RON COBB interviews
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I recently had the great privilege to interview Ron Cobb on stage at the Creative Masters Forum held at AFTRS. (Australian Film Television & Radio School) The interview focuses on and around the times Ron was working on ‘The Last Star Fighter’ a Hollywood production which represents the very earliest introduction of Computer Graphics (CG) into the production process of creating motion pictures. A ‘Cray Super Computer’ was used.
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Ric Welcome Ron to the Art of Making Marks. Please tell us who you are and what do you do?
Ron [laughs] Well I’m still trying to figuring that out. I’ve been told all my life, I’m an artist, an inattentive student, a frustrated writer, a nerd, even, a know-it-all. Truthfully I was never very good at anything except drawing. So I found myself posing as an artist for most of my life. This ongoing ambivalence about my ability results directly from having to grow up limited to a methodical, certainly slower, process of learning. As a result I have always been aware, of how very much I do not know. At some point in my middle-class upbringing I became a political cartoonist for a sixties style underground newspaper in Los Angeles. That’s when I discovered I liked thinking about human behavior and commenting on the motivations of my fellow humans, famous, infamous and insignificant. I would then illustrate the result in pen and ink after learning the technique, on the job. I think the key to my central method in pursuing the arts has always been an emphasis on content, far more than subjective self-expression. That’s why I always refer to what I do as illustration. I like to illustrate my ideas, designs and enthusiasms. My earliest and strongest enthusiasm was a deep obsession with the sciences. So to this day both art and science motivate me with no clear boundary between. Even my political cartoons were drawn from my best understanding of cultural and physical anthropology, brain science and, most pointedly, endless speculation about Darwinian adaptation. I kept up, as best I could, with whatever research or informed speculation that was ongoing at the time. For the cartoons this opened a door of commentary and insight into who we are and why we act as we do, far more fruitful than a hundred years of socio-political debate. I also used sci-fi-like images of the future, post-nuclear war, automation, etc. to comment on technology and the social challenge it always brings. I avoided drawing endless caricatures of politicians because scapegoating individuals seemed too predictable and far to easy to dismiss. Most of the time I preferred to depict the plight of the common man caught up in our history of cleverness, belief, creativity and folly.
Another major passion of mine is film. I had always been thrilled by motion pictures. When opportunities to be involved in filmmaking begin to appear I couldn’t believe my luck. Could I possibly write, direct or invent my own films? As it turned out, over the nest two decades, I contributed a great deal of design, a bit of writing and some directing to a stream of major and minor features. With film, the blend of art and science was unavoidable and my obsession became how to infuse believability into even my most fantastic designs. By now I’m an advocate of secular rationalism and a skeptic of all unwarranted belief and revealed certitudes. Of course, right in the middle of my film work drops the digital revolution. Suddenly the tools for altering, enhancing, creating and perfecting images began to radically alter all the arts and, to my way of thinking, elevated the motion picture to near miraculous power. Also the use of these new tools became increasingly accessible. So I guess I’m a commentator and an image-maker.
Ric Ron how long have you been using tablets in your production process?
Ron Well I can’t say I remember. It was during the time they were being developed. I tried quite a few because I liked the enhanced control.
Ric Well, like you said, it doesn’t matter, any tablet I guess. We don’t specifically have to be talking Wacom here.
Ron Wacom was the real discovery, when it emerged, because prior to that tablets were too slow, though anything has got to be better than drawing with a pack of cigarettes.
Ric Do you mean drawing with a mouse?
Ron With a mouse yes. [laughs] That was rather strange.
Ric I’ve heard of drawing with a brick and I’ve heard cake of soap.
Ron Pack of cigarettes. Why’d I say that. I’ve never smoked.
Ric That’s good.
Ron I’ve always appreciated the way a new tool closes a larger circle by connecting a human more effectively to another tool. This was when I could spread the word and sell a lot of tablets, a lot of Wacom’s, by saying to my artist friends “look you’re right back to hand-eye coordination though you can draw with a stylist that can be a brush, a pencil, an eraser or an airbrush using paint that dries instantly on a surface that never wears out. And now with PhotoShop’s layers, you should have no fear of it.” Digital art should be seen as just another medium. If anything the Wacom helped me solidify my view that Photoshop and high-resolution image making was the real purpose of Photoshop, not collages derived from altered photography. I never used Photoshop that way. To me it was the ultimate blank slate. I could sit anywhere with my Wacom and a white screen and start sketching, scribbling, erasing and shuffling layers until I had a finished image. Yet, I don’t see it as a huge departure from the traditional way in which artists work. Now that I’ve got my Wacom with Photoshop looking over my shoulder, I can easily derive an image the way I used to, but with so many additional advantages,
Ric ..now with layers, my God yes.
Ron Yes with layers, so it’s been hugely satisfying over the years, and Wacom was a major part of it.
Ric Well I remember seeing the early work that you did for Pixel Paint. Were you using a tablet when you were doing those paintings?
Ron [laughs] I think I was actually doing them with a mouse.
