Alien: The Art Rooms of LA

Leading from 
Pre-Production

Dan O'Bannon and Ron Cobb
 (Taken from Alien Legacy Documentary)
a) Bringing the artists together
Dan O'Bannon was put in change of doing preliminary designs before Ridley was hired for the picture.

Dan managed to get Fox to hire Rob Cobb, a friend of his who was an artist local to LA, and to fly in Chris Foss from England who Dan had met on Dune, and Chris had been invited back in the autumn of 1976.

Dan was using the same technique that Alejandro Jodorowsky was using on the Dune project, he set them up in the same room together, at one point an old rehearsal hall above one of the old stages above Fox lot for months and months and months and sat with them, then wash rooms and even an un-airconditioned shed over the carpenter's studio, but Chris and Ron were having so much fun that it didn't matter.

Dan's idea was the idea that they would stimulate each other creatively by being together and they did. In Rob Cobb's word, he was a "frustrated production designer".

He had a very strong idea of what the picture should look like and with his hovering over the shoulders of Foss and Cobb, they started exploring the look of the picture and they would
turn out wonderful designs that impressed Dan very much.

Dan O'Bannon in front of Ron Cobb's paintings
 (Roncobb.net)


b) The Genius of Foss
Creating spacecraft exteriors came easily to Foss.

His mind and imagination seemed to embody the entire history of the industrial revolution.

He could conjure up endless spacecraft designs suggesting submarines, diesel locomotives, Mayan interceptors, Mississippi river boats, jumbo space arks, but best of all (ask Dan) were his trademark aero-spacecraft-textures like panels, cowlings, antennae, bulging fuel tanks, vents, graphics etc.

Chris stayed with friends in a fantastic house on Mulholland Drive and the studio gave him a choice of exotic cars to drive.

He would wake up every morning to the brilliant Californian sunshine and drive down to the studio in downtown LA.

c) Discussions about getting Giger involved
There was a lot of discussion about getting Giger involved, however at first Fox would not hire Giger because he wasn't a movie artist and instead was perceived as some sort of a crazy fine artist from Europe.

Fox wanted an art director, they wanted a production designer, they wanted a movie designer.

Dan O'Bannon and Ron Cobb
(taken from Gavin Rothery's website
)
d) Fun at Fox
Chris remembered that they had terrific fun during the time.

They were hidden away in funny little washrooms since Chris and Ron were not members of the union.

One day they were working in the strange little set of rooms and a voice comes out out of the window "This is the police, come out with your hands up! they'd get down below the window and say "Don't shoot! We've got hostages"

Then a guy ran up the stairs and it became obvious that they were filming a take of "Starsky and Hutch"

e) Uncertainty arises
They were wonderful artists doing wonderful work.

However in a way it was almost frustrating because they couldn't quite get a sense of direction. So Ron suggested things, and Chris suggested things.

Ron remembered Walter Hill who was now supposed to be the director walking in after months of work and all he said "Yep, roomful of space ships" and then walked out again, he was too busy working on the movie "The Driver".

Gordon Carroll could never make up his mind as to which design he wanted.

Meanwhile Chris noticed that Dan O'Bannon ideas were being countermanded more and more as the Alie production got bigger and bigger.

Every day his car was getting more and more dents in it and they took it as a metaphor for the battering he was getting from the production.

Soon it got to a point where Chris was finding himself creatively hindered.

They thought his designs were so far-out and interesting that they'd interfere with the plot.

They wanted the spaceship to look more monotonous like a submarine.

Ron Cobb's view was that Chris was turning out spacecraft designs the decision makers found too original which might have meant that those less informed didn't know what they were looking at.


Ron Cobb drawing the California style flight deck.
(taken from interview James Cameron: The Inspiration and design of Aliens)

f) Nearing production
After about six months the production moved to the UK as Ridley Scott took over as director.

Chris produced design after design after design and soon as they got nearer production, he was hired and taken over to England where he did a bit more work over the following weeks, then left the project.

