Today’s my birthday. It’s one of those landmark numbers that ends in an “0” — but I don’t want to talk about myself today.
I am back from several back-to-back appearances around the country, promoting my book Fantastic Worlds. There were two art conventions which were amazing: MondoCon (this last weekend) and LightBox (the previous weekend). Both were outstanding and carefully curated; not a single piece of bad art in the room! I felt honored to be included in both shows.
MondoCon is in Austin, Texas and is sponsored by MondoTees, the terrific company connected to the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain. They hire top contemporary artists to create new posters for classic films and then sells serigraphs (limited edition silk screen prints) of those designs. They have also branched out into three-dimensional objects of art, too — like their series of Tiki mugs (I designed their Cthulhu Tiki mug, as well as posters for King Kong, White Zombie, Metropolis and Nosferatu).
The show is incredibly well-run and both guests and attendees are treated with prompt, thoughtful care. I got to hang for a little while with my pals (and neighbors) Drew Struzan and his lovely wife Dylan (Dillon?).
LightBox is the brain child of my wonderfully energetic and creative friend Bobby Chiu. It focuses on the creators of concept art and design in the film and television industries. Two of my close friends were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards for their work in Concept Design (I believe I might be the first person to have received a Concept Designer or Concept Artist film credit): Ron Cobb and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Also honored were Syd Meade, Ralph McQuarrie and H. R. Giger.
I wrote the speech about Ron Cobb; it was delivered by my pal Iain McCaig (on Saturday I was still guesting at the Salt Lake City Comic Con). Here is what I wrote:
THE GREAT RON COBB
There is no artist better to inaugurate this lifetime achievement award than Ron Cobb.
“Genius” is a word I use only on the rarest of occasions and only for those most deserving of that word. Ron Cobb is a true genius.
Just out of Burbank High School and with no formal art training, Ron became a breakdown artist on Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. In 1960 Cobb was drafted into the Army, becoming one of the first American soldiers sent to Vietnam.
In 1965 Ron began contributing remarkable editorial cartoons, unlike anything else being done in that genre, for the Los Angeles Free Press. For five years, the Underground Press Syndicate distributed Cobb’s cartoons to underground/alternative newspapers all over the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia and Australia. Forrest J. Ackerman became Ron’s agent and commissioned Ron to paint covers for LPs as well as covers for Famous Monsters of Filmland and Monster World.
In 1967 he designed the wraparound cover for the Jefferson Airplane LP After Bathing at Baxter’s and a famous poster depicting Los Angeles slipping into the Pacific Ocean after The Big One. In 1969 Cobb designed the Ecology symbol and Ecology flag. He donated them to the Public Domain. Within two weeks Ron’s ecology symbol designs were being used all over the world. Ron’s original cartoon creation of the Ecology symbol is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.
In 1972 Cobb toured Australia, lecturing at all of that country’s universities. He brought along his friend, folk singer Phil Ochs, for musical relief. Ron met the love of his life (and future wife), Robin Love, in Sydney and moved there, drawing political cartoons that commented on the life and societal problems of Australia.
In 1973 Ron hopped back into film, creating the space ship for John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, which he designed on an International House of Pancakes napkin. During this time Cobb created a painting of a desert rider atop a huge alien lizard for director John Milius. Upon seeing this painting, George Lucas was inspired to create Star Wars. Cobb was hired to design creatures for that film’s memorable cantina sequence.
Cobb then worked on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, prior to designing the Nostromo for Alien. Milius hired Ron to create conceptual designs for his mountain man feature, Half the Sky, and then made him the production designer on Conan the Barbarian. This is when I met Cobb, who hired me to storyboard and help design Conan. I have always said that the best two years of my life in film were the two years I spent in a room with Ron Cobb. It was like sitting next to a fountain that gushed great ideas all day long, seemingly effortlessly. I learned an enormous amount from Ron, much by example. Besides what I learned art-wise from Ron, with his phone calls to Robin he showed me how to be sweet and kind to women in a gentle, caring way.
Ron became the production designer on The Last Starfighter, the very first film to extensively make use of CG animation. Cobb convinced the Pentagon to loan him two Kray super computers — the most powerful computer in the world at that time — to generate the images for this technically groundbreaking film. Always at the forefront of new technology, Cobb also was one of the first — and best — artists to plunge into creating graphic art with a computer. Ron also production designed Leviathan, and contributed key designs to films such as the revised Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Total Recall, True Lies, Real Genius, My Science Project, Aliens, The Abyss, Robot Joxs, The Running Man, The Rocketeer, Space Truckers, Titan A. E., The Sixth Day, District Nine, John Carter of Mars and Firefly. He also designed the ill-fated American version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but became good friends with Douglas Adams. Much of Ron’s conceptual design was uncredited, done as favors for friends.
A consistency throughout Ron’s conceptual work is that everything he designed was fully functional. If you built it, whether it was a passenger craft traveling to Mars or a “Wheel of Pain”, it would work.
His debut as a feature film director, Night Skies (co-written with John Sayles), eventually changed direction and changed hands to become Steven Spielberg’s E. T. – The Extraterrestrial. It was Cobb’s idea to make the time traveling car in Back to the Future a redesigned DeLorean.
In the early 1980s, NASA approached Steven Spielberg to design their space exhibit for the Smithsonian.
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” Steven declared. “You want Ron Cobb.”
After spending half an hour with Cobb, the NASA officials sheepishly observed, “Ron…this is a little embarrassing. We think you know more about NASA than we do!”
And he did.
He and his wife Robin co-wrote a Twilight Zone (“Shelter Skelter”) for the 1980s reboot of that TV series. His designs for ZZ Top’s “Rough Boys” won Ron the 1986 MTV award for best art direction in a music video.
During the early 1990s, Cobb co-founded the game company Rocket Science in 1992. Ron finally directed a film of his own, the hilarious 1992 Australian comedy Garbo.
The phrase “Conceptual Designer” was tailor made for Ron Cobb. It was he who broke that important ground with absolutely brilliant, always droll, humorous and slightly subversive and amazingly functional design concepts, showing the rest of us a truly inspiring path forward into the future.