Ron Cobb, a production designer known for designing Back to the Future’s time-traveling DeLorean, the Nostromo in Alien, and aspects of Conan the Barbarian, has died. He was 83.
Robin Love, Cobb’s wife of 48 years, reported that Cobb died Monday of Lewy body dementia, according to THR.
Cobb was most known for his production design work on numerous sci-fi and action films. Besides the examples listed above, Cobb was also responsible for weapons and scenery design on 1982’s Conan the Barbarian.
Cobb began his career at age 17 as a Disney animator working on “inbetweener” frames of Sleeping Beauty. He later transitioned to creating editorial cartoons for the Los Angeles Free Press, with his work syndicated in more than 80 newspapers.
Cobb’s first production design job was John Carpenter’s debut film, 1974’s Dark Star.
While illustrator H.R. Giger is often referred to as the stylistic mind behind 1979’s Alien, Cobb submitted concept art for the interior and exterior of the infamous Nostromo ship that serves as the Ridley Scott film’s main setting. Cobb’s art helped define the Nostromo’s sci-fi aesthetic that would itself go on to influence countless other sci-fi entertainment properties, like Alien: Isolation. Cobb maintained a gallery of his concept art on his personal website.
Cobb was also responsible for the idea of the titular Alien’s blood being corrosive, solving the narrative issue of just having the Nostromo crew shoot the alien to death. Cobb maintained a personal website where he wrote about how the production team brought his designs to life.
Cobb’s other notable production design credits include the interior of the Mothership and stranded tanker from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Omega Sector logo and H-bombs from True Lies, the helmets and breathing tanks from The Abyss, and the ships from The Last Starfighter.
Cobb’s career was also marked by a close relationship with famed director Steven Spielberg. Cobb and Spielberg met while Cobb was working as a production designer on Conan, and Spielberg happened to be working down the hall at the Universal lot on the first Indiana Jones film. Cobb would later go on to design the Nazi Flying Wing, the plane that Indiana Jones fist-fights a considerably more muscular Nazi soldier under in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“I would suggest [to Spielberg] angles, ideas, verbalize the act of directing — ‘Let’s do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow,’ ” Cobb said in a 1988 Los Angeles Times interview.
Spielberg liked Cobb so much that he suggested he direct Night Skies, an adaptation of an infamous story of a Kentucky family who claimed to have interacted with aliens. The project suffered its own series of production problems, including the threat of a lawsuit from the family the film was based on, and budgetary concerns. Night Skies was eventually shelved until Spielberg reformatted the narrative to be about a young boy defending an alien in what eventually became his own film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Cobb himself was featured in a cameo as a doctor in E.T., but reportedly didn’t enjoy Spielberg’s final product, calling it “sentimental and self-indulgent.”
On the subject of Conan, Cobb stated in past interviews that he wanted a production design that looked more grounded than previous fantasy films.
“I thought it would be very interesting to not bow to sort of a MGM fantasy-like set,” Cobb said on an episode of The Director’s Series, “but keep almost as a subtle gag this totally imaginary world looking as believable as possible. I thought it might be interesting to see if I could simulate reality….That’s probably why the picture lacks a lot of sorcery because we wanted to keep it more naturalistic, more like a historical story, almost as though this is the true story of the real Conan.”
Cobb is survived by his wife and son.
Joseph Knoop is a writer for IGN.