Ron Cobb was the only person left behind in LA (and although he mentions that he was the only person left in London in the interview, we might assume it was L.A.), they asked him to do yet another exterior design for the ship and he did one.

Ridley Scott and Gordon Carroll wanted various small changes.

Ron kept pushing forwards with a certain design for the lander part of the ship that we see most of all.

f) See Creating The Nostromo

Dan O'Bannon and Chris Foss at Fox,  1977
(Image taken from Gavin Rothery's website)

(information about where and when it was taken , 
from Hardware: The definitive works of Chris Foss, p11)


Source quotes
  1. Dan O'Bannon: They put me in charge of doing preliminary design before Ridley was hired on the picture, and I got them to erm, to hire Ron Cobb who's a local artist, and to fly in Chris Foss from England who I had just met on Dune, and erm, I used the same technique that Alejandro did, I set them up in the same room together and I sat with them. The idea being again that they would stimulate each other creatively by being together, and they did, they turned out wonderful designs, wonderful artists doing wonderful work, but Fox would still not hire Giger, because Giger wasn't a movie artist, he was some crazy fine artist from Europe or something. They wanted an art director, they wanted a production designer, this was in 1975. Star Wars had not come out yet, they wanted a movie designer. (Dan O'Bannon on Alien (from Moebius Redux dvd extras)
  2. Ron Cobb: Creating spacecraft exteriors came easily to Foss. His mind and imagination seemed to embody the entire history of the industrial revolution. He could conjure up endless spacecraft designs suggesting submarines, diesel locomotives, Mayan interceptors, Mississippi river boats, jumbo space arks, but best of all (ask Dan) were his trademark aero-spacecraft-textures like panels, cowlings, antennae, bulging fuel tanks, vents, graphics etc. As the months passed, along with two or three temporary directors, Chris began to have problems caused by his spectacular creativity. No one, in a position to make a decision seemed to be able to make up their mind and/or choose one of his designs. I think Chris was turning out spacecraft designs the decision makers found too original. (Ron Cobb, Den Of Geek.com Interview) 
  3. Ron Cobb: His mind and imagination seemed to embody the entire history of the industrial revolution. He could conjure up endless spacecraft designs suggesting submarines, diesel locomotives, Mayan interceptors, Mississippi river boats, jumbo space arks, but best of all were his trademark aero-spacecraft textures like panels, cowlings, antennae, bulging fuel tanks, vents, graphics etc. It was wonderful because it was always surprising and odd. They never quite knew what to do with Chris designs.  (Alien The Archive, p32. This is exactly what he said for the Den of Geek interview word for word above apart from the last two sentences)
  4. Moviefone: It sounds like 'Dune' was
  5. Next he went to Los Angeles to do designs for the spaceships in Alien. He was brought to 20th Century Fox on the recommendation of Alien co-writer Dan O'Bannon, whom Foss met when they were both working on Dune. In the Alien cam, Foss found an atmosphere fraught with politics. (Future Life #11, p63) your favorite film project. Of the others, do you have any favorite moments?
    Chris Foss: We had terrific fun in Los Angeles on 'Alien.' We were hidden away in funny little washrooms because me and Ron Cobb, the other artist, were non-union. One day we were working in our funny little set of rooms, and this voice comes up: "This is the police, come out with your hands up!" And we got down below the window and said, "Don't shoot! We've got hostages!" This guy ran up the stairs and it became obvious they were doing a take of 'Starsky & Hutch.' (http://news.moviefone.com)
  6. Ron Cobb((9:02): I found myself, er, working with, er, the science fiction, the English science fiction illustrator, er, Christoph.. Chris Foss, um, and just, er er just turning out drawings in an old rehearsal hall above one of the old stages above the Fox lot for months and months and months, it was in some ways sort of frustrating because we didn't, you know, we couldn't sense a direction so I was suggesting things and Chris was suggesting things and there was a lot of talk of getting Giger involved (Alien Legacy Starbeast) 
