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Makeup and effects artist Rick Baker is a legend, a pioneer in his field who’s won seven Academy Awards. In fact, he earned his first Academy Award, for 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, the very year the Best Makeup category was added.
Baker boasts countless productions to his credit, including The Exorcist, Star Wars: A New Hope, Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking Thriller video, Gremlins 2, Ed Wood, 2001’s Planet of the Apes and, most recently, Men in Black 3. He’s worked on all three Men in Black films (he won his fifth Oscar for the first installment), and his creations are now on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.
Spinoff Online sat down with the humble, soft-spoken Baker – surrounded by his creations in the exhibit, called “Aliens, Gadgets and Guns: Designing the World of Men in Black 3” – to talk about how the industry has changed during his formidable career, his design for Men in Black 3’s main villain Boris the Animal, putting himself in his actors’ shoes (literally) and the television show he’s currently addicted to (here’s a hint: We may be seeing British-accented aliens and monsters in Baker’s future repertoire!)
Spinoff Online: The Museum of Moving Image is my favorite museum in New York, and this exhibit is really cool. I like to imagine this is what your house looks like — just a vault of all your creations.
Rick Baker: [Laughs] Not my house — my studio looks very much like this. My wife is fairly normal. [laughs] When we first started living together, my house was a little more strange than it is now.
You spend so much time making all of these creatures, though, I can imagine they’re tough to let go of. They’re kind of like your babies, right?
Yeah, I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid … and my bedroom was my workshop. So I grew up and slept and worked in a room that was full of monsters and aliens.
Most people wouldn’t be able to sleep in that room! What was the first thing you created?
The very first thing I did makeup-wise was just a vampire … because it was easy, and I had some grease paint. But it was enough to get me fascinated by the makeup process. And I was also extremely shy, an only child, I pretty much stayed in a room by myself. And I couldn’t really look and talk to people. But when I smeared this white grease paint on and these black circles around my eyes, it let me do things I couldn’t do. I was hidden.
So you were your first model!
Oh yeah, I learned makeup on this face. And I still do stuff on myself. The Boris makeup that Jemaine [Clement] is wearing [in Men in Black 3], I was the first person that was in the Boris makeup. I kind of conceived of and designed something, and I wanted to show it to them in more than just Photoshop and stuff. So I did a complete makeup and actually made a personal appearance as Boris. I like to see what it’s like on the other side. It really helps — actors many times will complain about stuff, and by having been in it myself I can tell how valid that complaint is. [laughs] And a lot of the time it is, which is one of the reasons I do that — to discover what that person is going through.
And you’ve appeared in makeup as an actor in many of the films you’ve worked on, including Men in Black 3. That’s certainly commitment when it comes to placing yourself in an actor’s shoes!
You know, I think it should be mandatory for anybody who does what I do, to see what it’s like on the other side. It’s surprising how few of them actually have. And it’s a very different thing when you’re sitting in the chair for three hours, or more many times.
Just the thought of getting a face or head mold makes me feel claustrophobic. You must’ve worked with people who’ve refused to do it.
Yeah. I’ve really only had one person totally freak out, in my whole career. And this person was actually a big, muscular, macho kinda guy.
Is there a workaround for a situation like that?
What you do sometimes is you just do parts. If you keep their eyes open, they’re usually all right. I’ve done it in sections where you actually have to assemble it, and now we can do a laser scan and get something that’s pretty accurate.
Speaking of Boris, Jemaine is known for being a comedian, but he’s a great bad guy in Men in Black 3. There’s a fun balance of his comedic physicality within this menacing villain. Do you find that you reconcile an actor’s personality with that of their character to tweak the creation you make for them?
Yeah, I always take that into consideration — who the person is, stuff like that. In the case of this, I really did want to change Jemaine a lot. I conceived what I thought Boris should look like before Jemaine was cast, and then they cast Jemaine and I was like, “You cast this guy? With the glasses? It’s so not what I think he should be!” [laughs] But he gave an incredible performance!
Well, you made him look unrecognizable in the movie!
The funny thing is, I wasn’t even familiar with Jemaine, until this thing. And people said, “Oh, he’s really funny. You should look him up!” So I watched a couple of videos of him and Bret singing, and I just became an instant fan. I made him give me copies of all the Flight of the Conchords DVDs!
Boris’ makeup and effects also require CG. What was the experience like, coordinating with that technology?
