lander part does - it's got a bottom and a top.
    Fantastic Film: I can see the problems you must have had in relating those concepts to people who had neither exposure to science nor SF. (
    Fantastic Films, July 1979 p30)
  8. Ron Cobb: I was always pushing to do some interesting but believable speculations about how such a ship might might really look and how it would function. And Ridley, of course, he was interested in just producing a fantastic ship. I think he liked the idea of it being a cross between a tramp steamer and a cathedral. And so I was trying to reflect that, but also sneak in some little suggestions about how such a ship might really work. So the idea of a very realistic ship, a very believable spaceship design, was important to me because I thought it would suck the audience in. And I did as much of that as i could, I was always making a little sketch of how these interiors would look from the outside. So I was designing both. I wasn't supposed to be, but I was designing inside and out. (Alien The Archive, p32)
  9. Ron Cobb: This was frustrating to me because I always design from the skin in. One of the things I would always do is want the interior to appear to fit the exterior and eventually there was a kind of a compromise made.  (Alien The Archive, p14)
  10. Ron Cobb: I've always done future designs as though they're real, and I've found the more realism you put into it, the more original they look, and most of the time you don't do that you're just recycling a lot of silly props from every idiotic movie that's ever been made. We just covered the walls with drawings and, slowly but surely, Alien emerged. (Alien The Archive, p16)
  11. Ron Cobb: They pressured us a lot to bend technology to have a somewhat similar look to Star Wars, sort of half believable, but rather highly stylized - or perhaps would be romanticized. The interior of the ship looked like a deco dance hall, or a World War II bomber, and a genuine projection of what a space ship of the future might look like - or a combination of all of them. (Mediascene #35, p18)
  12. Ron Cobb: There's a certain awkwardness of the naturalistic portrayal of the space flight, partly because most of the people involved in this film had never made one like it before. They didn't understand what they were getting into, and were put off by concepts like no sound in space, and all the gravitational effects. They didn't want to be bothered, so it's all just kind of forgotten about.(Mediascene #35, p18)
  13. Ron Cobb: On the other hand, I wanted the ship to look like a gothic castle, but resisted that approach - it might have been a bit too much. (Mediascene #35, p18)
  14. Ron Cobb: We wanted to evoke a very, very scary place, almost like a Gothic castle (The Alien Legacy documentary )
  15. Ron Cobb: On the whole, I'm pretty happy with the way my ideas were eventually realized. It was fascinating to watch the process all the way through, even some of the set dressings. I was pleased with things I had a fair amount of control over, but those I didn't oversee were a little disappointing. (Mediascene #35, p18)
  16. Ron Cobb: Then there was always surprising contributions from draftsmen and other people who would occasionally design a set that would turn out very, very well. It was a mixed bag of many styles and many approaches. (Mediascene #35, p18)
  17.  Ron Cobb:The look of the film kept evolving as it went along. I would like to have stuck to a particular style or approach, but there were a lot of other people involved who kept changing their minds, so the ship went through many phases of design. Almost everything, including the acting, evolved, and grew as it went along. (Mediascene #35, p18-19)
  18. ii.) Ron Cobb : The design of the ship went through so many changes. Gordon could never make up his mind as to which design he wanted. We did hundreds of designs. Chris and I.  Finally out of desperation, when I was the only person left in London they asked me to do yet another exterior design  for the ship. I did one and Ridley and Gordon wanted this and that changed a little bit. I kept on persisting on a certain design for the lander part of the ship, the part of the ship you see most of all.  
    The other part of the ship is this vast platform which seems to be pulling along behind the lander, like a big oil refinery or something.

    I had a design for that, but it was a deep space design and they couldn't understand it, it was crazy. The lander is semi-streamlined because it has to land on planets with atmosphere, but even there I couldn't make the distinction between a deep-space ship and a reentry shell. I had to give up being terribly accurate so the section of the ship that detaches and lands is semi-streamlined., but has also got the deep space look that everybody seems to like. It looks a bit like the Galactica, it's textured a little bit like that.

    The only thing I could do to save it was that I drew the bottom of the ship as a reentry shield and the top is sort of deep space so that it could come in belly first. The top would be in a vacuum so it wouldn't  have to be too streamlined. I haven't seen the final model of it.

    I did these drawings, then Brian Johnson came in and he was going to build a model. He made up their minds for them. He just took my drawings and went right out to Bray Studios and built it. So it's pretty much off my drawings. But the platform behind: I had an idea I thought would have been a lot of fun, big cargo modules with no gravity orientation to them. It was a line of a thrust orientation and they couldn't understand that. They wanted a gravity orientated look because the lander part does - it's got a bottom and a top.

    Fantastic Films: I can see the problems you must have had in relating those concepts to people who had neither exposure to science or SF.

    Ron Cobb: I was intrigued by the idea of just getting things by them. I said to myself, "If I could come up with a really clever design for a big cargo ship that, in the design itself people could recognise how it works, it would really be nice to get it by the producer."

    I would sneakily insist on working all the details out , how the platform worked, why it was there and why it was attached to the other ship in the way it was.

    They couldn't understand it. In this case even Ridley couldn't understand it. He insisted on a kind of Disneyland thing, fantasy towers, which really annoyed me. As a last ditch effort I tried to redesign the towers to make them look like they actually did something. I don't know if it got done.  They became giant trash compactors almost, for compacting ore they were hauling. 

    I think that Brian Johnson will probably save the day.  He'll make them look very good 'cause it's not even explained. I'm afraid the tower, the big section behind the ship will look kind of like a castle.
    (Fantastic Films, July 1979, p30-34)

2 comments:

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