Three days ago (Thursday, the 28th), Rick Baker announced his retirement. If there ever was an “end to an era” moment in the realm of fantastic cinema, this was one of them. I just found out yesterday, seeing as how Thursday I was out seeing the new Mad Max movie (OMG go see it, BTW. Don’t really want to blog about it since most reviews out there currently are spot-on) and have been back to work since. But this to me is like the steam engine bowing its head to internal combustion. “First of all,” says the man himself, “the CG stuff definitely took away the animatronics part of what I do. It’s also starting to take away the makeup part. The time is right, I am 64 years old, and the business is crazy right now. I like to do things right, and they wanted cheap and fast. That is not what I want to do, so I just decided it is basically time to get out. I would consider designing and consulting on something, but I don’t think I will have a huge working studio anymore.” Just as his mentor Dick Smith passed earlier last year (July 30th, at the age of 92), I’m sure Baker noted a change in the technological wind. Insert heavy sigh here.
Rick Baker started out like most of his generation, raised on Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, along with the likes of John Landis (who Baker would later collaborate with on Schlock and An American Werewolf In London), Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead), Joe Dante (Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins), not to mention a little guy from Georgia who caught the monster bug from his cousin Eddie and has been a rabid fan ever since. A book published by the magazine, Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook, sent the young Baker (not to mention future protege Rob Bottin and current The Walking Dead producer and director Greg Nicotero) off and running. At the tender age of 10, “Rick Baker Monster-Maker (a title he has lovingly embraced ever since)” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.
At age 18 Baker would later write a letter to Smith about his own work (photographs included), and their initial long-distance conversation would lead to Baker assisting Smith on The Exorcist, the film that would forever change the conceptions of cinematic horror. Before then Baker had worked on the forgettable Octaman and Landis’ Schlock, one of my all-time faves:
After winning accolades for his work on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (with future Aliens and Jurassic Park maestro Stan Winston) and King Kong (1976, with Carlo Rimbaldi), not to mention a journeyman stint on a little flick about a galaxy far, far away:
Baker would reunite with Landis to break new ground in the fields of animatronic and prosthetic effects (and win the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup) with An American Werewolf In London:
From there he would create such myriad effects as the “living” television sets in David Cronenberg’s surreal media barrage Videodrome:
And a host of creepy monsters (including those portrayed by Jackson himself) suitable for Landis’ video (read: film short) for Michael Jackson’s landmark pop hit Thriller (Baker guest stars as the zombie opening the mausoleum door after the first graveyard shot):
Baker would best be known for his love of great apes, gorillas in particular. Beginning properly with Schlock, he initially sought out any work involving them, such as King Kong (where he would get to portray the eighth wonder himself) and The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), where he starred as Sydney the Gorilla. It was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) which would allow Baker and his crew to begin thinking outside the boundaries of the traditional ape suit. Harry and the Hendersons (1987) would further the advances of Baker’s animatronic puppetry, but with 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist, Michael Apted’s biopic about Dian Fossey’s time with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Baker’s creations truly stepped forward as supporting characters in a story. Along with the remake of my personal fave “ape amok” flick Mighty Joe Young (1998) and amazing prosthetic work in Tim Burton’s otherwise misguided remake of Planet of the Apes (2001) Baker’s position as the definitive simian progenitor in current cinematic history has been founded.
Baker was also best known towards the latter end of his career for his relationship with comedian Eddie Murphy, beginning with the John Landis film (and my personal favorite Murphy film) Coming to America (1988):
With the Men in Black movies, Hellboy and, ultimately the Wolfman remake (where his makeup effects were the only highlight, and a tribute to the late, great Jack Pierce), Baker saw his role in modern film effects shrinking. While computer animation has given us such wonders as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and the truly amazing simian characters of the current Apes film series (thanks due in no small part to actors like Andy Serkis), the involvement of practical effects is now an afterthought, at best. While no less an artistic endeavor, the digital realization of creatures, while certainly expanded in scope and variety, has been removed from the immediate realm of experience. While technology continues to be developed to emulate realism (such as WETA Digital’s Tissue system and Manuka rendering engine), the days of practical artistry in special effects are seeing their last days.
Baker, ever the polite gentleman, bids this all with a tip of his hat and a bow. While I’m sure his influence, whether personal or inspirational, will continue to be a part of the coming era, he has now taken a seat from the active stage. To paraphrase Stephen King, gone are the days where you could be assured the monster would have a zipper down its back.