Along with Drew Struzan (posters), Dennis Muren (special effects, and Dan LaFontaine (trailer voiceovers), Rick Baker is one of the names who helped cement movies as the cultural force they were in the 70s and 80s. His contribution to some of the iconic moments behind films by Lucas, Spielberg and their contemporaries inspired a generation of film lovers and future filmmakers and have ensured that his legacy is still strong three decades on.
Not only that but as Drew Turney found when he visited Baker’s Glendale, California studio, the tireless 61 year old is as busy as ever. Audiences will next see his handiwork on screen in ”Men in Black 3”, once more collaborating with director Barry Sonnenfeld.
Did you base the visuals of Men In Black on the past films in the series or start from scratch?
I actually got to do something on this film I wanted to do on the first one. In the first film they said ‘we want aliens like nobody’s ever seen before’, and that was kind of hard – the aliens in the Star Wars cantina scene were a lot easier then because there weren’t as many films like it. But after Star Wars there were so many cantina scenes in so many space movies and TV shows.
So at the time I suggested we do aliens that we’d seen before but do them as if someone from the 1950s had made them. They didn’t like that idea but I thought it was cool. I pushed for it again in the second movie and they still didn’t go for it.
So when Men In Black 3 came up I pushed for it again. I said ‘look, 2012 aliens should look one way, 1969 aliens should be retro aliens – old school, bug eyed aliens with fish bowl helmets and stuff’, and they loved it. So I got to make aliens like the ones I’d loved in other films. We tried to make cooler versions but based very much on movies that inspired me to go into make-up. So that was fun for me.
Is it hard to come up with an original design generally?
Very much so, because so much has been done. There are people doing this sort of work now who I actually helped start out and trained. They’re a lot more into digital today and they’ve really learned their digital aesthetic from me.
I’ll give you an example. There’s a program I really like called ZBrush and I saw a post on the forum that looked a lot like a design I did for a film that didn’t happen. Disney was going to do this movie called Gargoyle, based on a cartoon series. So I said ‘this looks a lot like a design I did in the 90s’ and the guy on the forum said he was basing it on a thing that this other guy did, and that other guy used to work for me.
So it is hard, and in film you’re not totally left alone to design what you want, there are all these other people involved in it.
So you’re not really ever in control of your own work?
Rarely if ever. There are people who’d say ‘but you’ve got seven Oscars, you’ve been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive, how can you not be in control?’ It’s just not the case. The actors have ideas, the producers have ideas, the directors have ideas – as they should. I’m not saying they’re wrong but a lot of times I don’t think their ideas are good.
Tell us how you got the job doing the Star Wars cantina creatures?
It’s not by any means my favourite or my best stuff. But the film was already shot before I was hired and they’d already done the cantina scene but George (Lucas) wanted to do more and add creatures to it.
He asked if I could do it and showed me this scene. Fox didn’t want to spend any more on it so there was very little money. I did it on a budget with slip rubber masks, which are basically Halloween masks. And the cantina band was never there in the real cantina, we shot the band six months after the main shoot in another country with a whole different group of people
But we shot it in post-production away from the craziness of actual production. With film production you’re always trying to beat the clock.
What are the best steps to take for someone trying to get into the movie make-up industry today?
Think about a different profession to get into! I was in the right place at the right time and I lived through the golden age of make-up effects. I just got together with a group of friends at the Visual Effects Society Awards and we were all talking about how we’ve seen it take off and grow and then disappear.
I mean, I hope with all my heart there’s still a use for make-up in films. I think magic happens when you have a really good actor with really good make-up and he looks in the mirror and the face looking back at him isn’t his. When you’ve got dots on your face and you’re in a green screen stage, it’s just not the same thing. Like walking into Men In Black headquarters. When you see that set, you know where you are and it’s so cool.
Of all the actors you’ve done make-up on, who got into it the most?
Eddie Murphy, for sure. It’s a tough process, it’s fun maybe the first time and maybe the second time but he was made up like the Nutty Professor for something like 60 days, and you’re talking three and a half hours in the make-up chair in the morning, an hour at the end of the day to remove it. And then there’s some asshole like me always looking at the corner of his mouth or poking him or something.
But when I first worked with him on Coming to America, he played this old Jewish man. 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. He thought the old Jewish man he did was such a stereotype and he asked if could just improvise and play with it.
So I got a video camera and it was just him in the make-up chair looking in the mirror improvising a bunch of stuff. A lot of it was hysterical but a lot of it was really serious acting. It helped him find the essence of the guy.
There are a lot of digital effects in the Men In Black films. You’re not skeptical of it because you’re from a practical background?
I can see the advantage. I think a really good example is that thing in Harry Potter they do with Ralph Fiennes where they actually take off his nose. He has other make-up on but they add that digitally and I think the marriage of those techniques is great.
We might have an effect that somebody’s wearing where we have to put an eye mechanism in it just to execute a blink, for example. But we know from doing other Men In Black films that we kind of overbuild the aliens, we build something you could make a whole movie about and then it’s in a shot that’s over in half a second. So we might decide not to put an eye mechanism in it and if it needs to blink they can do it digitally. We work together that way.
Which of the movies that you’ve worked on would you go back and redo the effects if you could?
Pretty much every one of them. It’d be so nice to see the movie before you make all the stuff for it so you know what to concentrate on. It happens so many times that you think they’re going to focus on one thing and they focus on something in the background.
At this point in your career is it just professional or is it still about the love of it?
No, I do it because I love it. People ask if I’m really hands on and I am, because that’s what I do. I didn’t get into this because I wanted to have a business. I hate having a business, I hate having employees, I hate having to pay bills for this fucking building and having to think for other people.
A lot of your creatures and monsters are funny, sometimes even kind. Do you prefer those kinds of characters?
Oh yeah. I’m a big Frankenstein fan and when you see Boris Karloff’s performance as Frankenstein you really have sympathy for the monster, same with Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo. We’re sympathetic because they have a heart.
In fact Harry (from Harry and the Hendersons) is one of my most favourite things I’ve done. The director came to me and said he really wanted me to do it because I give my characters a soul. I think he was trying to butter me up but there’s some truth to that and it’s something I try to do. I don’t necessarily want to just do horrible things and killing machines.
MIB 3 is in cinemas May 24