Rick Baker is pretty much the authority on special make-up effects in the movies.
Since scoring an Oscar for his still-impressive-today work on An American Werewolf In London, Baker has been the go-to guy for all manner of creature features (and he’s added another 6 Oscars to his impressive tally).
With Men In Black III, he returns to the franchise that he helped to establish with his unique extra-terrestrial inventions. Join us, as the man himself talks through the most notable films of his career.
On his return to the Men In Black franchise…
“I had a lot of fun in the first two MIBs and I was so much a part of it I just felt I had to do this. When this first seemed like it was going to happen Barry Sonnenfeld emailed me and said ‘Hey buddy, please do this’ and it’s like ‘Hey, you don’t have to beg, I wanna do it…it’s fun making crazy aliens and stuff!’”
On new alien creations, and his older favourites…
“I think at the last count we made 127 aliens for the film, although I don’t know if you’re going to see all of them. One of the things that I’ve learned from the first two MIBs is that we would make an alien you could basically make a whole movie around and the idea was it would have all kinds of intricate mechanics and spare parts and then when you see the film, the camera pans past it in a couple of seconds and that’s all that’s in the movie.
“In a lot of ways with the MIB films the aliens are kind of throwaway things, which I think is kind of cool too, it’s just like ‘Well, the aliens just happen to be there,’ and you may not see something until the second or third time that you see the movie.”
“One of the things that I got to do that was really fun, as far as aliens in this film go, is there’s a time travel element to the film where we go back to 1969 and I thought that this would be a real delineation in the look of the aliens from 2012 to 1969.
“In 1969 we used to have retro, big brain, bug-eye, fish bowl, space helmet aliens and they liked that idea. I did a lot of homages to some of my favourite aliens from all the films and I just kind of did a better version of similar designs to aliens that we’d seen before and that was the thing that I had a lot of fun with.”
On sources of alien inspiration…
“Pretty much any film that’s ever been made. One of them for example is a film called Invasion Of The Saucer Men. Paul Blaisdell did these cool big brained, bug eyed aliens that were little people and I thought ‘We gotta do a version of those!’
“So we updated it some and cleaned it up but pretty much any science fiction film we did a homage to, so that was a lot of fun.
“I also had a lot of fun with Boris who is like the Edgar [Vincent D’Onofrio’s character from the first MIB] in this movie, the main guy played by Jemaine Clement. He was just a cool, fun guy to do this kind of space biker alien guy.”
On how CGI has changed the way he works...
“It’s definitely taken away a lot of the animatronic parts of our business, even though we did make some animatronic aliens for MIB 3. I also designed and actually modelled one in particular.
“I do a lot of my designs digitally and have been doing so for a long time, usually just 2D digitally with Photoshop but for quite a few years I’ve been doing actual 3D models. I did one in particular that’s actually part of Boris. It’s kind of like his weapon, called The Weasel.
“I designed and modelled that in the computer and we actually gave the computer model to some of the Imageworks guys and we also drew a 3D print from my computer model, which we moulded and actually made [out of silicone].”
“I actually embrace the technology, I think it’s great to be able to do things that we can’t do with rubber. I still think there’s a real value to having the real thing on the set, you know, having the person in the make-up.
“Every time, I resent when they do things that we could have done perfectly well in the real world but they do it with a computer, at ten times the expense.”
On the first Men In Black film…
“On the first film none of us really knew what MIB was going to be and we didn’t even know what the feel of the movie was and so it was really interesting when I first talked to Barry and Barry said in his funny, like whiny voice, ‘Man, I’ve never even seen a science fiction film’ and some of the guys in my shop were going ‘Oh my god, what have we gotten into? The guy’s never even seen a science fiction film.’
"And I said ‘Well, this could be a good thing,’ though I must admit I kind of freaked out at first too.
“I tried to put a positive spin on it and I said, ‘This could be a really good thing, he could bring something to it that’s not just going to be the clichéd thing,’ which I think he did.
“Films are always difficult and I kept saying ‘Well, this is a movie about aliens on Earth and I don’t think there are enough aliens in it and I think some of the aliens that are in it and some of the moments in it are just kind of lame.’ And they said, ‘Well, do you have a better idea?’
“So I said ‘Yeah, how about this?’ I suggested a lot of things, a number of which they went for, like the little man inside the guy’s head. I had a lot of problems with the logic of some of the stuff, you know, the fact that this giant bug from space comes down and is able to fit inside a man.
"I kept calling Barry and I said ‘I don’t understand this, I mean if the guy’s twelve feet tall, how did he fit in a six foot man?’ and they kept saying ‘Well, he folds up, like a Swiss army knife.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, his forearm is four feet long so no matter what, if it folds, it’s still a four-foot-long arm.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s not important,’ and in the end he was right.
