Monday 30 March 2015

An Appreciation of Rick Baker

The 54th Academy Awards were presented March 29th, 1982 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, with the ceremony presided over by Johnny Carson.  It was the first year that the award for Best Make-up was presented and the winner was Rick Baker for his work on "An American Werewolf In London"

When I discovered the magic of movie special effects make-up, first through a Planet Of The Apes annual in 1976 and later by watching a wonderful BBC2 strand of old black & white horror films, I was an instant fan of the art.  Around the time that I was developing an interest, a man was starting to make waves in the industry with his superb designs, solid work ethic and photo-realistic creations.
‘I wasn’t the average kid in my neighbourhood. I really liked monsters and monster movies – even the cheap crummy ones’

At the 'local drugstore photobooth'
Richard A. “Rick” Baker was born in Binghamton, New York on 8th December, 1950.  A fan of monster movies from an early age, he once said “the first make-up artist I was ever really aware of - and became a fan of - was Jack P. Pierce. He did all the great classic Universal monsters, especially Frankenstein's monster [and] that make-up hasn't been outdone. It has become this iconic image. Everybody when they think of the Monster thinks of Jack's make-up.”  His passion was fuelled by TV shows, such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits”, as well as the magazine “Famous Monsters Of Filmland”, especially the articles by a make-up artist called Dick Smith.  Baker began building monster kits and, a good artist, he took to making himself and his friends up when he was a teenager.  In fact, he often used his parents oven to create make-up appliances and is quoted as saying “You don’t want to put a turkey in the oven after you’ve just baked some foam.”  He took photographs of these appliances, often going to the “local drugstore in full make-up to use the photo-booth there”, which must have caused quite a stir!

His first professional industry job was at the Clokey Studios, where he was a puppet designer for the stop-motion animation series “Davey And Goliath” but his life changed in 1965 when he got a copy of Dick Smith’s “Monster Makeup Handbook”.  Smith was already an influential make-up artist who helped revolutionise the field, starting out in TV before branching into films and creating work that still has the power to amaze today.  For Baker, the book showed him a way forward and he’s open about how much it inspired him - as it also did the late, great Stan Winston.  In fact, Baker and Winston maintained a good working relationship and friendship, sharing ideas and information with each other well into the 1980s.

When he was 18, Baker wrote to Smith, who invited the young artist to his house (where he had his make-up studio) the next time ‘he was in town’.  Baker, with relatives nearby, took up the invitation and Smith, immediately seeing the talent, quickly became his mentor, showing his young protégée the tricks of the trade.  Baker’s first credit on a big film was assisting Smith with his work on “The Exorcist” (1973).

Working on Baron Samedi, for "Live And Let Die"
Following this, he worked uncredited on “Live And Let Die” (1973) (creating the shot Baron Samedi and Yaphet Kotto’s exploding head), created the monster baby in “It’s Alive” (1973) before joining forces with fellow Dick Smith fan Stan Winston on the television movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1973), in which the lead character ages to 110 years old and for which Baker won an Emmy Award.

Baker’s next big break came with the 1976 version of “King Kong”.  A long-time admirer of apes, he felt he was the right man for the job and joined in eager collaboration with Carlo Rambaldi, for director John Guillerman and producer Dino DeLaurentis.  Unfortunately, the production was plagued with problems and he now sums up the experience with “my mind tries to suppress the memory of King Kong”.  He describes the Kong he and Rambaldi designed, amidst restrictive union rules and creative differences with the producers, as "a joke" and much was made of the full-size animatronic version that Rambaldi built though for the bulk of the time we see Kong, it’s Baker in a suit.  Rambaldi’s mechanical Kong, all 40ft and 6.5tonnes of it (built at a cost of $1.7m), is only seen in a few brief shots, racking up about 15 seconds of screen time.

