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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Makeup master Rick Baker honored with new tribute book, Metamorphosis

By Jeff Spry
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Makeup artist and creature effects designer Rick Baker is one of the true legends of Hollywood, with a prolific body of SFX work spanning over 40 years and including such geek classics as Star Wars: A New Hope, An American Werewolf in London, Michael Jackson: Thriller, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Men in Black, The Ring, Batman Forever, Planet of the Apes, The Wolfman, Tron: Legacy, Maleficent, and many more.

This week, Cameron Books releases Rick Baker: Metamorphosis, a 736-page, two-volume retrospective celebrating the works of this seven-time Academy Award-winning artist. The set is an exhaustive retrospective of Baker's storied career and tips the scales at a whopping 18 pounds! Volume 1 chronicles his early work, from 1950 to 1989, and Volume 2 encompasses his later artistry, from 1990 to 2019, as well as his retirement as the film industry further adopted digital special effects.

Written by J.W. Rinzler, former executive editor at Lucasfilm and author of The Making of Alien and the New York Times bestseller The Making of Star Wars, this definitive salute to Baker is priced at $250.

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Accented with more than 1,600 four-color images, candid behind-the-scenes stills, and rare original sketches, Metamorphosis also features a foreword by John Landis, a preface by Peter Jackson, and an introduction by Baker himself.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Rinzler about how this monumental project came to be, his days spent interviewing Baker at his studio, and why he considers him to be the Mozart of Dimensional Makeup.

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What attracted you to this Rick Baker project, and how did it develop?

To be honest, I was brought into the project by Brandon Allinger, who runs the Hollywood-based prop store. He knew Rick Baker over the years because he handled this giant auction of Rick's archival work that was left over when he was emptying out his studio when he retired.

Brandon thought there was a book there, and he introduced me to Rick. We talked about it and I brought in Cameron Books and we all got together to make this book, which was a big, big undertaking. In the end, it is an art-driven book, not a text-driven book, as it should be. Cameron Books spent a lot of time designing it, going back and forth with Rick and changing images right up to when they went to press.

What was Rick Baker's involvement, and what fresh things did you learn about him?

Rick was involved in the whole process, from beginning to end, every single step of the way. Before starting to write, I read all the Starlog and Fangoria magazines, and he had a pretty extensive archive, and Brandon had bits and pieces. So I read everything and got to know as much as I could, then I spent two or three days interviewing Rick to get his complete story.

And I'm fortunate in all these projects in that I don't really know that much when I start. I didn't know that much about dimensional makeup. I've heard of Dick Smith and obviously heard of Stan Winston and knew a bit about him. But I really had no idea how it all worked, the legacy, and all the changes. It was eye-opening.

The book, in some ways, is not only an ode to Rick Baker's work, but it's an ode to that period of filmmaking which of course is now gone with digital. It was really fun to get back into that world. I don't think I became aware of his work until American Werewolf in London. I know it blew my mind like it did to millions of other people.

So he was involved the whole way, every word was read and approved a couple times. And after he read the rough draft I went down there for a couple more days of interviews. Then I talked to the top guys and gals at his studio, and that brought up more questions and more stories. Then there were the captions, which is a whole novella to the main text. Some people are going to go through and only read the captions [laughs].

To learn that some of the biggest things he did never got seen, like the Edgar Bug at the end of Men in Black, that was canceled when they went to digital, and the same thing happened in The Wolfman — [it] was kind of heartbreaking. And since his retirement, certain people have begged him to come back, but it's gotten so unpleasant to make movies that he doesn't want to have anything to do with it.

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What does Rick's body of work say about him as an innovator and creative force in Hollywood?

I think Rick is the Mozart of dimensional makeup. From an early age, he was just so amazingly talented, and his dad was a great artist, too. So it was in the blood. He was so good early on and so in love with the art form. He'd tell me these stories and he'd start sculpting in the air with his hands as if he was doing it again. He would show me what he was working on in his studio. It was this replica of Frankenstein's laboratory with the monster and 3D printing. Now he's just doing it on his own like he was before his career, so it had gone full circle. It was just mind-blowing.

And he has this Hall of Wonders down in his basement with the Werewolf of London, stuff from Men in Black, Planet of the Apes, an Eddie Murphy head, Michael Jackson. And he was just incredibly friendly, which made it all a lot easier to do.

It seems like occasionally there's somebody who comes along where everything is right for that person. The materials are right, the audience is there, and the times are right. And that seems to be true for Jim Henson and Rick Baker.

What's next on your creative plate after this project?

My first historical fiction thriller is coming out in July of next year, and it's called All Up. It's about the first space age, starting from before World War II and going up to the landing on the moon. So I'm really excited about that.

Now enjoy this expanded look inside Cameron Books' Rick Baker: Metamorphosis in the gallery below, then tell us memories of your favorite Baker monster or creature in the comments section!