Exclusive Interview with 'Back to the Future' DeLorean Time Machine Designer Ron Cobbby Tom Silknitter
March 12, 2012
"What does a DeLorean time machine look like?" is a question many in 1984 would not normally be proposed during a work day. However for illustrator Ron Cobb, this was just another day in the office. The question even gets less surreal when the question is being asked by executive producer Steven Spielberg about a film that he was producing, Back to the Future. The journey to create one of the most memorable movie vehicles in history was afoot, and Cobb was given the task of creating a defining concept for the film's production to work from.
As with any film, most of the first items to be done on a project is the pre-production concept work. Locations needs to be found, costumes and props need to be designed, and in Back to the Future one of the props was the key plot device for the entire adventure, a time machine. Based on the logistics of what type of car would function in terms of the story, a gullwing Delorean was the chosen vehicle to be a time machine. Special effects supervisor Kevin Pike and his company Filmtrix was already hired to build the time machine but there were no designs. Illustrator Andrew Probert had done some very early concepts of the DeLorean time machine for his storyboards, but the concepts that the art department were waiting for were Cobb's designs.
Cobb had a very diverse history in being an illustrator. He was an animator for Disney very early on, and then in the late 1960s did underground political satire cartoons. During the 1970s and early 1980s Cobb ended up doing conceptual design work for various film productions such as: Alien, Star Wars: A New Hope, Conan the Barbarian, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Last Starfighter. Cobb's style of concept art and blueprinting were legendary and as well fellow Back to the Future illustrator Andrew Probert told BTTF.com in 2003, "Ron's vision was a lot more practical by coming up with an amazing amount of seemingly found & improvised components — a believable look to something Brown would have put together himself." While it has been over 27 years since Ron Cobb worked on Back to the Future , BTTF.com is proud to present this rare and exclusive interview with Ron Cobb, one of the fathers of the beloved DeLorean time machine.
Illustrators Andrew Probert and Ron Cobb in Amblins's art studio in 1984.
So how did you first hear about Back to the Future?
It was just a fun thing that Spielberg just asked me to do one day, “How would you make a DeLorean into a time machine?” (chuckling). He pretty much left it up to me. I just had to concoct some 3-view drawings and all that, it was great fun and I really liked the film.
You have mentioned to me you had worked with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale before on Used Cars?
Yeah on Used Cars, I didn’t do much in the actual picture. I think I did some graphics, a kind of of comical drawing to represent the whole movie, that might have become an ad or a poster or something. Not much more than that and also I was around there when they did I Wanna Hold Your Hand. I was in and out of Amblin at the time working on various projects. I was aware of them.
So you just bumped into Spielberg one day and he asked you to do the DeLorean time machine? You had a history working with Spielberg before correct?
Well I first met Spielberg when I was working on Alien, at one point Spielberg was considered as a possible director of the original Alien it was just a brief thing, he could never work out his schedule to do it, but he was interested. I met him that way, I think that was the first way I met him I recall.
Then later I worked with John Milius on a kinda super western, an early western about mountain men that wasn’t made called Half of the Sky, that film got transferred into Conan the Barbarian and I worked with John on that. At that time John was in the same little office building outside of the Warner Brothers’ gate with Spielberg. It was a small single story bungalow, Spielberg was at one end Milius was at the other end and I just walked back and forth.
I got a little involved in Raiders of the Lost Ark as he (Spielberg) was working on that and we all watched him shoot 1941. Spielberg would contact me and want me to tackle this, tackle that doing design jobs. One of them was the DeLorean and when I read the script I thought it was very funny and really a clever script and I was delighted to do it.
When you got involved with Back to the Future, did they give you the third draft with the atomic bomb ending scene?
Yes the earlier drafts yes. I remember that. I was there for a short while we were purchasing the DeLoreans and cleaning them up to work on them.
In a similar interview with BTTF.com, designer Andrew Probert said he was brought on to do storyboards only. He asked about designing the DeLorean but they had earmarked that for you. Do you remember this? Did you see any of his DeLorean concept sketches he did on the side? His storyboards of the film's atomic bomb ending had to have a representative of a DeLorean time machine in them which was one of his concepts.
Oh yeah I was only doing the car and, that’s all I really did on the film but I also I think a lot of Andy’s ideas on the car ended up on the car though, as well as I mine. I don’t remember the order it has been awhile back. I always liked Andrew and we always got along and had a great deal of fun. He’s an excellent artist~designer.
So you enjoyed working with the production on designing the DeLorean?
Yeah he (Probert) is a terrific terrific guy and so was Kevin Pike he was very energetic and he really did his best to realize the car on the screen. It was great fun, great fun.
As you were working on the designing the time machine, did you work with Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis much?
Not really, not really I think they were in the dark. I know that Bob Zemeckis and Gale both had come up with the idea of using a DeLorean because of the stainless body. They thought that would be an interesting idea because it was stainless steel it could be turned into a time machine. Beyond that they didn’t have too many suggestions.
So what influenced you in creating the look of the time machine?
