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Ron Cobb 1937–2020

My dearest of friends and mentors, Ron Cobb, has passed away today on his 83rd birthday.

Cobb & Stout photos by Carl Macek

Ironically (and perhaps appropriately), his room was filled with colorful balloons on this, the day of his death. I think Ron would have liked and laughed at that.

“Genius” is a word I use only on the rarest of occasions and only for those most deserving of that word. Ron Cobb was 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 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.

Ron 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 appropriately named love of his life (and future wife for 48 loving years), 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 for writer Dan O’Bannon 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 and O’Bannon handled the film’s computer graphics.

Cobb then worked on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune with Jodorowsky and O’Bannon, prior to designing the Nostromo for Alien.

Milius hired Ron to create conceptual designs for his mountain man feature, Half of 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 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 (Ron gave me a tour. The cooling system for the two phone booth-sized Krays took up an entire, adjacent huge building). 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. Douglas invited Ron and Robin to spend one New Year’s Eve in rural France with the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. 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. One of this small company’s employees was a young man named Elon Musk. Ron finally directed a film of his own, the hilarious 1992 Australian comedy Garbo.

I created (and was the first to receive) the credit/titles of “Concept Designer” and “Concept Artist” to cover a lot of what I do in film when I’m not the movie’s production designer. The term “Concept 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.

Ron’s passing is especially painful for me. I can think of no human on earth I’d rather have more time with than Ron. Ron was awarded the first Lifetime Achievement Award for Concept Design by LightBox. Ron was unable to make it to the ceremony in Pasadena, California (Ron lived in Sydney, Australia), so I offered to hand-deliver it to him, as I was heading to Brisbane, Australia in October 2019 to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was a bittersweet trip. I was able to deliver his award to his wife Robin and son Nicky — but I was not able to see Ron. Ron was in a full-time care facility, as he was in the grips of Lewy Body Dementia, which is what took his life. It started with a few slight strokes that initially went unnoticed. Then, the dementia began to chip away at his memory. By the time I got to Sydney, he had so descended into the disease that he was no longer able to recognize his own wife and son.

The world has suffered a great loss today with the passing of Ron Cobb. I personally treasure every single moment I got to spend with Ron. I ache today over our shared loss. There is a huge hole in my heart that can never be filled.

My love and sympathies go out to Robin and Nicky.

All hail the Great Ron Cobb!