Friday, May 29, 2015

A Look at 20 of Rick Baker's Noteworthy Achievements in Film

Center: Rick Baker as Dino the Gorilla in Kentucky Fried Movie
Yesterday marked the announcement of legendary makeup artist Rick Baker's retirement from film. While there's a chance you are likely wondering who he is, there's a strong chance that you have seen his work in some of the most iconic films of the past 40 years. With seven Academy Award wins (and 12 nominations total), he is one of the most recognized artists in Oscars history. While he has done great work in blockbusters, he's also integral in revolutionizing and even creating an identity for various actors' careers, including Eddie Murphy. For those who still don't know who he is, here is a brief look at 20 times you have seen his work without realizing it.

Men in Black (1997)

Job: Alien Makeup Effects Artist
*Won Oscar for Best Makeup

While most would consider his other work to be more noteworthy, I consider Men in Black and the subsequent (and lesser) films to be what sticks out the most to me. It could be that I was eight at the time of its release, but I remember being astounded by the effects and the atmosphere of the film. It was immediately iconic and fluid in ways that still stand out close to 20 years later. With him being in charge of designing the aliens, he made a universe that still fascinates me from my favorite sci-fi film. It's fun and silly, but most of all it's artful.

Hellboy (2004)

Job: Special Effects Director, Makeup Consultant

Another film that stands out as being visually memorable was Hellboy. While Guillermo Del Toro would go on to perfect his fairy tale visuals with Pan's Labyrinth, he first created a wonderful adaptation of Mike Mignola's spawn of satan that remains one of the best comic book movies out there. From Ron Perlman's cadence to the visually stimulating villains, this is a type of film that unfortunately doesn't get made too much anymore. 

Robert Downey Jr.
Tropic Thunder (2008)

Job: Makeup Designer - Robert Downey Jr.

This still feels like a deep cut, even if Tropic Thunder has become a quintessential skewering of Hollywood culture. While all of the attention would be on Robert Downey Jr.'s Oscar-nominated turn as an Australian actor in black face, it is important to note that the great Rick Baker was behind making it look far more convincing than it has in the past. As the final film (and nomination) will show, it definitely paid off. For as great as Downey was, he would be nothing without that excellent makeup work.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Job: Special Makeup Designer and Creator
*Won Oscar for Best Makeup

This is largely considered to be his most noteworthy achievement as a makeup guru and one of many times that he would tackle lycanthropy. With his first Oscar nomination and win, he created one of the funniest and scariest updates of werewolf culture while being reverent. The transformation scene alone still holds up as an astounding sequence that captures the brilliance of his work. Along with one of the more ruthless looking creatures, he also designed various other characters that are badgered and bleeding. Most of all, over 30 years later, it still looks a lot better than the CG equivalents.

Coming to America (1988)

Job: Special Makeup Effects
*Oscar nomination for Best Makeup

Believe it or not, but there are three instances in the gif above where you see Eddie Murphy. In what would become his career-defining move, the comedian debuted his famous acting style of playing multiple roles in one scene. In the famous barber shop scene, he premieres his style with a certain agility that still manages to resonate. While a lot of the focus is on the humor, there's a certain thankless task to what Baker did by making the comedian visually different so many times in one scene. While he would push his shtick into more ambitious fare later on, this was a humble, hilarious start to one of the more nuanced charms of Rick Baker's career.

Scene from The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps
The Nutty Professor (1996)

Job: Special Makeup Effects
*Won Oscar for Best Makeup

If Coming to America seemed a little too modest, why not jump ahead eight years to what would be the Eddie Murphy/Rick Baker magnum opus of The Nutty Professor. Taking on more characters, Murphy managed to look convincingly like majority of the Klump family characters from the obese protagonist to the elderly grandmother. In one particular dinner table scene, Murphy is forced to play all of the roles as they argue rapidly at each other. It is astounding work that elevates the overall comedy from the cheap fat jokes that ran rampant here and in the even more audacious (in terms of makeup work) sequel. Baker and Murphy would work together again on Life and Norbit, both of which received Best Makeup nominations.

Thriller (1983)

Job: Special Makeup Effects Designer and Creator

It remains one of the most influential music videos in history. When Michael Jackson's epic video reached a music breakdown, history was made. As the scene pulled back, it was revealed that Jackson's back-up dancers were in fact the dancing dead and over the course of one routine, they managed to create an iconic dance that has since been imitated and lampooned repeatedly. It may be a kitschy horror throwback, but it also is just one of the most visually assured music videos in early MTV history. Rick Baker would work with Jackson again for Captain EO

The Exorcist (1973)

Jobs: Special Effects Assistant (Uncredited)

In one of his earliest gigs, he worked on what would become considered as the scariest movie of all time. While he was only an assistant, the makeup work on the film is definitely an important part to what makes the latter half of the film work. As Regan becomes possessed by an evil spirit, she transforms into a hideous, deformed person. It is so unnerving and the effects hold up so well that its placement in history is well established at this point.

Ed Wood (1994)

Job: Makeup Creator and Designer for Bela Lugosi
*Won Oscar for Best Makeup

It seems bizarre that Rick Baker has only worked twice with Tim Burton (the other being Planet of the Apes in 2001). They compliment each other so well. In one of the oddest ironies, Burton's love letter to acclaimed horrible director Edward D. Wood Jr. ended up being his best. For a film that honored a man who could only pull off bad special effects, it's impressive to note that the Burton production actually had some of the most convincing makeup work imaginable. The work was predominantly done to make Martin Landau (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as well) look like famed actor Bela Lugosi. Boy, does it look convincing and the wonderful performance only compliments it.