Rick Baker, with some of his "Star Wars" creations
Burned by his experience, Baker worked on the lower-budgeted killer worm movie “Squirm” and “The Incredible Melting man” (both 1976), before helping out friends with second-unit work for the cantina sequence of “Star Wars” (1977).  He contributed several aliens (some of which are only visible in the original releases) and also played one of the band members.
The final 'change-o-head', just before its few seconds of brilliance, from "An American Werewolf In London"
“An American Werewolf In London” (1981) was ground-breaking in many ways.  John Landis originally wrote the screenplay in the early 70s and discussed the film with Baker when they were making “Schlock” (1973) together, giving Rick plenty of time to come up with some effects that hadn’t been seen on film before.  The delay - it took eight years to get the film financed - meant that Baker had already used some of the ideas when he started work on “The Howling” (also 1981) though Rick left that production in the hands of his protégée Rob Bottin (who would go on to create the special effects for “The Thing”).
There were a lot of effects in the film (werewolf victims, ‘meatloaf’ Jack, the wolf itself) but the key sequence was the transformation, which Landis specified in the script ‘happens in bright light and it's extremely painful.’  As well as featuring make-up appliances on the actor David Naughton, the sequence employed what Baker called ‘change-o-heads’.  These were elaborate puppet reproductions of parts of Naughton’s body (head, face, feet, torso, hands) that could stretch and transform into the wolf in real time on camera.  Naughton said the transformation sequence (shot at the end of the production schedule) took six days to complete, the make-up and effects so laborious that only half an hour of footage was filmed in the week.  The snout pushing through, the key change-o-head, was the last thing to be shot.  As Baker says, “It would take us months to make one of the Change-O-Heads, but it would be quick to shoot [and] we laughed that the head parts took so little time on camera. It would be, “Action!”, the thing does its job, “Cut! We got it!” seconds later. I'd be, like, “What? Is that it? Don't we need another take?” And John would ask, “Does it do anything else?” “Nope…” And that would be it. All that work and it was over in a blink!  But when the movie came out, I took my crew to see it and when the transformation came on screen, people stood up, clapped and cheered…”
Behind the scenes - left: John Landis pushes Rick Baker, who is operating the wolf puppet head in Piccadilly Circus
right - the crew working on the 'spine' segment of the transformation sequence
The "American Werewolf In London" crew
In fact, the result was so impressive that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to create a new Oscar award category specifically - Outstanding Achievement In Makeup - with Baker the first recipient.

And here it is, in all its glory (with the key 'Change-o-heads' at 2.01 and 2.09)…

After extensive work on David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983) (which I blogged about at length here), Baker re-united with John Landis for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983), which came about because the singer was so impressed by “American Werewolf” (and Rick gets a cameo, as “the guy who opens the door and comes out of the crypt, with my eyes rolled back.”).

Rick Baker's make-up for Kala, which graced the cover of Cinefex 16
Then came Hugh Hudson’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984), which was a true labour of love for Baker and the opportunity to create the ultimate ape suit that he’d tried so hard to do with King Kong.  He poured all of his experience into the project and relocated to England, setting up his workshop in Stage 5 at the EMI Elstree Studios.  For a year, Baker’s fifty-person crew (along with a further forty wig-makers) became an ape-suit factory, turning out numerous finished suits in an assembly-line fashion (each one took about eight weeks to complete).  None of the suits were identical and some, for key characters, had to be shown to age.  Baker said in a Cinefex interview; “We went for a fictitious kind of ape - not a chimp and not a gorilla, but some lean more in one direction or the other. That's what was fun. I could draw what I liked from different apes and combine them according to what seemed to fit the character. Kala, Tarzan's ape-mother, is more like a chimp, though her ears are smaller. White Eyes, a mean one, is closer to a gorilla. Figs, a big fat one, has a lot of orangutan in him.”  Although he was Oscar nominated, he lost out to Dick Smith’s work on “Amadeus”.

Baker works on Kevin Peter Hall, buried under the Harry make-up
Eddie Murphy, as Saul
Baker won his next Oscar for “Harry And The Hendersons” (1987).  He has since called his work on the film “one of my proudest achievements.  I really loved that character and I think it still holds up.  I read an article about CG stuff and somebody was talking about animatronics and how they didn'’t think they could do something better than Harry was in that film -– and I did that in the 80s.”.  He was nominated the following year for “Coming To America” (1988).  As well as re-uniting him with John Landis, it was also the first time he worked with Eddie Murphy, making him up as several different characters in the film.  Of them all, the one that took most people by surprise (including those who I watched the film at the cinema with) was Saul, the old Jewish man in the barbershop.  Says Baker, “the make-up was something like 15 or 17 separate pieces of foam rubber, and when we got him all made up he couldn’t believe it, it was much more real than he expected it to be.”