  7. Chris Foss: [Alien producer] Walter Hill was very busy smashing cars up for one of his 'streets' films. He couldn't be arsed - much too busy! He walked in after months of work and just said 'Yep, roomful of spaceships' and just walked out again. So I'd produced design after design after design, and it got nearer production time, so I was hired and taken over to England to do some more designs. Finally what happened was that the bloke who had to make the [Nostromo] model completely lost his rag, scooped up a load of paper...they had a room full of smashed-up bits of helicopter and all-sorts, and he just bodged something together. So the actual spaceship in the film hadn't anything to do with all the days, weeks, months of work that we'd all done. It's as simple as that.  (Source:  www.denofgeek.com/)
  8. In the autumn of 1976, Chris was invited to work on Alien (1979) as the movie's visual consultant. Dan O'Bannon who also co-wrote the story and wrote the screenplay - wanted to use the same team from Dune. The studio was in downtown Los Angeles, on the Fox lot. Chris stayed with friends in a "fantastic" house on Mulholland Drive and the studio gave him a choice of exotic cars to drive. "I'd wake up to brilliant Californian sunshine and drive down to the studio. I was working with a lovely chap called Ron Cobb and we got on really well, " he recalls. Because they were non-union the production had to keep them hidden, so they worked in everything from a washroom to an un-airconditioned shed over the carpenter's studio. However, Chris and Ron were having so much fun it didn't seem to matter. Their only contact with the production team was through Dan O'Bannon, who was very supportive. (Hardware: The definitive works of Chris Foss, p12))
  9. After several months of intensive work the director finally came to view their artwork. After looking around the room at the sea of concept drawings, Chris remembers he simply commented, ""Yeah, room full of space ships" and walked out again". The only direction Chris and Cobb had was from O'Bannon, who had a very clear idea of what he wanted "but he was getting countermanded as the Alien production got bigger and bigger. Everyday his car was getting more and more dents in it, and we took that as a metaphor for the battering he was getting from the production." (Hardware: The definitive works of Chris Foss, p12))
  10. After about six months the production moved back to the UK and Ridley Scott took over as director. Chris did a bit more work over the following weeks, then left the project. (Hardware: The definitive works of Chris Foss, p12)
  11. Chris Foss: I was in Los Angeles for about four months, working in washrooms and funny places like that, (wryly) There were problems. The politics were just unbelievable. I was all creatively hindered. They thought my designs were too far-out and interesting. They thought they'd interfere with the plot, (he laughs) They wanted the spaceship to look more monotonous, like a submarine. (Future Life #11, p63)
  12. In the end, very little if any of Foss' Alien concepts made it to the screen. (Future Life #11, p63)
  13. Foss says: I love doing film work,  It's great fun and I adore it, but some of the people can be tiresome. The creative people are sweet, but the money people can be an absolute pain. It's sad, because it's potentially very rewarding, but it attracts the worst type of person, the sort of quickbuck merchant who's not totally interested in how good a film's going to be. The sheer wheeling and dealing and politics can be rather ghastly.  (Future Life #11, p63)  
  14. Ron Cobb: Dan was the frustrated production designer. He had a very strong idea what it was going to look like. And, with Dan hovering over us, we started exploring the look of the picture. (Alien The Archive. p12)
  15. Chris Foss: Ron Cobb et moi bossions dans le même studio à Los Angeles et c’était un mec très drole. On s’entendait très bien. Il savait se moquer des travers des Américains. Mais comme avec Giger, je n’ai jamais eu de problème de rivalité parce qu’on faisait des choses très différentes.
    
Ron Cobb and me digging in the same studio in Los Angeles and that was a guy very funny. We got on together very well. He knew to mock the Americans through. But as with Giger, I never had problem of rivalry because we did very different things. 
    (Pop Corn 11, February 2015)
     

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