Well, I designed it that way. I think it’s crazy not to take advantage of what you can do digitally. I do digital models myself, and you know that little thing that comes out of his hand? I made that model, I sculpted it in the computer. We actually made a practical version out of that same file. I gave the data to the Imageworks guys, and they made their model from my digital sculpture. But Ken Ralston is the digital effects supervisor; I’ve known Ken since I was 17. We were strange kids that liked Ray Harryhausen movies, and we became friends. So when I heard he was doing the movie I was really excited, because sometimes it turns into a pissing contest, for lack of a better term. But I knew what I wanted Boris to do. We could’ve done it in a practical way, but it wouldn’t have been as production-friendly. One of the things I’ve found in all the Men in Black movies is that you can kind of over-build stuff. And a lot of the time there’s a shot from far away and there’s like months of mechanics in one item. So I said to Ken, I’d rather make some cool-looking eyes if it turns out that the guy is in the shot, but if we miss an eye-blink, can you guys put an eye blink in? So we worked hand in hand.
It’s basically the “adapt or die” mentality in your field, then?
Oh, yeah. And this is something I learned from the first makeup artist I was a fan of, Jack Pierce, who did Frankenstein’s monster and Wolfman and The Mummy, all those classics. His work on those films saved that studio, and 10 years later they kicked him out of the studio because he wasn’t keeping up. He was still doing cotton and collodion build-up stuff when other people were using foam rubber. And he lost his job because of it. And I put that away, and I said I’m not going to let that happen to me. Plus, I like learning new things, and I get bored doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve been doing my designs digitally for over 23 years, when nobody else was doing it! I mean, it was Photoshop 1.0! [laughs] And I love it!
Maybe I’m biased, because I’m a child of the ‘80s and so much of my love for cinema was born from watching productions you worked on: An American Werewolf in London, Thriller, Harry and the Hendersons. To me, those films hold up better than CG-laden images from even 10 years ago. There’s something about looking at a tangible item on screen — it doesn’t become antiquated as quickly.
Well, the funny thing that happened in my career. When all the digital stuff started happening, I became a dinosaur instantly. And I was like, “I’m sorry, but the stuff I’m doing looks better than what you guys are doing!” And I think it’s proven itself. Like you said, I look at a film from the ‘90s, a CG film, and it looks like crap. But I think they’re doing some fantastic, amazing work now. Like I said, I embrace the technology, but there is something to be said now for the marriage of the two. I really would hate to see the art of makeup – and the actual putting appliances on people – disappear, because there’s a magic that happens when you get an actor in makeup, and when they’re looking in a mirror. Like I said, with me, when you’re looking in a mirror and you see this different face looking back at you, you know what you look like. Whereas, when you’ve got tracking marks on your face, and you’re on a motion-capture stage and not on a set — when you walk into Men in Black headquarters, and you’re on this cool set — you know where you are. And you see these aliens, it’s something you’re not going to get just with motion capture.
And you must’ve had fun with the time-travel aspect of Men in Black 3, because you got to design creatures for the 1969 portions, modeled after imagery that you grew up on.
Well, it was something that went back to even the first Men in Black, because they said, “We want to do aliens unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” and I said, “That’s gonna be hard!” It was easier when I did aliens for Star Wars, but ever since the Cantina scene there’s been a million Cantina scenes. So I said, “Let’s make them look like aliens we’ve seen, but cooler!” They didn’t buy it. This one, with the time-travel element, I said, “They should be retro aliens — big-brained, bug-eyed aliens. And they should have fishbowl space helmets and spacesuits with weird things on them.” And they bought it, which I was extremely happy about. I had so much fun! I got to do aliens that I grew up with, and do cooler versions of them.
What are you watching or reading right now that’s fueling your creativity?
[laughs] I’m not much of a reader. I’m actually kind of dyslexic, so I don’t read a lot. I actually don’t watch a lot of stuff either, because I’m always making things and doing things. What I’m actually doing is — having said that I’m dyslexic — I’m doing a book about my career, and I’m also kind of a hoarder. [laughs] So I have stuff from when I was 10 years old, and all the stuff from my whole career. I have notes and drawings and photos of me in makeup at 16 years old, and drawings I did when I was 5, notes from American Werewolf, when I first came up with the idea for Thriller that says, “We should have zombies dancing!” I’ve got all that stuff, so I’m putting it together into a book about my career. But I have been watching, actually, Downton Abbey. My wife said, “We’ve got to have a show that we watch together!” I was like, “What is this? I don’t want to see this! I want to see Game of Thrones!” But the characters are so great, it’s so well-written and so well-produced, I definitely got into it.
“Aliens, Gadgets and Guns: Designing the World of Men in Black 3″ is on exhibit through Sept. 23 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.