Star Wars (1977)

Job: Makeup (Second Unit)

It is a film that launched a phenomenon that almost 40 years later is still being talked about. While very few people care about the story, many remember the countless visual and iconic characters scattered throughout the film. Met with the challenge of making dozens of alien characters that are visually distinct, Rick Baker contributed his fair share to making the final iconic look of the film that is still held up as one of the more interesting fantasy films in history. Try forgetting what these characters look like. You'll find that it's quite challenging.

Videodrome (1983)

Job: Special Makeup Effects Designer

If you have ever seen a David Cronenberg film, you'll likely know his obsession with repulsive body issue imagery. While he would perfect it with The Fly, he created one of his most iconic works simply with a sentient TV set and a hole into someone's chest. It is surreal and may be a little much for some, but the team-up between Cronenberg and Rick Baker did lead to some astounding visuals. Nobody can really forget seeing James Woods reaching into his stomach for the first time or the various other concepts explored in the film. Among Baker's biggest achievements, this is likely the most disgusting of them.

Enchanted (2007)

Job: Special Makeup Effects Artist

In Disney's own send-up of Disney culture, the film embraced its history with one of its most clever and entertaining live action films of the past decade. While it helps that Amy Adams gave a breakthrough performance, it also helps that the mixture of animation and live action is done so convincingly thanks to work from Rick Baker as he made various characters convincingly jump off of the page. The film itself is a delightful commentary that still seems too ambitious for the studio's current trends. However, it still looks really, really good at the same time.

The Ring (2002)

Jobs: Special Makeup Effects Artist

It is hard to remember, but around the turn of the millennium, there was a phase where America remade a series of Japanese horror (J-Horror for short) films. Standing out among them all was The Ring, which has been forgotten nowadays but was a phenomenon at the time of its release. With immediately recognizable imagery, its horror focused around what can be summarized nowadays as "viral video marketing." However, fans of the film will likely remember how creepy it was to see the demonic girl (above) crawl out of the TV and plot her revenge on the protagonist. It was visually creepy in ways that the sequel (also with Rick  Baker) would try to capture, but inevitably fail at.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Job: Special Makeup Effects
*Won Oscar for Best Makeup

It may have been an atrocious movie, but at least it looked halfway decent thanks to Rick Baker. It may have featured an atrocious Jim Carrey performance, but at least it looked halfway decent thanks to Rick Baker. It may have won Rick Baker an Oscar, but it's still an atrocious, deplorable film that should have put Dr. Seuss live action adaptations to rest long before The Cat in the Hat did it a few years later. But hey, Rick Baker can make a turd look pretty... so there's that.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Job: Makeup Creator for Lothar

In terms of great, fun action films from the 90's, The Rocketeer is one that should rank very high on any list. While Joe Johnston's direction is superb, there's one odd character that you'll not believe had makeup work: the bad guy Lothar. With his comical jawline, he was one of the most cartoonish aspects of the film and still managed to be convincing enough to fit into the silly, enjoyable world of the film. While Lothar isn't the most memorable character of the film, it is likely that you won't be forgetting his squarish jawline any time soon.

Batman Forever (1995)

Job: Special Makeup Designer and Creator

There is a lot that can be lobbied against Joel Schumacher's pre-Christopher Nolan take on Batman. The stories aren't necessarily the greatest nor do any of the visual cues feel iconic. However, you have to hand it to him for sticking with the glitzy, colorful pallet of scenery and costumes that run rampant throughout the first of his two films. While Tommy Lee Jones' Two Face makeup design may be a little dated, it still has an oddly cartoonish vibe that immediately makes it distinguishable. It may not be a great film, but at least it doesn't look bland. 

Maleficent (2014)

Job: Makeup Design for Maleficent 

It may be a little early to declare it, but among Rick Baker's more iconic work of the past few years, Maleficent likely ranks up there. Upon the film's release, Angelina Jolie's horn-rimmed character became immediately iconic. It may be an adaptation of a look established in the Sleeping Beauty classic, but it becomes its own beast in the live action format, thanks largely to how assured and powerful the very look of Jolie's character is. If nothing else, it is immediately striking in ways that other Disney characters nowadays aren't.

TRON: Legacy (2010)

Job: Special Makeup Effects Artist

While the reboot of TRON hasn't necessarily gone far since this 2010 film, it is interesting to see how they both updated the look while staying true to the iconography. It may be too cold and clinical to be as interesting, but the way that the film makes its characters play out their various adventures is still unique. Along with expanding the universe to have more characters, the makeup work also required a lot of new and interesting looks, specifically regarding the return of Jeff Bridges' Flynn character. It may never be considered better than the original, but at least it looks good.

Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

Job: Makeup
*Won Oscar for Best Makeup

I will confess that I have not seen this film nor do I have strong opinions either way for it. However, based on imagery that I have seen, it does look like the focus is specifically on the "Harry" character, who fits the mold of iconic Rick Baker characters that are hairy and could almost exist in our world. I am unsure how convincing it is today, but at least I can recognize what Harry looks like if forced to make an opinion on it.

The Wolfman (2010)

Job: Makeup)
*Won Oscar for Best Makeup

It almost makes too much sense that Rick Baker's Oscar history would end with a win for The Wolfman. As a make-up artist who first won for An American Werewolf in London, he knows how to make transformation scenes into works of art. This will presumably be his last Oscar win, which isn't so bad considering that he has now won seven. However, the real highlight of this comes from presenter Cate Blanchett, who (as seen in the video) has a memorable reaction to seeing Baker's work in play.

So whether or not you recognize Rick Baker's name or his work, he has left behind an impressive legacy over the many decades. Whether it was werewolves or Eddie Murphy character #5, he managed to revolutionize the way that we see things on screen. While there are many other great artists out there, the retirement of Baker does seem like a great loss, especially as CG becomes more prevalent in our pop culture. May he enjoy retirement, but his touch on imagery will be greatly missed.

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