“The problem is, because I have to fit people into things I was over-thinking it but it was a learning experience for all of us, just to figure out what this MIB universe was.”
On the highlights of his career…
“Something I’m still real proud of is Harry from Harry And The Hendersons, which I think was called Bigfoot And The Hendersons in England. It was my first radio controlled animatronic mask, which the actor also partly controlled and I think it still looks good.
“I’ve heard from other people like Richard Taylor, the Creature Effects guy at Weta, that this is the high watermark for this kind of creature and I think it still holds up well.
“I’m also proud of American Werewolf but I cringe when I see some of the stuff. I mean we were inventing it at the time and as we were doing it, the average age of my crew member was eighteen. I hired kids that sent me fan mail because I knew I was going to need more than just myself and it wasn’t like it is now.
“There weren’t studios that were full of people that were doing this, so I brought these kids from around the United States to California and I was training them and we did something that, although it’s been thirty years or so, still looks pretty good but there’s stuff that I know we could just do so much better now.”
On The Wolfman...
“Unfortunately, the transformation was all CG. I was really hoping to be much more involved with that aspect of it and do a real kind of hybrid of make-up effects and CG and, frankly, was really disappointed.
“The original Wolfman was one of the reasons I do what I do. All of the classic Universal horror movies that I saw on TV when I was a kid really warped me into becoming this guy that wanted to do this stuff. When I heard they were going to do a remake of The Wolf Man... I’ve always been real fond of werewolves and I just said, “You know, I gotta do this!’
“I liked that it was going to be an old school gothic horror movie. When I first heard about it, the first thing I thought was they’ll do some CG werewolf and he’s going to be climbing the walls and ceilings and shit but when I heard that they actually wanted to do make-up I was really excited. I wanted to do it old school and very much like the way Jack Pierce did it in the original Wolf Man.
“I had hoped to really do something cool with the transformation and that’s one reason they wanted me too, because of American Werewolf and there you’ve got a transformation. I said, ‘The difference is in American Werewolf we had a naked man changing into a four legged hound from hell, in The Wolfman we have Benicio Del Toro and then Benicio Del Toro with some hair on his face.’
“There aren’t a lot of structural changes that we can really show off. So when they first talked to me, I said I really don’t frankly have a clue on what to do then at this point but I know it can’t be the same thing, there’s not as much latitude and it doesn’t go this far.
“I eventually came up with the concept where instead of going from A to B, B being Benicio in make-up and A being Benicio, let’s go off in some crazy directions and let’s show some of the pain of changing into Wolfman but not do it in a real linear fashion and just kind of have him bend in weird ways. They took a lot of those ideas and we actually made some animatronic parts but they never even photographed them.”
On Tim Burton’s Ed Wood…
“That movie and The Wolfman are the only two movies I think I’ve ever really pursued in my life, I kind of like it when people come to me.
“First of all I’m a Tim Burton fan and I’m a Lugosi fan and an Ed Wood fan and a Martin Landau fan and when I heard this was happening I just said I have to do this. I had met Tim right out of Cal Arts actually and there was a costume designer, Kelly Kimball, whose father was Ward Kimball, one of the ‘Nine Old Men’ and animators at Disney and I had worked with her on 'Thriller'.
“She was working at Disney and Tim and Rick Heinrichs were there doing Frankenweenie or one of those things and she goes, ‘You gotta meet these guys, they’re really talented and they have the same strange outlook on life as you do.’ We met and we actually talked about a couple of projects that never really happened but that’s how I knew Tim, so I called up and said I really gotta do this.
“The Wolfman was kind of the same thing. When I heard about it I was actually at Universal working on something in the backlot and I just went into someone’s office and I stood there and said, 'Is this really happening, and if it is I want to do it.'”
On Burton’s Planet Of The Apes…
“The original is really an important make-up movie and it inspired a lot of people to become make-up artists and I’ve always been kind of an ape nut anyway, even before that.
“That same year I saw Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had those really cool early men or ape men that Stuart Freeborn did, and it was really interesting. I think I was 17 or 18 at the time and they were two very different approaches for two very different films and I really studied that.
“I thought it was really cool that Stuart Freeborn’s apes could bare their teeth, their lips would pull back and you could see their teeth and the Planet apes didn’t do that. Their teeth were glued in their rubber muzzle and they would open and close, or if they smiled their teeth would kind of bend, but I think they both chose the right approach for the film that they were doing.