Rick Baker working on David Warner in "Planet Of The Apes"
Dave Elsey and Rick Baker work on Benicio del toro for "The Wolfman"
For “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), Baker created hyper-realistic ape suits that were mixed with real primates in the film and virtually undetectable, created a horde of Gremlins for “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990), which he also co-produced, made a werewolf of Jack Nicholson in “Wolf” (1994) and won another Oscar for transforming Martin Landua into Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood” (1994).  In “The Nutty Professor” (1996), Baker worked with Eddie Murphy once more, making him both big and all the members of the Klump family, before taking on aliens in “Men in Black” (1997), which was great fun.  Another ape (much bigger this time) featured in  “Mighty Joe Young” (1998), Jim Carrey became the Grinch in Oscar winning make--up for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) and Eddie Murphy was back in the make-up chair for “Nutty
Professor II: The Klumps” (2000).  For Tim Burton’s poorly received “Planet of the Apes” (2001) - it’s really not very good - Baker created the excellent ape effects and his work was one of the few things praised in the film.  Although he worked solidly through the 2000s, it wasn’t until “The Wolfman” (2010) that he won another Oscar, in partnership with Dave Elsey.  Unfortunately, the transformation is all CGI and it shows.  More recently, Baker worked on “Men in Black 3” (2012) - the Boris The Animal make-up is superb - and “Maleficent” (2014).

He was married to his first wife, Elaine Baker (nee Parkyn), from 1974 to 1984.  In addition to helping him with the effects, she also appeared in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) as The Emperor (her voice was dubbed by Clive Revill and the eyes of an orangutan were composited over hers), though her appearance was replaced by Ian McDiarmid in all prints following “Return Of The Jedi”.  He is now married to Silva Abascal, with whom he has two daughters.

Baker was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters from the Academy of Art University San Francisco in 2008.  In 2009, he received the ‘Jack Pierce - Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the Chiller-Eyegore Awards.  He also has a star (the 2,485th) on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, located in front of the Guinness World Records Museum.

He holds the record for the most Academy Awards wins (seven) and nominations (twelve) for make-up artists.
Rick Baker wins his first Oscar, 1982
Filmography (make-up effects, unless specified)

Octaman (1971) (costume, with Doug Beswick)
Bone (1972) (uncredited)
The Thing with Two Heads (1972) (uncredited)
Schlock (1973)
The Exorcist (1973) (special effects assistant)
Live And Let Die (1973) (uncredited)
Cop Killers (1973)
Black Caesar (1973) (uncredited)
It's Alive (1974)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Flesh Gordon (1974)
King Kong (1976) (plus actor)
Track of the Moon Beast (1976)
Squirm (1976)
Zebra Force (1976)
The Food Of The Gods (1976) (uncredited)
The Incredible Melting Man (1977)
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) (cantina make-ups for second unit, plus one of the band members)
The Fury (1978)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Howling (1981) (consultant)
The Funhouse (1981)
The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)
Videodrome (1983)
Thriller (1983)
Starnan (1984) (transformation sequence, with Dick Smith)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
Into the Night (1985) (actor only)
My Science Project (1985)
Captain EO (1986)
Ratboy (1986) (design only)
Harry and the Hendersons (1987)
Beauty and the Beast (1987–89) (design of Beast)
Werewolf (1987–88)
Coming to America (1988)
Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Missing Link (1988)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) (also co-producer)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Wolf (1994)
Ed Wood (1994)
Batman Forever (1995)
The Nutty Professor (1996)
The Frighteners (1996) (design of The Judge)
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Ghosts (1997)
Men in Black (1997)
Critical Care (1997)
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
Life (1999)
Wild Wild West (1999)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Men in Black II (2002)
The Ring (2002)
The Haunted Mansion (2003)
Hellboy (2004)
The Ring Two (2005)
King Kong (2005) (actor only)
Cursed (2005)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Click (2006)
Enchanted (2007)
Norbit (2007)
Tropic Thunder (2008) (makeup design for Robert Downey Jr.)
The Wolfman (2010)
Tron: Legacy (2010)
Men in Black 3 (2012)
Maleficent (2014)

Academy Award wins

An American Werewolf in London (1982) (First year of the award)
Harry and the Hendersons (1988)
Ed Wood (1995)
The Nutty Professor (1997)
Men in Black (1998)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2001)
The Wolfman (2011)

Rick has a presence on Twitter which is up-to-date and good fun - @TheRickBaker

In a wonderful twist, Rick Baker favourited my tweet promoting this blog post.  I really do hope he read it and enjoyed it.

* thanks to Cinefex #16, “Rick Baker - Maker of Monsters, Master of the Apes” by Jordan Fox


  1. I'm late to the party, but I really enjoyed your profile of Rick, Mark! Thanks.