Alien: The history of the Nostromo, by Ron Cobb

News 22 Sep 2009 - 16:03
The Nostromo - and the way there.

Ron Cobb, one of the premier sci-fi production designers of the last 40 years, explains the history of the doomed vessel in Alien...

At DoG we have been fortunate enough to chat with several of the people involved in the visual effects, designs and miniatures of Alien (1979). As part of the article 'Top 75 Spaceships in movies and TV' (see link at bottom), we spoke to SF illustrator Chris Foss about his time in the art department of Alien under Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon. There seemed to be a bit of a missing link between the endless output of Foss and the other artists to produce the resultant design of the Nostromo. Who was the 'angry man' who in frustration took all the production designs away and cobbled something together? Who actually designed the craft?

Ron Cobb, the conceptual designer behind Dark Star, Total Recall, Aliens, Conan The Barbarian, The Last Starfighter and innumerable other SF and fantasy classics. has been kind enough to shed some light on the mystery. Since Ron is, along with Syd Mead, the premier futurist of sci-fi movies of the last three decades, we're more than honoured. Over to him...

In the late seventies Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett asked me to create a series of small illustrations to help them pitch and sell their latest script. Once they acquired a producer  (Gordon Carroll of Brandywine productions) O'Bannon hatched his plot to convince Carroll, and all who would listen, to immediately hire what Dan considered to be his dream team for conceptual art and design, Chris Foss, me, and later, Moebius (Jean Giraud) and H R Giger. As a result I soon found myself hidden away at Fox Studios in an old rehearsal hall above an even older sound stage with Chris Foss and O'Bannon, trying to visualize Alien. For up to five months Chris and I (with Dan supervising) turned out a large amount of artwork, while the producers, Gordon Carroll, Walter Hill and David Giler, looked for a director.


The "Tug" was influenced by a Foss design (R.Cobb).

When I met Chris I had long been a fan of his atmospheric paintings and illustrations, but I was particularly pleased to discover he had a great sense of humor and, therefore, was very easy to work with. He was also extremely prolific. He could turn out three finished paintings and ten detailed designs for every one of my, rather labored, pencil, and felt tip sketches.

It was determined initially (by Dan, of course) that I would tackle the interiors of the earth ship Nostromo, while Chris would design the exterior. It didn't take long for this division of labour to become a bit problematic for the two of us.

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.

My problem with designing Nostromo's interiors, the control bridge, corridors, auto doc (or med lab), bulkhead doors, the food deck, etc., was that I grew up with a deep fascination for astronomy, astrophysics, and most of all, aerospace flight. My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer (as well as a frustrated writer when it came to cinema design). I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function. If I'm to arrive at a cinematic spacecraft design that seamlessly preserves, as in this case, the drama of the script, the audience has to experience it as something impressive and believable.


Hammerhead was one of my proposals for a rotating spacecraft providing stability and gravity for the crew of the Nostromo. (R. Cobb)

My method for designing the Nostromo interiors was to emulate the engineering of the entire landing shuttle as though it were real, from the interior to the exterior and back again. So, while I was not supposed to be spending any time deriving exterior designs from my all-encompassing technique, I did produce them if only as a personal guide to making the interior sets more interesting,                          

Later, when we were all in London at Shepperton studios with Ridley Scott as director, and deadlines for completing set and model construction were rapidly approaching, the choice as to which Chris Foss design would be used as Nostromo's exterior was yet to be made.

Finally, Brian Johnson the special effects supervisor under pressure to build the large Nostromo model, went into the deserted art department and, out of frustration, grabbed all the Chris Foss designs off the wall and took them to Bray studios. There he would choose the design himself in order to have enough time to build the damn thing.


Nostromo A

Well I soon found out that Brian found and took all of my exterior design sketches as well. About a month later I was told that Brian had used my sketch, Nostromo A (see Nostromo B for comparison), as the basis for the model, even to the extent that it was painted yellow. Ridley found the color a bit garish and had it repainted grey.


Nostromo B

The truth of the matter is, as Chris said, we both influenced each other, I think I borrowed from him more than he borrowed from me.

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