Considered by many to be one of the masters of – if not THE master of – makeup effects, Rick Baker has been working in Hollywood for 45 years, contributing his talents to some of the most incredible and realistic horror, fantasy and science fiction films.
Born in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1950 (at the start of a decade which would be a heyday for sci-fi and horror B movies), Baker got his big break assisting on the makeup for The Exorcist, which would of course prove to be a groundbreaker for makeup effects. He learned much from makeup veteran Dick Smith on that film. It was something he had been working toward since his interest in makeup and prosthetics began as a teenager, inspired by Universal monster makeup wizard Jack Pierce. He would go on to 11 Best Makeup Oscar nominations and score seven wins.
Now retired (due in large part to the advent of digital effects), here’s a look back at some of his many contributions to cinema over the years. If you’re a fan of watching horror movies on Halloween, you’re definitely familiar with his work, which helped to bring horror some respectability, after years of being known for cheap greasepaint makeup, rubber masks and dime-store costumes.
Baker assisted with the makeup and portrayed the character of King Kong in this first remake of the 1933 classic, which starred Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange.However, Baker’s work was reportedly de-emphasized in favor of a robot Kong so this wasn’t quite the big break he would get five years later (more on that below). In fact, he only got credit for making “special contributions” to the film. Later, Baker would develop a new technique to make movie “apes” look more, well, ape-like for 1988’s “Gorillas in the Mist.”
“I remember him saying that he had always been bothered that by matching the proportions of a gorilla head to the human inside the suit, the faces were necessarily disproportionate,” said Camilla Henneman, costume shop supervisor for Baker at the time.
“If the gorilla suits were to be successful [for ‘Mist’] then the eyes would have to be mechanized. This resulted in a realistically proportioned head for the first time on a gorilla suit.”
Baker acted in the CGI-heavy Peter Jackson remake in 2005 as well, portraying the pilot who brought down the beast.
An American Werewolf in London
Then 30-year-old Baker created the makeup in this horror classic, which included what is still called the greatest werewolf transformation sequence ever. The slow, painful-looking change holds up to this day, and Baker’s makeup throughout is a big part of what makes the movie so effective. The 1981 horror comedy - about an American backpacking through the UK who becomes a werewolf - was a hit and earned Baker the very first Oscar for Best Makeup as a result.
It was also his second collaboration with director John Landis, as he created an ape monster for Landis’ 1973 film “Schlock.”
“Landis gave me a lot of freedom, although I wanted to make the wolf a biped and he said ‘No, I want this four-legged hound from hell,’ Baker said in 2011.
“I kept trying to talk him into the two-legged wolf. ‘No. Four-legged hound from hell.’ So I made it.”
Some of the most bizarre work Baker did was in this early David Cronenberg cult classic, in which “the new flesh” meant that he had to create the illusion of television, guns and other man-made inventions melding with human flesh.
The strange movie was a commentary on the media of the 1980s, literally overcoming people’s humanity and becoming part of them.
Memorable grotesque effects included actor James Woods’ “gun-hand” and a slot opening up in his stomach to be used as a VCR.
“There was stuff in the script that, I just said to David [Cronenberg], ‘I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do it as it’s written. But I can do this,’” Baker said in 2012, admitting to the challenges of that film.
“That was a mutated version of what he had, and again, with David, it was a real collaboration. He was great about really listening to what I had to say… ‘Here’s what the flesh gun should be, I think it should do this.’”
In many ways, this may be Baker’s most famous project, since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is considered one of the best music videos ever made and has been played on MTV and elsewhere countless times. Baker teamed up again with Landis, creating more fearsome creatures like we saw in “American Werewolf.”
Since time was short and the dancers were hired virtually last minute, Baker had his team made up for the close-ups, ensuring that they would have the best quality work for the camera.
“I was really concerned about making up a pop star,” he said last year.
“I thought, This is going to be difficult, and he’s not going to be a good subject for this. But I was totally wrong. He loved it.”
Harry and the Hendersons
In this 1980s comedy - about a family accidentally hitting and then adopting a sasquatch with a car -Baker had the challenge of making a “monster” look sympathetic, using a combination of animatronics and makeup to accomplish this. Harry the sasquatch joined the pantheon of lovable ‘80s movie creatures like E.T. and Gizmo. Baker went on to win his second Best Makeup Oscar here, and it’s one of the best examples of how he brought personality to his creature creations.