I just thought and realized that it was a movie car and that whatever I did had to be fairly visible. I wanted to do those coils that sort of surrounded it because they were creating a field. Obviously no knows how one travels through time exactly but I just wanted to create a lot of believable stuff that seemed to put the car in a status by causing a field around it and then filling in lots and lots of details. I thought it should look a little bit homemade because Dr. Brown supposedly was doing it in his lab at home and so he would be using parts from Radioshack or something like that.
So I did my version to look it like it was all kind of added to the car, bolted on and added to the DeLorean. I think Andy made it look more built in later which is probably what Steven wanted you know. I kind of thought everything should look brass not so much silver metal, but brass to contrast to the stainless steel. They were just ideas that popped in my head. They didn’t clear ideas on this but when I did show it to them, my first crack at it they pretty much liked it as I recall and I proceeded from there.
Did you study nuclear power plants, and reactors to design the rear deck on the car? Many parts of the car looks like small representations of nuclear power plants.
I was always up on that and always aware of that. That was kind of my little joke. I just had these little gear things that would pull control rods as though out of a nuclear pile. I think the idea that it was seriously a nuclear pile wasn’t very serious
It (DeLorean) would be terribly radioactive and have tons of lead to keep passengers from getting contaminated. So its not really a good idea, so just kind of a passing joke as though it was some sort of advanced form of nuclear power or something… Maybe it did have some super shielding but they were just things that popped in my head.
I always understood them mechanically so I could draw them in and of course it’s a lot of nonsense too. Lots of hoses, pipes, cables and things. Insulators and I am always pretty good at adding that stuff. That kind of texture that suggests something real and complex. But really it just popped out of my head and everyone seemed to go with it. The only thing that I think I had to think of seriously was it had to come across visually to an audience. So that was definitely a requirement so I didn’t go so far as to think it would all concealed it had to show.
Did you create several passes at the designs, or was your rear ¾ view the first?
I think the ¾ view was the first pass, and then I made the plan and elevation. Once we got a DeLorean in there I measured it off so I was able to draw an accurate DeLorean and added everything in scale as an aid to building it and then I think I went to the interiors and the two interior views. Again once we had a DeLorean there I could take photographs and then trace it off to make really accurate perspective views of the interior and just add just add all of my control panels, cables and things as I thought they should look.
I think the (final) interior was more directly taken from my designs than the exterior, but we all worked well together on it and it kind of went through phases and got perfected and as I say I was very pleased with the result, of all three of us working on it. Steven’s input, Bob’s input, I could never come up with a flux capacitor though. I tried this, I tried that. I tried a lot of designs to but by the time I was off the project they still hadn’t figured out how it was supposed to look, how it was supposed to be.
Well during the building of the cars, Michael Scheffe was a point man between production and Kevin Pike, and Scheffe also had a hand in buying parts for the car. However before Scheffe got involved, Special Effects guru Michael Fink held the job and he purchased the parts for flux capacitor. Do you think it may have been done at the tail end, or maybe at Filmtrix’s hands?
Yeah it probably was, probably a last minute thing. What happens a lot in film is something like that is a key device and no one could make up their mind. They keep saying, “try it again,” “try it again,” “that’s not it,” “ no that’s not it”, and so sometimes you can’t get it till the very last minute and you just have to grab the last design and use it whether it is right or not.
No one could make up their mind if it was visual enough or provocative enough or looked the way it should. You encounter that a lot in film design where no one could make up their mind.
Andrew said in his interior designs thought of having it in the ceiling for the scene in the mall so Doc Brown could point up to it. ..
I don’t remember where it did end up. Or how it looked. I guess….kind of like a triangle… Y shape yeah. I had another design where it was on the roof, outside. Yeah that was to probably in my schematic. It is something on the roof I was trying out, but I tend to agree it wasn’t unique enough looking it had to be better designed and I didn’t get to do it, someone else did. But that’s how it goes you move on. But have you seen my drawings? My interior drawings?
Some of your drawings are out there, along with some of the “blue print” views.
You’ve seen them? How did you see them?
Well some of the blue prints were rendered in Popular Mechanics and they also put them on the DVDs and Blu-rays. I recall the top view of your 3 view blue prints being in the magazine.
So they were seen in Popular Mechanics?? I never saw it. My actual 3 view drawings of the car huh. The top view that is interesting. I didn’t think they would reproduce well
They also used photocopies of your drawings in the waiting rooms at the Universal Studios Back to the Future Rides as Doc Brown plan "props."
I never heard of that you don’t mean in the movie.
No they used them in the waiting rooms, used as props for the guests to look at.
Of course of course, well I have never done the ride I had some input into the ride, I wrote a scenario for them which Universal I think fudged from a bit but they never paid me which was weird but I’ve never actually seen the ride. I think it had some elements in the ride that I had written as a proposal but that was a long time ago and I never will get to see the ride I guess…
Well the Ride is still at Universal Studios Japan.
Well next time I am in Japan I will do that!! (laughing) I’ll do the RIDE!! (Chuckling)
Did you ever go out to the surplus shops and look at electrical surplus to make your drawings?
