Revisiting Cinefex (16): Rick Baker

Cinefex 16You might think that’s a real ape on the front cover of Cinefex #16. In fact, it’s Kala, one of the remarkable ape characters created by Rick Baker for Hugh Hudson’s 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. On the back cover is a searing close-up of the pneumatically operated ‘Change-O Head #2’ from John Landis’s classic An American Werewolf in London. If it were me, I’d have put the werewolf on the front (I’m a sucker for shapeshifters), but the Kala image illustrates perfectly Baker’s career-spanning quest for the perfect ape make-up. It’s this quest that provides the thread through a single, in-depth article spanning 72 pages.

  • Rick Baker – Maker of Monsters, Master of the Apes (article by Jordan Fox)

Rick Baker

You can read Jordan Fox’s extensive review of Rick Baker’s movie career on a number of levels. First and foremost, it tells the story more or less in Baker’s own words. First-hand reporting has always been the great strength of Cinefex, and it’s very much in evidence here.

Fox’s text is peppered with countless quotes, asides and anecdotes from Baker himself, beginning with the early days – ‘I wasn’t the average kid in my neighbourhood. I really liked monsters and monster movies – even the cheap crummy ones’ – and running all the way up to his (then) latest project: a line of dancing zombies for Michael Jackson’s Thriller video … including his own brief cameo in it. ‘I’m the guy who opens the door and comes out of the crypt,’ he says, ‘with my eyes rolled back.’

Baker was something of a child prodigy. As a teenager, he used his parents’ oven to create make-up appliances. ‘You don’t want to put a turkey in the oven after you’ve just baked some foam,’ he says laconically. He watched movies and copied what he saw, finding various mentors along the way. But the thing that, as Fox puts it, ‘detonated a bomb in Baker’s backyard’ was the publication in 1965 of Dick Smith’s Monster Makeup Handbook.

Baker talks openly about how Smith’s book inspired him, gushing over its clarity and depth. Of course, he’s not the only make-up artist to acknowledge his debt to Smith. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading Jody Duncan’s definitive The Winston Effect, in which the late Stan Winston makes very similar remarks. It’s fascinating, actually, to track how Baker’s career developed alongside Winston’s, with both artists sometimes competing for the same projects.

rc16awThat kind of competition, you’d think, would foster an atmosphere of secrecy. In the 1980s, the overlapping fields of make-up, prosthetics and animatronics were developing fast. No, strike that, they were exploding, and pioneers like Baker and Winston were riding the shock wave. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Baker spends much of this article telling us exactly how he built a gorilla suit for John Landis’s Schlock, precisely what went into the ground-breaking transformation scenes in An American Werewolf in London and gives us chapter and verse on his definitive ape costumes for Greystoke. Dick Smith’s candid attitude clearly rubbed off. As Jordan Fox says, ‘there has been a remarkably free exchange of information between Dick Smith, Baker, the Burmans and Stan Winston, to help each other out and to advance the state of the art.’

In fact, I’d suggest that the openness of artists like Baker and Winston marks the beginning of a trend not just in make-up but in visual effects as a whole. The early days of Hollywood, when artists and technicians were hog-tied to studio contracts and the studios themselves were practically at war with each other, can’t exactly have fostered an atmosphere of cooperation. Visual effects techniques frequently had patents attached to them and innovation – the staple of the VFX artist – bred secrecy. That continued right into the 1980s: think about Tom Naud and his Introvision process or Carlo Rambaldi’s reluctance to talk about what went on inside ET.

These days, when even moderate-sized movies have to rely on multiple vendors to fulfil their VFX needs, there’s a powerful need to share both knowledge, resources and, increasingly, digital assets. Just read the article on Red Tails in the recent Cinefex #129 if you don’t believe me. In this respect, Baker and those like him were way ahead of the curve.

After describing Baker’s upbringing and first experiments in make-up, Fox’s article leads us deftly through his career, skipping from his early assignments creating a mutant baby for It’s Alive (the more he delivered, the more the director wanted) to how he inflated Yaphet Kotto’s head for Live and Let Die. We get to visit the Star Wars cantina and squirm with horror at The Incredible Melting Man.

Along the way, Baker takes the time to give us a series of masterclasses in techniques ranging from hand-knotting hair for animal suits to precisely how to bake the best foam (and yes, you do need to take the turkey out of the oven first). If wannabe make-up artists are still consulting Dick Smith’s book, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this issue of Cinefex is stacked on the bookshelf right beside it.

For me, one of the big pulls of this issue when I bought it was the coverage of An American Werewolf in London, a favourite of mine and the film for which Rick Baker one the first ever regular Oscar for make-up. Discussing Werewolf, Baker is particularly complementary about the actors who had to endure the arduous application of his complex make-ups. ‘I’m usually not that fond of actors,’ he admits. ‘To them, going to the kind of make-up artist who does what I do is like a trip to the dentist. But David [Naughton] and Griffin Dunne were really great about it.’ The movie’s central transformation scene is dissected in glorious detail; also discussed is the shudderingly convincing ‘ripped flesh’ make-up worn by Dunne.

Next came Videodrome, and finally Greystoke. The latter was a real labour of love for Baker. Throughout his career, he’d been trying to create the ultimate ape suit. Now here was his chance. He’d had his fingers burned on the 1976 Guillerman/de Laurentis remake of King Kong. Earlier in the article he outlines the many problems he had working on that less than successful project, summing up the experience with the comment, ‘My mind tries to suppress the memory of King Kong.’ Counfounded by union rules and creative differences with the producers, he and Carlo Rambaldi ended up creating a Kong suit that he describes as ‘a joke.’

rc16gWith Greystoke, Baker poured all his experience into creating his ultimate ape suits. ‘Having done this so many times before,’ he says, ‘I knew exactly … where we had to improve.’ He tells us about the new foams he developed and how he integrated realistic musculature into the costumes. We learn that he gave the Silverbeard character varicose veins and how multiple pivot points on an articulated brow offer a much wider range of emotion. Draining as the Greystoke experience was – ‘I doubt I’ll want to see another ape suit again after this’ – Baker professes that he’s ‘finally happy with the results.’

Buried inside all this talk of films that happened is a wonderful nugget about one that didn’t: Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies, the scary alien movie he was going to make before he changed his mind and got cute with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Search for this project on the internet and you’ll find it’s achieved a kind of mythical status among SF and movie geeks; back 1984, when I read Cinefex #16 for the first time, I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of it. What a treat, then, to get an entire page describing Baker’s contribution to this ultimately ill-fated project, for which he created a prototype alien. According to Fox, ‘the few people who have seen a video test of the crude prototype are convinced that it held the clear potential of eclipsing any screen alien ever attempted.’ Ah, what might have been.

The pictures

Sadly, there are no pictures of the Night Skies alien, but there are a wealth of behind-the-scenes shots showing Rick Baker at work, many of them contributed by his wife Elaine. They’re all worth poring over, but the one I especially love is one of Baker wearing the replica Planet of the Apes mask he made when he was just nineteen. The shot was taken in a photo booth and the mask looks fantastic, not least because of the extraordinary look of surprise Baker is pulling beneath it. According to the caption, Baker ‘created a stir at the local drugstore when he walked in to have his picture taken in a coin-operated booth.’ I only wish I’d been there to see it.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

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