“I was originally approached about an Apes remake something like seven years before the Tim Burton one happened. The first thing I did was to think about how you would do it, and the more I thought about it the more I thought it really should be actors in make-up and not animatronic characters. I really wanted to be able to go beyond the boundaries of what the foam rubber pieces were in the original Planet Of The Apes.
“I did a make-up test on myself seven years before where I built these big-ass dentures and I shoved them in my mouth. That distorted it very much into a muzzle already… I just thought the problem is going to be that whenever you put even small dentures into an actor’s mouth the first thing they say is, ‘I won’t be able to talk with these in,’ - and I’m talking about huge dentures – but, you know, with practice you can.
“In the end, I only had four months to prep on Planet Of The Apes and I showed Tim the tests I did on myself and I said I think this is the way we should go if we can get some actors real soon...
“We can do this but I said I want to have all of the actors, before they sign a contract, come to my studio and I want to show them this test, and I want to show them the teeth, and I want to put the teeth in, and I want to show them how I can talk with these big teeth in, and explain basically what their life is going to be like for the next number of months because it’s no picnic sitting in the make-up chair for three and a half hours in the morning and an hour at night, but it turned out really well.
“I really expected at the end of that movie to have all these guys in make-up chasing me around trying to kill me like villagers in the Frankenstein movie but they all basically knew what they were getting into because they came here and I showed them and I said we’ll make some practice teeth for you, you can put them in, you can read the paper, you can sing in the shower, whatever you want to do but you have to practice and you’ll get it to work and it was actually really an amazingly pleasant experience.
“Everybody knew the job was dangerous when they took it and they were great.”
On Tropic Thunder…
“I got a phonecall from Steve Molen who I worked with on the first MIB actually, who’s over at Dreamworks and he just said, ‘I need somebody to Photoshop Sean Penn as a black guy and I need it tonight!’
“And I went, ‘OK, can you give me a picture of Sean Penn?’ And fortunately they just sent me something off the internet that was really crappy resolution but I did a Photoshop painting of Sean Penn as a black guy and sent it to them and they were really happy.
“They called me back a couple of days later and were like 'OK, he passed on the project,' so we went through a number of actors and I was just turning them into African Americans not really knowing why.
“And then they wanted Robert Downey Jr. and when he agreed they said Ben Stiller wants you to do the make-up and I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ When they told me the story I said what I’d done with Photoshop was never going to work so we actually turned it down.
“I designed the make-up and we made the pieces and I had someone who put it on for the movie but I didn’t actually apply it. I was thinking they were going to get life suits for it but you know, I’ve also made Eddie Murphy an old Jewish man and a Chinese man and a Richard Simmons exercise guy, which is kind of the same difference.”
On The Grinch…
“I almost instantly visualised what I thought it would be but it’s really hard to turn something like that, which were very simple line drawings [into practical effects]. But there are things that we cannot do.
“The Grinch had a very long neck and really big eyes, but [that could be done done digitally for some scenes]. Again I did a test make-up on myself and shot some stuff and then actually did some digital deformations where I had the neck stretch out to accentuate a certain phrase or something, so I thought we could do some stuff like that.
“I also digitally twisted my face and did a bigger smile which they didn’t end up doing in the movie, but I think I knew what this Grinch should have been. The Whos, the people of Whoville, it’s like, ‘What the fuck are these things?’
"You look at them in the book and they’re almost like these weird bug people and I just said we’re really talking about scary territory when you start messing with a human-like face and start changing things around: it can get real scary, real fast.
"Then I said what about Cindy Lou Who? Are you really talking about a little girl playing this part because you have time restrictions and you can’t put her in three hour make-up, so that was the hardest thing, just trying to figure out what the Whos were.
“We did tons of designs and make-up tests and went through all kinds of crazy gyrations to try to figure things out. It was a huge make-up show: we had ninety people a day in make-up for four and a half months. Every day when someone wears one of the rubber appliances we need a new one and, you know, every time we put rubber in the moulds it doesn’t necessarily work; it was an ordeal.
“I didn’t think there were enough make-up artists in Hollywood that could put this kind of make-up on and I actually had basically a casting call and I just said, ‘If anybody thought they could do this, just come to my studio and put on their make-up,’ and I could see what they could do, and then we had a training period.
“It actually turned out to be a really great experience and there were a lot of terrific people and it was fun. I was a big Wizard Of Oz fan too and I wanted to do a big fantasy movie that was like that.”
On his early work on The Exorcist…
“On The Exorcist, I was just a flunky lab assistant to Dick Smith, who was the master on that movie. I had been corresponding with Dick for a few years and it was pretty much a one-man show, he was working out of his basement in his house in New York and he did a number of designs and a number of tests.
