Rick Baker Talks About Why He Retired And Thriller

Sources: Vice – By Sam Pheeters | All Things Michael

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Rick Baker is closing up shop. The legendary special-effects and makeup creator recently announced that he would be shuttering his studio and auctioning off 400 of his best-known props. Baker’s career included some of the most enduring effects imagery of the 20th century, including work on The Exorcist, Star Wars, the “Thriller” music video, and Men in Black. For 35 years, his iconic costumes, makeup, and props defined film effects just prior to our own age of computer-generated imagery. The auction marked a bittersweet moment in film history; the end of an era—if not precisely the era of practical effects, then at least the era of Rick Baker’s work in film.

By chance, the auction took place on opening day for San Andreas, a CGI-fueled disaster blockbuster. In its review of San Andreas, the New York Times noted the obvious: “the most disturbing thing about this may be how dull and routine it seems. Computer-generated imagery can produce remarkably detailed vistas of disaster… but the technology also has a way of stripping such spectacles of impact and interest.” The contrast with old-fashioned practical effects was stark. In An American Werewolf In London, Baker showed a man transforming into a wolf onscreen, something that had previously only been hinted at with dissolves and cutaways. The effect had astonished audiences. Now the ability to amaze seemed itself doomed for extinction.

I met up with Baker in a colossal conference room at the Universal City Hilton. At 64, he is trim, gracious, and conspicuously enthusiastic—the kind of guy most men would like to age into as they approach retirement. We were given a few minutes to chat before the sale got underway.

VICE: I heard you on NPR the other day, and I was struck by your lack of bitterness. On one hand, you were saying that CGI had played a large role in the closing of your studio, and on the other hand you were saying you were comfortable with that.

Rick Baker: It wasn’t just CGI. I’ve seen that come up a lot. Ever since that NPR thing, I’ve been getting a lot of tweets saying, “End of an era, end of an era.” You know, it’s kind of been that for a while. The whole business has changed. I had a 60,000-square-foot studio, which was great for How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Planet of the Apes.But it’s not great for making a nose for somebody. And I’ve had that. I had one project where I had a guy making some teeth, in this 60,000-square-foot building, by himself, in summer. My air conditioning bill was more than I was getting paid to make the teeth. So it just became time. Those big jobs don’t exist anymore. As a young man, when I finally started meeting some people in the industry, I met a lot of bitter people, and a lot of crabby old guys, and I thought, How can you be like that? You’re in this amazing industry doing these cool things . And I didn’t want to become that.

Much of your work involves faces. Which seems ironic, because faces are the hardest things to fake with CGI. Avatar got it right, and then Tron: Legacy got it wrong a year later. Do you think there will be work for practical effects and makeup people doing facial design for CGI films?

Yeah, I do think so. When CG first became popular, we instantly became dinosaurs. But what happened was [the studios] started coming around, realizing that we actually had a skill set. I was brought in to do some damage control on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I said I would do it, but I didn’t really want credit, because they wanted to do this CG head. They said, “You can model this stuff in the real world better than we can on the computer.” So we actually modeled and made real, completely finished, silicone heads that they scanned to make their computer model from.

I was always hoping for a much closer marriage between the CG and the makeup stuff. I’ve been designing on a computer since the late 80s—’89, I think—because I saw the writing on the wall, too. I’ve been doing computer models, and doing my designs extensively on a computer, and I love it. I love doing digital models and digital paintings, and playing with digital compositing. But I don’t think it’s the answer to everything. I think you’re going to lose something.

When you have a good actor, in a good makeup, and he’s been sitting in the makeup chair looking at himself in the mirror, seeing himself become something else, and then he walks onto a set and he knows where he is, he knows what he looks like, he gives a performance that he’s never going to give on a motion-capture stage.

Michael Jackson contacted you for work on the “Thriller” video—is that correct?

He contacted John Landis because of An American Werewolf in London. I was the first phone call that John made, and he said, “Michael Jackson wants to do a rock video… very much American Werewolf–influenced. He wants to transform.” I said, “Little Michael Jackson?” and he was like, “Well, he’s not little Michael Jackson anymore.”

I was really concerned about making up a pop star. 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, [but] it was chaotic, and I had a whole lot of work to do in a very little amount of time. I had to use union makeup artists whom I didn’t really know, and didn’t know what they could do to apply these makeups on the dancers, and I was applying makeup on Michael on the same night, running around the makeup trailers, going, “No, no, no…” And there we were, in Vernon, the meatpacking district, in the middle of the night, and they started doing the “Thriller” dance…

 

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