Baker created a “servo” head for Harry which he could control robotically to move his mouth and facial features. He considers this among his best work.
Baker’s work was kept a secret in all the trailers and ads for the film before it was released: Harry’s face was not seen until then. Harry’s “head” sold for $14,000 when Baker held a retirement auction last year.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Speaking of Gizmo, director Joe Dante enlisted Baker to upgrade his gremlins and mogwai for the satirical sequel to 1984’s hit horror comedy, this one taking place in corporate America instead of suburbia. The gremlins had more personality here as well. One of the highlights was a spider gremlin, improving exponentially on the robotic work he did for “Harry.”
Baker originally turned down the sequel, but was convinced when given greater leeway on the film.
“I wanted to redesign the gremlins and the Mogwai,” he said last year. “I really wanted to make them individuals.”
A box office disappointment 20 years ago, this horror comedy from Peter Jackson has built a cult following over time. Michael J. Fox starred as a con artist “exorcist,” and Baker designed the look of the spectral Judge, portrayed by the late John Astin.
Baker was unable to do more work on the film (including the actual hands-on makeup work) due to his commitment to “The Nutty Professor.”
Men in Black Trilogy
The 1990s were a big decade for Baker, earning him Oscars for “Ed Wood” (fellow Oscar winner Martin Landau was made to resemble Bela Lugosi), “The Nutty Professor” (Eddie Murphy was able to convincingly play multiple characters thanks to Baker’s work) and the first film of this trilogy.
His biggest film franchise started off in 1997 with a runaway hit - starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as agents who must defend earth against aliens. Baker had his work cut out for him: he created dozens of unique-looking aliens (reminiscent of the “Star Wars” cantina scene, which he also had a hand in, of course), and continued to do so for the two sequels.
“At the time, none of us knew what Men in Black was—what the tone of the movie was,” he said when “Men in Black 3” was released.
“It wasn’t until three-fourths of the way through we realized what we were making. The designs still evolve, and we’ve revisited some of the aliens we’ve made.”
In some cases, he enlisted artists to design aliens (the stranger or goofier-looking, the better) which he would create for these films.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Between the original film saga and the current prequels, Tim Burton did the first “Planet of the Apes” reboot in 2001 starring Mark Wahlberg. Despite a mixed reception, it can’t be denied that the ape makeup effects were truly amazing, and after his work on “Schlock,” 1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” “Gorillas in the Mist” and “Kong,” he seemed destined to work on this.
He was very interested to do the remake, calling the original “Apes” “one of the most important make-up movies ever. It inspired a whole generation of kids to become make-up artists.”
Baker returned to the world of horror with this 2002 hit, creating the memorable makeup for the frightening Samara, who haunts a cursed videotape, as well as the haunting frozen visages of her victims. For example, he took photos of actress Amber Tamblyn making various horrific faces at him so he could recreate a figure of her for the death scene.
This was a good example of Baker’s practical effects being combined with CGI, like in the climactic scene where Samara climbs out of the television and we get our best look at her.
“It's always kind of a shock the first time you see a movie that you worked on to see what's really inside the edit,” Baker told a “Ring” fansite.
“Many times we've been working on this stuff for months, and then you would see the final film and it's not even in it. And that happened in ‘The Ring’ as well, because we did another dummy of the innkeeper that played cards.”
Much like “Men in Black,” this Guillermo del Toro comic book adaptation called for some very complex makeup effects for Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and various demons and ghouls. Baker successfully brought the Dark Horse Comics character to the big screen looking like he was taken right out of the pages of a book, with an unrecognizable Ron Perlman.
In fact – after a two and a half hour process adding a skull cap, foam latex horns, a facial piece, lower lip, goatee, contact lenses and teeth - only his eyelids were visible according to “Hellboy” makeup artist Jeff Garber: “The guys over at Baker's shop really did the amazing job of sculpting a piece to have Ron's features carry through the makeup.”
Even though there was CGI in the film, many of the creatures were Baker creations, fully animatronic, even down to the tentacles.
The best known piece of the film might be Hellboy’s “Right Hand of Doom” which also went on sale last year in the auction.