Old make-up effects artists never die… but plenty of their characters do. If you’re Rick Baker, you’ve stayed at the forefront of the business for four decades by embracing rather than ignoring new technology. Using everything from paint and silicone rubber to CGI, his creature designs for Men In Black 3 are the sum total of a very inspiring life, as Drew Turney learns.
If you like horror or sci-fi movies, the email was like unwrapping a Wonka chocolate to find you’ve got one of the golden tickets. ‘…upcoming Special Effects Junket for Men In Black 3 with Special Effects Make-up Artist Rick Baker…’
When you turn up to the address in semi-industrial Glendale, on the other side of the hill from the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, Cinnovation Studios looks like anything but the Wonka Factory. The nondescript grey building has a vine covering most of the front, a small carpark and no identifying marks that give away the magic that goes on inside, and good thing too – if people knew this San Fernando Rd premises was Baker’s creature design shop, he’d never get any work done for turning away autograph seekers.
It’s only inside you get any inkling of what’s the come. It’s like any old office reception, except framed pictures of Rick and his teams surrounded by Oscars line the back walls. Halls leading in each direction are adorned with giant framed posters of films – Mighty Joe Young (1998), Men In Black (1997), The Frighteners (1996), The Nutty Professor (1996), Coming To America (1988) – that Baker’s worked on.
We’re led into a huge interior chamber the receptionist explains with a laugh was dressed for a party once but which they left after it was all over. One wall is like something from a gothic horror film, a medieval castle keep with gargoyles grinning hideously from the walls and the ghostly white figure of a woman hanging in front of a huge iron crucifix.
Along the other wall is the graveyard, a six foot high hill built against a grey, stormy sky, ramshackle gravestones rising above the weeds and fallen trees and a the corpse of a zombie rising from the ground, coffins broken open along the front and spilling the grinning skeletons of their occupants. The huge reception room is completely at odds with the buffet lunch being served but perfectly befits one of the modern behind-the-scenes masters. Baker, you decide before even meeting him, is a quintessential kid who never grew up – with the irrepressible glee for blood, guts and death all little boys have.
After taking photos of the open coffins containing all-too-lifelike decaying bodies and stone and iron ramparts, we’re led up a wide staircase into a network of corridors designed to look like the innards of the gothic castle outside, stone archways lit by flaming wooden torches. At one corner stands a nine-foot tall articulated skeleton, its visage an evil scream, wearing a creepy monk’s cloak and resting its bony hands on a nasty looking sword five feet tall.
Then you find yourself in an inner sanctum, a meeting room you can tell at a glance is Valhalla for movies. Santa’s workshop. The Pearly Gates. Pick your metaphor for paradise.
Baker greets us all by asking where each member of the media party are from. He seems slight and lanky, much taller than he appears because of his angular features and signature ponytail of silver hair. We’re an international bunch, but when he hears ‘Australian’ he jokes that everyone has to keep an eye on their wallets because ‘you’re all criminals over there’.
I have no intention of stealing wallets, but it’s hard to disagree with anything Baker says. He’s one of those movie craftsmen who walked the walk long before he accepted any of his seven Oscars. As a kid he was playing with rubber and glue and soaking up every detail he could find about movie make-up – no mean feat in the 1950s and 60s where there was no Internet or DVD commentaries and the last thing a movie studio wanted was for you to see how they worked their magic.
There’s a trestle table in the middle of the room where we’ll all sit and ask the soft-spoken 61-year-old questions about his career and particularly the movie he’s promoting right now, Men in Black 3 (out May 24).
But before anyone even thinks about sitting down, we’re off to all corners of the darkened chamber, about the size of two rumpus rooms. Over there’s a mould of the fat suit worn by Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, beside a standing model you’d think was Murphy himself. The pair first worked together on Coming to America, where Baker made Murphy up as an old white Jewish man, and he tells the story of how foam rubber can transform more than just the human face.