No not really just… I usually have a good sense of that stuff and its not too hard to draw connectors and pipes, cables, cable runs. I designed the coils to look they were creating some field and I put in little insulation and insulators and mount them on the car in such a way so the door would still open. And all that. I just took off the whole back body panel and had everything exposed in the back. Those were the ideas that just came to me immediately. I didn’t really do too many versions before everyone said that was it that was what we’ll go with.
So that’s really why they picked you to do it …
Well yeah… Steven asked me to do the interior of the mother ship in Close Encounters Special Edition and that was the same thing. We want to do the special edition where we show Dreyfuss go inside the mother ship We want to show inside the mother ship. He said, “we don’t know what that looks like, give us something.” Same thing I just concocted an interior and a drawing, a fairly elaborate drawing I never actually finished but it was detailed enough that Greg Gene could build a model of it and everything and it was added.
That was when I started going from art direction or production to concept art where someone would call in and say “we have this one device and we want a design for it,” and that’s all I would do on the movie. Like My Science Project, just design the device, and True Lies I just designed the soviet nuclear bombs, and the testing console and make sure it was very believable.
As you worked on Back to the Future, did you work in Amblin’s art studios?
There was an art department there with drawing desks; yeah I was there for a short while working on various projects.
What happened to your designs of the DeLorean after you left?
Andy Probert did some more and embellished the design a bit under I think Zemeckis’ instructions, he wanted little more of this a little less of that and all that. He added things to the design that I thought were improvements. Then of course Kevin Pike interpreted it a bit too. So it’s still basically related to my original design but Andy did a lot to sort of beef it up more so it came across better on the screen as such. He made the design a little more beefier, a lot of the elements I designed he made them larger, and he added two air scopes to the back and I only had one, stuff like that.
Did you see the finished car in person?
You know I never had. I never actually saw it finished because by the time they had rigged it up they had to do multiple DeLoreans, so they could use them for different shots. They even had to cut one in half I think to get inside so it was duplicated in a lot of ways, But I left I had another job I had to go to. Real Genius it could have been. I certainly saw it in the film and I think it looked great!
How long did you work on designing the DeLorean, a couple months?
I don’t know remember very well. It was a little bit going back and forth and having to do something else. I think I was kind of juggling a lot of balls at the time working on some other projects as well. But I would say probably the actual drawings didn’t take me as much as month. Maybe 2-3 weeks...
Besides just designing the DeLorean did you contribute to any other factors to Back to the Future?
I always grounded myself in a lot of engineering and science reading and I always use that as the basis for a lot of the stuff that I like to design. I usually get designing technical things like spacecraft, or time machines, or UFO drives or something like that you know. I’m always drawing on a lot of theorizing and hypotheses about how one might travel through time. So I usually concoct a batch of engineered systems that are all connected in such a way much many high tech devices tend to look overall as a way the things flow and move. I am pretty good at faking that and I usually have an accompanying hypothesis.
I suggested to Zemeckis that to travel in time you have to go into a hyperspace or timeless place outside of our universe and I thought that would be an interesting thing to depict and might be slightly scary. When it hits 88 the thing would flash and would go suddenly into this place that was pitch black and there is just no light at all except the lights inside the DeLorean and the dials clicking and immediately the windows would ice over and the whole idea would be it was in some sort of absolute zero hyperspace with no stars, no lights at all and you would be there for just a short while and clearly would die if you stay there too long and then BANG you are back in time and as a result the DeLorean would be covered in ice.
Oh so that is where the idea of the DeLorean coming back at the mall covered in ice was from. That is the “theory” for it.
That’s where the idea came from, and I saw that they did that for at least when they brought the dog back, there was ice all over it (DeLorean). That was sort of my idea. But they weren’t too consistent they didn’t keep doing it (chuckling). They kind of dropped it. I thought it would add to the creepiness of “God where are they?” We’re outside of time, what would it be like.
As a designer what do you think of the DeLorean as a design in and of itself?
I thought it was an admirable attempt of ripping off a little bit of an Italian design in cars and German design of them with the gull wing doors and all. They rather appealed to me I thought it was actually a good design. I always thought it was a spunky little car with a nice look and John DeLorean was certainly a character. He wrote me a letter saying I could join his design team anytime I wanted to that was before he was arrested for cocaine (chuckling)…. I forget all the story…. It was all so strange… The only kind of sadly comical thing about the DeLorean stainless steel body is inevitably it would show fingerprints. Around the door and everything, you could never get rid of that! And sure enough years later most DeLoreans have all these permanent fingerprints around the door, does yours???
Yeah I have a heck of a time cleaning them from my DeLorean. You have to close the door by just pushing on that black trim…
Most of them driving at the time around LA had fingerprints all over them. People had a hell of time getting rid of it. The one draw back… The Delorean is great for time travel but its terrible for finger prints.
Thanks for your time Mr. Cobb, it was a real pleasure to discuss the DeLorean time machine and your other projects with us!
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