Lucas employed several concept artists to help him visualize the worlds of Star Wars, sketching creatures, scenes and locations from the ever-changing scripts. Among them was Ron Cobb, whose only screen credit at the time, was for designing the spaceship (on a Pancake House napkin, no less) in John Carpenter’s 1974 cult hit, Dark Star.
Not pertaining to this particular piece of the influence puzzle, it is worth noting, that Dan O’Bannon – who played the lead role of Pinback in Dark Star, and who would go on to write Alien – worked on the tactical displays of Star Wars (hired for his similar effects work on Dark Star, which was inspired in fact by Lucas’ displays in THX 1138. O’Bannon had connected with Cobb after having seen his political cartoons, and had subsequently hired him to help with the design load on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary Dune production.
Regardless, they both ended up working on Star Wars, with Cobb taking on the mantle of designing aliens for the Mos Eisly cantina sequence (Cobb is responsible for among others, Hammerhead)
But his influence on Star Wars started well before this, in the early 70’s. Here one of the artists that contributed to the recent Star Wars Visions art book explains:
Q: In Visions, you write: “I was inspired by the ‘first’ Star Wars art: [conceptual creature designer] Ron Cobb’s painting of a rider on a lizardlike creature in an alien desert, a work in director John Milius’s collection.” Do you recall when you first saw that painting?
A: It might have been Ron’s book Colorvision, which was the first color collection of Cobb stuff. I either saw it there or John [Milius] might have brought it into the office. He’s a gigantic Cobb fan. He showed it to George and that obviously inspired the dewback.
I’ve been unable to find out where the painting was first printed, but it is dated 1975 in the Colorvision (1981) book. Whether Lucas found his rides through John Milius or through being introduced to Ron Cobb through Dan O'Bannon who had worked on Dark Star with him (to the extent Cobb had worked on Dark Star), is unknown.
Cobb would go on to work on just about every fantasy and science fiction film worth their salt up through the 80’s, including working again with Dan O’Bannon on Alien, John Milius on Conan the Barbarian and of course Lucas on Raiders of the Lost Ark; not to mention Back to the Future, Aliens, The Abyss, Total Recall and even Firefly.
His influence on modern sci-fi has been profound.
The concept of riding lizards didn’t come across particularly well in the film, the puppet being unable to move much more than its head, and then only slightly from side to side, prompting Lucas to revisit it for several scenes in the 1997 special edition release; but even before that, the idea reared its head during the pre-production of The Empire Strikes Back, in which the taun-taun was at first conceptualized as a lizard, albeit an upright one, by Ralph McQuarrie, and later when the prequels rolled around, revisited again, this time with Obi-Wan as the rider.
Pete Vilmur interviewing William Stout. Star Wars Art: Visions: William Stout. Starwars.com, December 8, 2010. Accessed July 23rd, 2011.
As an interesting little side story – worth mentioning in the spirit of how the creative process evolves, stretches and bends ideas – is that though it’s often overlooked and undocumented, is that Ron Cobb contributed to the story of (and was slated to be the director of) an unproduced film called Night Skies, meant as a spiritual sequel of sorts to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Set to go into production when Raiders wrapped, it never got made, but its ideas were essentially spun off into E.T., Poltergeist, Gremlins and even Critters!. ↩
Lucas picked up names for characters, places and creatures in the strangest of places, and so it’s very possible that the ‘taun-taun’ owes its name to the city of Taunton from the Errol Flynn classic, Captain Blood (7 minutes in). ↩