“It was going to be really hard to do and I needed to try it before we started filming. There were something like 15 or 17 different pieces and when he got all made up he couldn’t believe it, it was more real than he ever expected. He didn’t think he was doing the make-up justice and asked if he could improvise and play with it on. So I got a video camera out and he improvised a bunch of stuff as the character. Some of it was hysterical but most of it was really serious acting. It helped him find the essence of the guy.
Further back in a far corner stands a sheepish-looking Harry, the bigfoot from Harry and the Hendersons (1987). Though you’d never expect it, Baker says it was one of his favourite jobs. “The director comes to me and he says ‘I really want you to do this because you give your characters a soul’,” Baker says. “I think he was trying to butter me up to get me to do the job, but there’s some truth to that. It’s something I try to do, I don’t necessarily want to only do horrible monsters or killing machines.”
And while it’s the monsters, aliens and nasties Baker is known for, you realise he’s right. As if to prove it, the centre of the room is taken up by a 10-foot tall model of Mighty Joe Young, the Charlize Theron film where the giant gorilla (all CGI and animatronic puppetry) was the beating heart at the centre of Disney’s family film.
Joining Harry in jungle along the back wall are the suits worn by Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001). Along with the 2010 remake of The Wolfman (which Baker also worked on), they remind you of what must be the central conundrum of his life – even his best work can’t save a movie. “I was really impressed by the new Rise of the Planet of the Apes effects,” Baker says. “I so wanted to hate that movie because I did the Tim Burton one. Not many people are fond of the movie but most people think the make-up is really good.”
But it’s not just iconic monsters. Crouched behind the door as if waiting to leap out and grab unsuspecting passers-by is a crazy-looking woman in tattered clothes and a rictus of malice across her face, looking like she’s escaped from an asylum for the violently insane.
And soon I come back to the mother lode, in a glass case not far from the door. The nightmares I had for three months as a ten year old come back to me, the hairs on the back of my beck bristle, and suddenly the rest of the world dissolves around me. I’m staring right into the snarling face, oversized canines and ruffled grey hair of an articulated werewolf head, an American one that once terrorised London. Watch the film and this object makes several spine-chilling appearances, and in today’s CGI era it’s still the effect every other werewolf film is judged against – and mostly found wanting.
“We used this for the scene on the moors, where it’s attacking Griffin Dunne [hero David’s friend Jack],” Baker says to the enthralled onlookers, “The skin on the outside is on the puppetry frame inside and he had to grab it to try and fight it off. I told him to be careful because it skin and hair wasn’t attached very strongly. So it’s the first take and I’m puppeteering it and I start to attack him. He grabs hold of the skin and rips the face right off. I said ‘what part of that did you not understand?’ So I’m trying to glue it back together and we had rubber teeth in it but I wanted to put the hard teeth in it. I didn’t originally because they could have really hurt him, but I said ‘if you’re going to play rough I’m going to’. And I just beat the crap out of him with it, he was really screaming.”
Baker says he’s surprised the 31-year-old werewolf head is still in one piece and that it’ll crumble if anyone touches it. But a sadder fate still met the full body model that Baker and director John Landis used for long shots – he gave it to a collector friend and somebody backed over it with a car. Not an appropriately dignified fate for the monster that redefined a craft and for which the Oscars created a new category in 1981, Best Make-up Effects.
As we sit chatting about Baker’s life and work and why so many of the aliens in Men In Black 3 are so fish-like, the feature wall in the room is crowded with models and suits that feature in the film. He talks about how much freedom he has designing aliens and monsters because ‘you don’t see aliens every day’, but how it gets harder all the time to come up with something audiences have never seen before.
On the way out I shake Baker’s hand and thank him for so many hours of viewing pleasure. It seems woefully inadequate, but throwing myself to my knees and grabbing his ankles in gales of grateful tears probably won’t be well received.
Walking back to the footpath and turning back to get a final photo of the building prompts something of a shock. It’s only a stark, mildly attractive building, this time with an everyday delivery truck parked outside. The sunlight coming from straight ahead behind the building burnishes away all the detail, and nothing hints at the magic to be found inside in the slightest. The only place to see it, as always, is on a forty foot screen in a dark room surrounded by strangers.