Ric With a mouse? Wow, because that was real frontier stuff.
Ron Yes, I did some of the very earliest photo-real, computer images with Pixel Paint. As I said before, I tend to see myself as more of an illustrator illustrating imaginary places or distant landscapes wherein the subject matter is the created element. This was very powerfully derived from my childhood discovery of the astronomical paintings of Chesley Bonestell. His name may not mean a lot to many people, but when I was very small, the discovery of Chesley Bonestell and his work set a fire in my brain that has never faded. The beautiful photo-real oil paintings he created in the 1930′s and 40′s were utterly unsurpassed in showing us what we might see if we were standing on the surface of the moon appreciating the landscape, rather than looking up at the moon as a sunlit sphere in the earth’s evening sky. His work was so evocative and convincing I think that’s the point I was branded by my life long commitment, that art must always be in service to discovery and one’s best grasp of reality. Bonestell went on to show us our future on many worlds and events that we could never see or photograph. I did some of my later cartoons on the computer as well by graduating to digital pen and ink. [laughs] You know, on the Mac.
Ric And that would have been early Photoshop days?
Ron Yes, early Photoshop. I found I could do cartoons with the same spontaneity, complete with thick and thin lines of digital ink by using a Wacom pen.
Ric What tablet are you using now?
Ron [laughs] Well I’m trying out Wacom’s Cintiq with the image on the tablet which is, for me a Godsend in terms of needing to physically turn the drawing as I work on it. That was one of the things I couldn’t do before Cintiq. Now the image is right where I can hold it in my lap like a drawing tablet, as it runs with all the advantages of Photoshop, but turn it when I need to and hold it while drawing horizontal strokes toward me as opposed to away from me. You see, we all have different motor skills.
Ric And so is the jury still out do you think, as to whether this is going to be your preferred method in the future or will you still use the more traditional Wacom tablet?
Ron No, I see no reason, I mean Cintiq is a genuine addition to image technology, though I don’t always have to use the addition. I don’t have to put it on my lap, I can still use it as a desk top tablet but the convenience of drawing right on the image is very, very – how would I say – satisfying.
Ron Very comfortable. Comfort’s important! [laughs] You don’t want to be frustrated.
Ric Tell us more about your work.
Ron After phasing out my cartooning in the early seventies I starting working in film by contributing some designs to Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter’s student film, Dark Star and later (also because of O’Bannon) I helped out on the original Star Wars. Then I acquired a permanent reputation in the film industry when Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett wrote Alien and asked me to help them sell the script by adding some illustrations. As a result I ended up going to London to work on the 20th Century Fox version of Alien as an illustrator/concept artist. Ridley Scott was the director. Later Jim Cameron got in touch with me about inserting designs into the second Alien feature, Alien’s. Then John Milius capped it all by hiring me as Production Designer of Conan the Barbarian and a short time later I did The Last Starfighter with the same credit. At this point I was well into evangelizing the emerging use of computers for the generation and modification of imagery. Remember, when I started working in the film industry in 1974 where was no such technology even remotely available, though, I was aware of its development in computer science labs and industry. I tried to convince the producer’s of Alien that we should try to use some early wire frame images for the Nostromo’s control screens, but there was no one in the UK that could do it. CGI still had a long way to go, at this time, and I had a lot of convincing to do before I could get my hands on it. This was also true, I might say, with my late, very good friend, Douglas Adams, because Douglas dearly loved to poke fun at our human entanglement with machine intelligence. When I met him to work on an earlier US television version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy, one which never happened, he felt computers and digital watches were something to laugh at and, considering the way he wrote about it, I had to agree. [laughs] But I went on to counter this by saying, “There’s something very appealing and desirable about what computers might become some day and you might want to reserve judgment for just a short while” and he pretty much did.
Ric Well, he turned around didn’t he?
Ron He admitted that I turned him around, he became the biggest Mac-nut that ever existed as we all know now.
Ric I wonder if any of that related back to his deep thought in Hitchhikers’ [laughs]
Ron Oh yes, well it was all, you know, there was no reason for him to ever stop satirising all that but he fell in love with the whole, I mean his whole life was just dominated. He became an Apple master of course.
Ric Which of course you are too.
Ron Well I was trying to be, I never quite made it even with Douglas backing me. They cancelled the program before I..
Ric I think we’ll have to reinstate that… You’re definitely a Wacom master.
Ron Okay, very good. But what happened was Apple sent Douglas all over the world to represent Macintosh because he did it with such charm and humour he helped Apple prevail through some very bad times. I’ll never forget going up to, his house one day in Santa Barbara, a few years after being declared an Apple master, and being shown a spare bedroom, which was stacked to the ceiling with obsolete Macs, monitors and modems. [laughs]
Ric Like a museum?
Ron This was true for his house in London as well. He had every iteration of every model of Macintosh that ever was. [laughs] Six times over.
Ric Well I’m sure you’re probably a bit like that as well.
