CCI | Focus On Rick Baker

Legendary makeup-effects artist Rick Baker kept an audience at Comic-Con International mesmerized Thursday with stories of his award-winning career, punctuated by a video montage of his work from feature films.

Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times moderated the “Focus on Rick Baker” panel, speaking to the artist about his 40-year career bringing dreams, and nightmares, to life on the big screen.

Baker was thrilled to be in front of the Comic-Con crowd, saying, “These are my people. This is where I feel at home.”

He said he began as a fan first, attending his first Comic-Con in the 1970s. Since then he’s won seven Academy Awards, including the first ever for best makeup, for the 1981 horror classic An American Werewolf in London. That was followed by Oscars for Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Ed Wood (1994), The Nutty Professor (1996), Men in Black (1997), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and The Wolfman (2010).

A career that long has seen its share of difficulties. However, when asked about his most challenging assignment, Baker confessed that working on people, for a film like The Nutty Professor, is more difficult than designing outlandish creatures. Audiences notice changes to their own reality more than they do changes to what they don’t know

“You see human faces every day,” he said. “You’re much more critical of it.”

When discussion turned to his work on the Men in Black movies, Baker said he was initially worried because he had to create bizarre creatures that no one had previously seen. What’s more, the aliens weren’t necessarily serious or scary as they so often are in science fiction films. Although the panel didn’t delve too deeply into what Baker had worked on for the upcoming Men in Black 3D, he revealed that the plot involves time travel, so there will be aliens like those we would expect from modern films as well as retro-looking creatures of the past.

Baker said he’s never had a real job, like working at McDonald’s or in retail. He makes monsters for a living, and he’s proud of it. Born in 1950, he began creating monster models as a child with whatever materials he could find. He read books and articles about makeup effects, including those by Dick Smith, himself an Oscar-winning makeup artist whose resume includes The Exorcist and The Godfather. When Baker was 18 he wrote Smith a letter telling him how much he admired him, and included photos of his own effects. He received a reply in three days, and made such an impression that Smith met personally with Baker to offer makeup instruction.

That was a turning point in Baker’s career. “I could tell it wasn’t just a job. It was a passion,” he said.

When asked by an audience member what school he would recommend to aspiring makeup-effects artists, Baker suggested “the school of hard knocks.”

“I’m glad I learned the way I did,” he said. “The problem I have with schools is, people are taught, ‘This is how you do this.’ They’re not taught about why you do this.”

He said it’s critical for makeup artists to keep up with, and utilize, advances in technology to enable them to survive in the film industry. He mentioned how Universal Studios kicked out Jack Pierce, a man responsible for the effects in many of the studio’s classic films, for not embracing industry changes. Baker said he’s always going to stay on top of what’s new, and that he was using Photoshop since before his 22-year-old daughter was born. He praised digital technology because it allows him to see what color will work on what surface before he actually applies it.

“I’m all for using any trick in the book,” Baker said.

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