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Q&A With Special Effects Make-Up Artist Rick Baker
11 Mar 2010 :
Rick Baker
Special effects make-up artist Rick Baker has been creating monsters of the friendly and scary variety for over 30 years. The multi Oscar winner is behind such film creatures as the Grinch, Gremlins, Wolfman and the zombies in both Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and those of ‘Men in Black’ to name just a few. As part of a new Masters Series of interviews, IFTN caught up with the makeup maestro to ask him about his inspirations, his favourite creatures and the battle of make-up versus CGI.

IFTN: Rick, how did you first become involved in the area of special effects make-up?

Rick Baker (RB): I became interested in monsters and strange characters at a very early age and I grew up in front of a television set (the first generation to do so) where I was fascinated by science fiction and monster movies like ‘The Wizard of Oz’… And then I found out about this great magazine called ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ which featured not only actors and directors but also the people behind the scenes like make-up artists and I just thought ‘That’d be a cool job to have’. So I knew from about the age of ten that it was what I wanted to do with my life.

Tropic Thunder

IFTN: One notable job of yours was creating the look for Robert Downey Jr. in ‘Tropic Thunder’ where he plays an Australian actor who has undergone a ‘pigmentation alteration’ to play the role of an African-American – how was the idea for this pitched to you?

RB: It’s funny, I had done projects where I had turned black people into white people before but never the other way around. With ‘Tropic Thunder’ Michèle Burke [Irish Oscar winning make-up artist] worked on Tom Cruise and I designed and manufactured the pieces for Robert Downey Jr. I was contacted by a producer at Dreamworks who said ‘We need a photoshop of Sean Penn looking like a black guy’. So he sent me a low res shot of Sean that they got from the internet and I did the photoshop thing and made him into a black man – still knowing nothing about the film. Then, a couple of days later, I got a call again to ask me if I could do a list of a whole bunch of actors – I made half of the actors in Hollywood black! And finally it came down to Robert Downey Jr (which I thought was a really good choice) so then they asked me to do his make up for the film. But what I had done didn’t really tie in with the script so I had a chat with Ben Stiller and changed the look a bit and we went on from there.

IFTN: As digital cinema and CGI effects evolve are traditional special effects make-up artists fighting a losing creative battle to provide special effects for film?

RB: CGI is definitely taking away the animatronics side of things. But evolution has to happen. I started out with grease paints but there were limitations to that, so then I moved on to using hollow rubber pieces to create looks. When you’re doing make-up there is only so much stuff you can build up on a person’s face – the shape and proportions of a person’s face can be very limiting, so I got into making puppets and whole fake heads and mechanical things and CGI is replacing that - but at the same time it’s making different work for us because the people doing the effects need organic models of the looks. As an example, I was involved recently with ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, I was working with the digital guys in that I sculpted various different heads and then they did a laser scan of my sculptures to create a model and then used a paint job we had done as a colour map for the final look. They used our knowledge and eyes to make the final product look as real as possible.

When the digital stuff first started we were the dinosaurs in the eyes of the computer guys but now they’re really starting to embrace our knowledge. We’ve essentially been doing for years what they are now doing, just in a different medium.

Rick Baker at the MAC masterclass

IFTN: You recently gave a MAC Pro Masterclass where you made applied make up on yourself to create a 3D monster look - how did you work out the logistics of that?

RB: MAC was after me for the a long time to do it and, even though I’ve always been interested I’ve always said no because the kind of work I’m known for and the stuff I do takes so much prep time and then the actual application time, if you do it quickly, is about three to four hours. So I always thought it would be too long for a demonstration, people would be bored.

But MAC were really persistent so I started thinking...When I started in this industry I used grease paints and I always liked the illusions you can create with paint make-up, but that would still take three hours so I decided I’d make myself up – I knew it’d be much quicker because I wouldn’t have to be careful doing make-up on myself, I could use my fingers and if I got something in my eyes it wouldn’t matter as much.

So I pitched that idea to them and we decided I’d set up a web cam beside a mirror so people would have a really good view. They had asked me to use MAC products in the demonstration but then I thought “Why not use all MAC products?” so I went to the MAC Pro store, picked up a bunch of stuff and started playing around. I went through a few looks then – earth tone zombies etc. which became this very stylised colourful character inspired very much by the make-up artist Basil Gogos.

IFTN: Of all the characters you’ve created who’s your favourite?

Harry & The Hendersons animatronics

RB: One of my favourites was a film that I got an Oscar for called ‘Harry and the Hendersons’ where we had a Big Foot character and I was really fond of the character. It was the first time that we had done a radio controlled mask which I though worked very well and I think it still stands up very well.

IFTN: Finally Rick, what makes a good special effect make-up artist?

RB: The most important thing is to be a good artist. It’s funny, sometimes people see a sculpture or painting I’ve done, a very traditional piece of art and they’ll say ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you could do that’ - but it’s all part of what I do. Alongside the skills and know-how you have to know how to operate the technology and animatronics used in this area.

  • Rick Baker's latest work can be seen in 'The Wolfman', in cinemas now.

Rick Baker Selected Credits:

  • 1971 Octaman
  • 1974 Flash Gordon
  • 1976 King Kong
  • 1981 An American Warewolf in London
  • 1983 Michael Jackson’s Thriller
  • 1985 Cocoon
  • 1987 Harry & The Hendersons
  • 1988 Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey
  • 1990 Gremlins 2: The New Batch
  • 1994 Ed Wood
  • 1995 Batman Forever
  • 1996 The Nutty Professor
  • 1997 Men in Black
  • 2001 Planet of the Apes
  • 2002 The Ring
  • 2006 X-Men: The Last Stand
  • 2008 Tropic Thunder
  • 2010 The Wolfman


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