In 1982, for the very first time in history, the “Best Makeup and Hairstyling” category won an Academy Award. Rick Baker’s name was announced and met with roaring applause as he bounded up the steps to accept his Oscar for his work on An American Werewolf in London. This recognition of special effects makeup catapulted the monster-making business forward.
Baker always had a love for monsters and special effects makeup growing up. As a teenager, he made artificial body parts in his kitchen. He went on to become one of the world’s greatest special effects artists of all time and was nominated for eleven more Academy Awards, winning seven in total. Some of Baker’s most iconic works include Men in Black, Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, The Wolfman, Norbit, The Haunted Mansion, Maleficent, and so much more.
How Rick Baker Got His Special Effects/Make-Up Start
At eighteen years old, Rick Baker met Dick Smith, a special effects makeup artist known for his talent for morphing human faces. Smith is responsible for the make-up in The Godfather, Amadeus, Taxi Driver, and more. Baker worked under Smith for a little film called The Exorcist.
William Friedkin, the director, disapproved of Smith’s make-up ideas for Regan. As a result, Dick Smith faced the issue of not being able to be in two places at once. He couldn’t work on applying make-up on-set and building new prosthetics in his lab. Dick asked Rick Baker to help him. Baker rushed to New York and worked hard in Smith’s lab, making foam casts and prosthetics.
They tried six different designs before landing on the final, iconic piece in the film. Baker helped Smith turn sweet, wide-eyed Regan into a lacerated, bloody demon. Although Baker did most of his work in Smith’s lab, Smith did give Baker the opportunity to do some work on set. Baker did the old age, stippling on Max von Sydow’s hands.
Rick Baker’s Hairy Creations
Director John Landis was on the hunt for an ape suit for his directorial debut Schlock. Even a low-quality ape suit would cost him thousands that he didn’t have. During his search, someone offered him a small business card that read “Rick Baker, Monster Maker” with a phone number. Landis contacted twenty-year-old Rick Baker, who he hired to make the Schlock Ape suit for a low budget.
Baker didn’t have access to much and ran into some issues. He created the ape suit molds in his mother’s oven and had problems with the fur. It kept sliding off of the long johns because of a massive heatwave. Even with all the difficulties, the suit came together beautifully in the end.
David Kessler howled in pain as his hands and feet elongated into claws, he sprouted fur all over his body, and his face grew a snout full of razor-sharp fangs. Thirty-year-old Rick Baker with the help of a team of nineteen-year-old artists created an entire werewolf transformation scene without the use of CGI in An American Werewolf in London.
I’m good at laying hair directly one someone’s face and working with hair, which is a lost art.
It took an entire week to finish shooting the scene. Baker faced a difficult task of having the transformation take place in a brightly lit apartment. Shadows and pale moonlight hid flaws in practical horror makeup.
Baker hurdled over yet another special effects obstacle. Now, the werewolf transformation scene is one of the best in practical effects history. Michael Jackson loved the film so much he recruited Baker to create a werewolf transformation in his music video “Thriller.”
Those that worked with Baker all thought of him in the same way; he may be young, but he’s brilliant. Rick Baker continued to do a lot more “hairy” work. He created Harry in Harry and the Hendersons, the apes in Planet of the Apes (2001), the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Will Randall in Wolf, and more hairy beasts.
The Battle Between Practical Effects & CGI
Rick Baker is known for his love of practical effects, so how does he feel about CGI? Some people say he hates CGI, but that isn’t entirely true. Baker seems to have a love-hate relationship with CGI. Baker has said that he does respect the changing times. Some artists have lost their jobs for refusing to use new technology and Baker has kept that in mind during his career.
He has used photoshop combined with practical effects for some of his work. He thinks the digital age is very interesting. Rick Baker doesn’t have an issue with the technology itself. However, he does have an issue with how digitalization is utilized. Rick argues digital work is a tool to help with filmmaking, not a crutch.
“I think the worst thing about digital technology is that it’s made a lot of sloppy filmmaking.”
Baker feels that there is a very unique art that goes into doing everything by hand. Practical effects force artists to make creative decisions quickly. Post-production editing fixes flaws that could have been done by hand. A lot of films these days require everything to be done cheap and fast, therefore, practical effects aren’t as needed. Practical effects require time and small attention to detail.
“I think there’s a real difference when you know that something’s really happening. That guy really did risk his life, and this guy’s really standing in front of the camera doing this.”
The Retirement Of A Legend
Rick Baker has since retired from special effects and makeup. He occasionally does smaller projects and design consultations, but no longer has a large studio. In the age of CGI, he feels that how he wants to create his monsters no longer has space in the film industry.
Make no mistake, Rick Baker is not bitter. His work remains iconic and incredible. No matter how far technology comes, practical effects will always have a place in the heart of cinema. If you would like to see some of Rick Baker’s work in action, check out this video of how he transformed Eddie Murphy into the Nutty Professor!