One of the interesting things about studying the history of any genre is how sometimes obscure and unheralded people can make a big impact on the look and feel of one. Like how Ralph McQuarrie had a huge impact on how starships are designed and on the look of modern Sci-Fi in general, when for decades he was almost unknown outside of film buff circles. Similarly, the overall look of Sword & Sorcery in modern art and film owes a huge debt to artist Ron Cobb.
Cobb has had a kind of spotty, under-the-radar career. He has worked mostly as a conceptual artist, and has an impressive array of film work, mostly in the 70s and 80s. His work credits include classics like Star Wars, Alien, Total Recall, The Last Starfighter, and True Lies. A friend of Spielberg, he was originally to direct the proposed sequel to Close Encounters – a film to be called Dark Skies, but which eventually evolved into E.T.
The reason he was not around to direct said movie was because he had taken one of his few jobs as a full-on production designer for Conan the Barbarian. Cobb only ever took full production design duties on 4 films – including the cult classics Leviathan and The Last Starfighter, but it was his work on Conan that set the tone for an entire film genre.
Milius said he was much more influenced by Frazetta’s work than by Howard’s, and that may be true, because film is a visual medium, and the genius of Frazetta’s vision can’t be argued with. But it was Cobb who was tasked with coming up with the look of the Hyborean Age on camera. He couldn’t just copy Frazetta’s work, he wanted and needed the film to have its own aesthetic and feel, and so he set to work.
Obviously influenced by the jagged barbarism of Frazetta, Cobb needed cleaner, sharper designs that would work on film, as well as be physically sturdy and practical. They were filming in Spain, out in the boonies, and props and sets had to stand up to a good deal of punishment.
Cobb’s design work was up to the task, as he had a lot of experience working on film, and a study of his work reveals a style rooted in comic book flamboyance, but also with a meticulous attention to details. His designs are eye-catching, but conceived of with a great understanding for the needs of space and architectural practicalities. He made the temples of Thulsa Doom fantastical, but also with a grounding in real structures and a sense of almost Nouveau grandeur.
This combination of comic-book style and rich detail made his work a perfect distillation of everything the Hyborean Age needed to be. Milius’ movie was exotic and fantastical, but grounded in a gritty, real world. It was not a fantasy world with magic and monsters around every corner – much of it was just as real as our own history. Cobb’s designs were simultaneously iconic and believable.
It shows in how thoroughly his work was imitated by the slew of knockoff S&S movies that flooded out in the early 80s. From poor adaptations like Gor to straight-up pastiches like Barbarian Queen or The Sword and the Sorcerer, the look owed much more to Cobb’s design work than to any other artistic model. Everything from structures to costumes to the weapons was designed with an eye to his groundbreaking work on Conan.
Cobb has not worked on much of anything film-related since the 90s, and at the age of 80 I imagine he is probably mostly retired. His is another one of the mostly-unseen hands that shaped the image and popular conception of Sword & Sorcery, and like most his imitators have almost obscured his genuine contributions, but his work remains.