Ron Well I have been, I’ve gone, yeah I’ve had, it’s a little fireplug. I did my first drawing on the little Mac Plus (fireplugs), again with a mouse and I found it irritating. Irritating, I really wanted more resolution.
Ric You persevered.
Ron I persevered. Stuck with it, you know.
Ric Well Ron you have been an inspiration to just so many up and coming artists in so many fields…myself included in that.
Ron Well I’m glad to hear that.
Ric What innovations in your work are due to the use of Wacom Pen/Tablets?
Ron The techniques have always merged painlessly into whatever I was trying to do. However even to this day, I do analogue. I sketch and I draw and I even paint occasionally, so there’s always been this mix. The digital control of imagery has been a real godsend for me. It sped up my productivity and clarified my creative process. but as far as milestone breakthroughs in innovation, I can’t recall, any that stand out, except possibly, winning a few prizes or being able to do something I never thought possible like automating perspective by using 3D modeling.
Ric What applications do you use in your work flow and what functionality is driven by using a Pen/Tablet.
Ron Efficiently eliminating all the repetition and drudgery between someone who wishes to create an image and the resulting image. There have always been traditional artists who maintain the virtues of having to wait for paint to dry then knowing how to layer a medium, glaze and varnish in just the right order so the whole image doesn’t explode off the canvas, you know. I still know artists who won’t use a computer and tablet because they miss the feel of the canvas.
Ric Oh, yes the smell of wet paint!
Ron I know, [laughs] I can walk away from my large flat screen anytime I want and paint and draw on my easel …
Ric and take a digital photo of it.
Ron …as I inhale the smell of the linseed oil. But It works the other way as well. I like the feel of the little Teflon point skittering across the surface of the tablet, I love the colour and the glow of the phosphors in a dark room, The soft whirr of the drive, and on and on. You could wax just as poetically about all that as well. So to me, what’s very real about digital image making in that a lot of things that I would consider elements that impede my desire to get to an image are being systematically eliminated. The fact that I would have to redraw something entirely just to move it an inch to the left in an analog composition is very discouraging. To shift a layer in a PhotoShop composition two inches to the right is a breathtaking form of empowerment for me. So improvements in this technology on any level at any time will only offer me expanded the tablet, well speed and response and detail and all of the capabilities that it commands in Photoshop or similar programs are just indescribably desirable to me. I mean, they just help me in every way.
Ric If you could ask for any new features or future innovation with Wacom Pen/tablets what would that be?
Ron Not a great deal. I’m very content with a lot of what now exists. I look forward to the Cintiq 21 being a little lighter and a little brighter, I do have a very bright studio here.
Ric I think we’ve got something for you there…the Cintiq 12 is coming.
Ron And other than that I can’t say. If anything, surprise me. I’m waiting to see what you guys might come up with next.
Ric Well a lot of people have said they’d love to be able to touch and point with a pen at the same time, so maybe your finger being able to move an object and then you can paint on surface and scroll the page with a multi-touch capability. Is that of any interest do you think?
Ron Possibly it would be something I would never use, like fake brush strokes. I’ve always developed my own techniques with the tablet and Photoshop wherein I can get a paint effect that I prefer by using the tools as they are. So in some respects I’m kind of conservative in the way I use them. Something like that doesn’t sound like I’d find it particularly interesting except maybe I would. I might discover that it’s useful.
Ric If there was a good software, hardware interaction that went on there?
Ron Possibly, because I’m always concerned … I like pixel precision, I like things to stay where they are. I like the fact that I can … I often move things by counting pixels to get very precise proportions or to follow a lot of perspective lines on a layer, and some of it is making things work that weren’t meant to work that way but they work well for me. But aside from just ever-increasing responsiveness, resolution and brightness, I’m very content.
Ric I’m interested to know what your thoughts are about tablets in education, you know for children to draw and write with? Wacom’s brand directive for the future is that everyone should be using a tablet instead of a mouse, and I see kids picking up our pen/tablets and drawing and just having a ball so quickly and easily. Do you see that as an important part of a child’s development?
Ron Yes, I see it as an important part of human comprehension because it’s putting hand-eye coordination and the precision grip back into play. Again it’s like the completion of a great circle wherein image making and manipulation is once again as natural as scratching on the wall of a cave, but now this tactile manipulation is a two way street that will first deliver the astounding enhancements of digital image mastery and ultimately invite the child to flow into motion, sound and the modeling of three space. Obviously having to draw with a mouse was not as easy as scratching on a cave. So great improvements had to be made just to consolidate the promises of this new technology and connect it to the primal interface of the human mind. So what we can offer our children now is the ultimate blank slate that is deeply complementary and responsive to their writing and thinking skills while keeping pace with their expanding mode of perception. So with these elements all in a row I would think it would be a very powerful tool for education.
Ric That’s fantastic. Well thank you Ron. Thank you so much for being involved in The Art of Making Marks, we’re honoured and privileged to hear your thoughts.
Ron Well, very good.
Ric Thank you very much.