I’ve written here before about our formative years, how the films, books, music that we connect to during that important period of our lives – our teenage years, usually- remain so strong for the remainder of our lives. For my part, I’d cite the period between 1976 -1986 as the time when so much resonated with me and would stay with me; so much so that I’m tempted to suggest that I’m still pretty much that same awkward quiet kid I was back then (only grumpier and not so slim). I still love the films I did back then, listen to the same music, read the same authors… sure, new stuff has come over the decades since and much of it great but nothing rings quite so true as the stuff I fell in love with back then.
A curious spin on this is everything I read in film magazines of the time, Starburst, Fantastic Films, Starlog, Cinefantastique, all those articles, reviews and interviews that offered tantalising, exciting glimpses of the magic behind the films. Back in those pre-Internet days those monthly/bi-monthly editions, largely from over the pond, were our only window to what was coming, how films were made, the talents responsible for all the magic that thrilled us.
As an example, back when Alien was coming out in 1979, the magazines offered commentary and interviews related to the film- particularly Fantastic Films, a sort-of poor man’s Cinefantastique (the clue is in the mags cheeky title) that I absolutely adored and which I have written about before. Fantastic Films’ coverage of Alien was exemplary; lengthy interviews with Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon and others, with colour stills of the film and storyboards and paintings depicting the work that went into creating Alien. Bear in mind that Alien when it later reached our shores was given an ‘X’ certificate (surprisingly, if I recall correctly, not for the graphic horror but rather for its bad language) which meant that I couldn’t/wouldn’t see it for a few years. I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and later the incredible Movie Novel that was as close to owning the film as we could get in those pre-VHS days, but it was those articles in Fantastic Films that caught my attention, put images to Foster’s prose and ignited my fascination in all the work involved in making genre films.
Which brings me to the work of Ron Cobb, whose paintings and sketches for Dark Star, Star Wars and particularly Alien that featured quite heavily in the mag alongside its interview with him (and particularly a little later in a making-of book, The Book of Alien). This was art that was beautifully executed with a sense of weight and solidity that made the fantastic so real and utterly believable. The genius of Alien was that Ridley Scott cannily used Cobb’s realistic, authentic-looking set designs for the Nostromo and associated gadgetry as a counterpoint to the surreal nightmarish visions of H R Giger that represented the distinctly non-human horrors. The sense of reality so intrinsic in Cobbs work curiously made Giger’s just look more real. I pored over the images, read the interviews with Cobb, and like all those other names I’d be reading about back then – Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ralph McQuarrie, John Mollo, Derek Meddings, John Dykstra, Douglas Trumbull, John Barry, Syd Mead, countless others – would follow Ron Cobb’s work over the years that followed, in just the same way as my more conventional school mates followed footballers, cricketeers or pop stars.
Cobb would go on to work on Conan the Barbarian (Cinefantastique‘s double-issue about that film proved to be a definitive reference on that film and Cobb’s involvement) and The Abyss and many others. Keen eyes would watch Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in 2012 and note the titular ship’s bridge design was heavily indebted to unused designs created by Cobb for Alien way back in 1979 – it was like seeing an old friend again out of the blue. While appreciating the clever claustrophobia of the film’s Nostromo, I always stared at that painting over the years wondering how fantastic it would be to see it for real, in a movie (Prometheus alas lacked the glories I imagined in my head, although that set did look pretty fantastic).
Cobb’s passing in 2020 hit me like a bolt, a sudden reminder of the passing of time in just the same way as fans are shocked by the deaths of movie stars and pop stars. Cobb was one of the names I grew up with, a name I’d see in film credits and in books and mags with the affection one has for childhood heroes. I suppose many filmgoers would not recognise the name even though he was so hugely responsible for so much of the success of the films they loved, but those of my generation who devoured all those 1970s/1980s film mags could measure the loss. Cobb was a giant part of what made the fantastic in so many films look so real.
So this new book has just been published, The Art of Ron Cobb, which is a hardback, coffee-table artbook collecting much of the artists remarkable work for film and other media – some of it very familiar and some of it new and surprising. Its a beautiful book, one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen and absolutely required reading for any fan of Cobb’s work, although to be fair, anyone familiar with Cobb’s art would surely buy this book as soon as they learned of it, so I feel like I’m wasting my time preaching to the converted. Its just a pity that Cobb, of course, is gone, and that this appreciation is posthumous- how much more wonderful it would be had it been curated by Cobb with his own annotations and recollections. Somewhat out of leftfield, I’m reminded of that strange sadness of those Super Deluxe editions of Prince’s 1999 and Sign O’ the Times – great boxsets of material out of the vault etc but wondering how much more priceless they would have seemed had I been able to read Prince’s own memories etc about all that music. Its a shame these things don’t seem to come out early enough to ensure the artists own involvement, albeit in Prince’s case (and Vangelis, too, regards any release of music from the Greek maestro’s own vault of unreleased material), is that they themselves seem to have opposed such collections being released in their lifetime. I’m reminded of all those film stars and directors who have passed away without recording commentary tracks for their films for posterity.
Nonetheless, while this book is largely minus Cobb’s own ‘voice’, its pretty definitive, really- a case where the art does the talking. I keep picking it up and re-reading it, dipping into chapters on particular films. Its a fine document of Cobb’s skill, his eye for design, and his impact on so many films over the years – some of it a surprise to me. Of course, its also a reminder of times when artists worked on canvas and artboard rather than on tablets and graphic workstations; there’s a sense of analogue craft here that is richly nostalgic. The whiff of art marker and gouache and acrylic. This book is a treasure.