“They chose what Regan was going to look like and Dick had prepared all the appliances in advance and they were actually in the process of filming on the first day that Regan worked and he put on the make-up that everyone had agreed upon and one of the grips said, ‘Oh, she’s got her mask on now,’ and William Friedkin freaked out and said, ‘We cant use this, it’s too masky.’
“Dick freaked out because he had spent months preparing this stuff and now they were filming and it’s like, ‘What the hell am I gonna do?’ So I got this panicked call from Dick and he said, ‘Basically I’ve gotta start all over with this and we’re already in production and I need help, and would you be willing to come and live in my house and work in my basement and help me get through this?’ And it was like ‘Sure!’
“It was a real opportunity and it was funny, I was outraged at the time that anybody dare question Dick Smith’s design but the reality was they were right. What we finally ended up with was better for the film than what Dick had originally designed and so I learned that actually sometimes directors are right.”
On his early work on Star Wars…
“For Star Wars I did 30 or so aliens for the cantina scene. The cantina scene had already been filmed, the aliens had been done by Stuart Freeborn but he was ill during the summer and George basically wanted to embellish upon that scene.
“The funny thing was, I had a group of friends that I’d known since I was a teenager when I started meeting a lot of these guys and we all read Famous Monsters Of Filmland and we were Ray Harryhausen fans, we liked the same kind of movies and stuff and we were the oddball kids, we didn’t do sports.
“We all said, ‘Hopefully some day we’re going to be able to work on a movie,’ and these guys now have a whole bunch of Oscars and have changed the industry, and they were like these fanboy kids.
“Dennis [Muren] and Ken [Ralston] were working on the visual effects for Star Wars and when George said, ‘Do you know anybody that could make some masks and put some more aliens in here?’ They said ‘Yeah!’ and they gave me a call and I went up there and George showed me the scene and I was just so excited by the whole concept of this bar full of aliens.
“We did thirty new aliens and added a lot to that sequence and it was a real valuable thing for me. For example, on American WerewolfIn London, John Landis said he knew the transformation was going to involve a long make-up and it would be slow days, so what he did was shoot the whole film and then we had the wrap party and then a small crew came in and we shot the transformation scene so there wasn’t the pressure of having the whole crew there.
“With the Star Wars thing, the Cantina band - which was actually my design - they were never there in the original set. It was shot in a whole different continent months later by different people but you would swear when you see the movie that those aliens are there playing the music.
“That’s the magic thing about movies and many times I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we shoot this in post production or at an insert stage and do it later when we can do it right?’, and people would say, “Well, you can’t do it, it’ll never work,” and I would use Star Wars as an example. That was one of the most valuable things about working on Star Wars.
“The funny thing was too, there’s a bunch of things in there that I just threw in that I had made for fun.”
On the future…
“At my age now it’s just a challenge to get up in the morning. I’ve kind of slowed down and am trying to be selective about what I do.
“I have this huge studio and I had a crew of people that I used to employ steadily and it gets really expensive and I would have to take jobs that I didn’t necessarily want to take just to keep the bills paid.
“When my parents died it became much more real to me that there’s an end in sight and it’s not all that far away, and do I really want to be doing shit that I don’t want to be doing? So I just got rid of my crew and I decided to take a sabbatical and just get away from work for a while and just do some of my own things and not have the pressure of having to keep these people employed. I’m in that phase of my life right now.
“I’m actually working on a film in the UK called Maleficent but I’m just doing Angelina Jolie’s make-up because she asked me to. She was kind of hard to turn down. I mean, I usually get fat people [Nutty Proffesor II: The Klumps, Norbit] to work with so it’s nice to have a pretty face to look at.
“I’m actually right in the midst of a book about my career, which is more my life and work in photos with not that many words. I’ve been doing this for fifty years, you know I started when I was 10 years old and I’m kind of a hoarder so I have basically everything I’ve ever made.
“I have photos and sketchbooks. I’m doing the layout myself but other than that, challenge-wise I like doing new things and what I like about what I do is that every job is different and I’m just hoping that somebody comes to me to do something else that would be worth my time doing.”
On his hopes for MIB 3…
“I have high hopes for this. I think it’s going to be a lot better than MIB 2. I know there’s been a lot of shit on the internet about what a crazy production it was but I think it’s all going to come together and be really cool.
“I know Josh Brolin was just amazing. On the set I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t watching Tommy Lee Jones. He is just so good. I can’t wait to see it.”
Men In Black III opens on 25 May 2012.
Read our Men In Black 3 review.
What is your favourite Rick Baker creation? Tell us!