One of the most famous off-screen names in modern cinema, special makeup effects artist Rick Baker is a seven-time Academy Award winner for his work on films like The Nutty Professor, Ed Wood, An American Werewolf in London and the first Men in Black. This Friday, his talents can again be seen on the big screen in Men in Black 3.
ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to visit Baker at his Cinovation studios in Glendale, California to talk about the multitude of retro-style aliens that the film’s time-travel plot has to offer. (You can check out a behind-the-scenes documentary about Baker’s designs by clicking here.) Surrounded by his out-of-this-world creations, Baker talks about his process, returning to the Men in Black franchise and his next project, Walt Disney Pictures’ Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie.
After you check out the interview below, click here to take a look at images from Baker’s incredible gallery, including costumes and puppets from Harry and the Hendersons, Planet of the Apes, The Ring, Wolf, Mighty Joe and many, many more!
ComingSoon.net: It looks like you actually make a cameo in “Men in Black 3,” albeit under a lot of makeup.
Rick Baker: Yeah! It was originally a bigger part. I actually had some business with Will [Smith], but they condensed the movie a whole bunch and they cut the funniest part of my scene out. But yeah, I always try to get in there somewhere.
CS: That’s sort of connected to what my next question is going to be: When you design an alien, do you have a backstory connected to it?
Baker: You know, I used to try to do that. I’d figure out what planet he’s from and the atmosphere and all that stuff. Not so much anymore. It’s more about trying to find something that looks cool.
CS: There is something very impressive about your designs in that they do look cool and tend to stand out as being very different. I’ve talked to other alien designers in the past and there tends to be a sense of trying to make everything scientifically accurate. Do you find that approach to be a hindrance?
Baker: That’s what I started thinking that it kind of got to be. I was just more interested in the look. Sometimes you have to make up a story later. But yeah, just making something that looks cool is the big thing for me.
CS: There’s also a lot of callbacks to famous science fiction creatures. There’s a very Gort-looking robot design here and some that remind me of “This Island Earth.” Does that just come out of you naturally as a fan of those films?
Baker: Well, in this one it was something that I was trying to push on them for the first two movies, to make aliens that looked like aliens that we’ve seen before. For one, I thought it would be fun. But this was the perfect movie to do that with the whole time travel element. I said, “When we go back to the ‘sixties and to Men in Black headquarters, we’ve got to do fifties and sixties aliens. We’ve got to make them look like the Saucer Man because that’s what aliens look like then.” I said that there really should be a big dilineation between these two time periods. And they went for it! I was really excited because I got to do my version of these aliens that I love. It was a lot of fun.
CS: When the process begins, do they tell you, “We need 20 different aliens for this scene” or is it more, “Show us whatever you’ve got”?
Baker: You know, movies are ever-mutating beasts. This one was like every other one in that it did mutate a lot. The numbers changed a lot. We, many times, started aliens for a scene that ended up not being in the movie. It got cut and that happens a lot. I just said, “Let’s make as many aliens as we can make and we’ll use them where we can use them.” I knew from past experiences that, a lot of the time, they’re just in the background of a shot and the camera just pans by. I’d rather see more in a shot. But to do a film like this is just so exciting for me. Barry [Sonnenfeld] e-mailed me initally and said, “We’re going to do a ‘Men in Black 3’ and I know that you’re retired, but can you come out of retirement and do this?” I said, “First of all, I’m not retired and, second, you don’t have to beg.” These are fun movies to do. I get to do everything. There’s subtle makeups and likenesses and fake heads and puppets. There’s all kinds of cool stuff to make.
CS: One of the things that strikes me walking around your gallery is that your work isn’t just about creating incredible aliens or fantastic creatures, but also adding very realistic touches to things in the real world. Do you have a preference when you’re doing makeup?
Baker: I like to do a little bit of everything. For example if I do a lot of animatronics — which we don’t do all that much anymore — I’m always hoping that the next one will be a makeup film. If you do something with monsters maybe you want the next one to be something more human. It’s nice to mix it up. It doesn’t get boring that way. What’s great about ‘Men in Black,’ as I mentioned, is that it has all that stuff.
CS: Do you have a personal favorite of anything that you’ve designed?
Baker: There’s so many that I like. It’s hard to say. It’s like saying that you have a favorite child.
CS: So when projects come along, what is it that you’re looking for these days?
Baker: Well, first of all I’m looking for something that comes along (laughs). I don’t get as many calls as I used to because I think everybody does think that I’ve retired, but I’m also trying to be selective. I got to the point in my life where I decided that I don’t want to be doing films just to keep my crew working. I used to have a permanent staff that I kept on. Sometimes I would take films that I wasn’t necessarily 100 percent into. I didn’t like doing that. I just decided that I wasn’t going to do that anymore. Now it just has to be something that interests me. I figure that I only have so many years left and I want to spend them doing something that I want to be doing. If I’m not working on a film I can work on my own stuff and have just as much fun. It doesn’t pay the bills so much but, at this point, it’s more about having fun.
CS: I imagine your Halloween costume is pretty great every year.
Baker: Oh yeah, Halloween is a big thing in my family. I have two daughters who have spent their lives in pretty elaborate makeup every Halloween. It’s pretty much expected of them.
CS: Is there anything involved on your end in the casting of actors to wear makeup?
Baker: Sometimes they let me be involved in that process and sometimes it’s just about who you get. But I always try to paint a very realistic picture. When I did the Tim Burton “Planet of the Apes,” I said to Tim, “Before anybody signs their contract and it all gets finalized, I want them to come to my shop and I want to tell them what their life is going to be.” It’s not a picnic wearing this makeup. First of all, I showed them myself in the makeup in a video with these big teeth in. I said, “The first thing we’re going to do is make these teeth for you and you’re going to say that you can’t talk with them in, but you can.” Then I’d put the teeth in and I’d show them. I said, “You have to realize that you’re going to be in the makeup chair for, at a minimum, three hours in the morning. You’re going to get there three hours before anyone else except for us. Then you’re there an hour at the end of the day getting cleaned up. All day long, you’re going to have someone like me looking at the corner of your mouth like you’re some sort of object and fixing you up and just poking you in-between takes. Do you really want to do this? Because, if you don’t, now is the time to get out. Once we go through the process and make all this, I’m going to be really pissed off if you decide you’re not going to do it.” I truly expected on that film that, because we had so many people in makeup, that it was going to be like the end of “Frankenstein” where all the villagers come in after me with torches and pitchforks. But it was great. Basically, everybody knew the job was dangerous when they took it. I never had a problem with anybody. It was unbelievable.
CS: I had the pleasure of meeting an actor in the makeup at the “Men in Black 3” junket and I was amazed how flawless it is all around. I always sort of assumed that, no matter how good it looks on-camera, you still have to shoot around seams and zippers and whatnot. Is it important to you to give actors the ability to just be the character once they’re suited up?
Baker: Yeah, we always try to do that. And people ask me, “Does doing the movie in 3D make it harder?” or “Does HD change things?” My answer is that we always try to make it as cool as it can look in person. When I was a kid, I remember meeting a professional makeup artist and he said, “You’re putting way too much in this! You don’t need to do all this. You’re not going to see it.” I thought, “I see it.” I’m really doing this for myself. I just want to make it as cool as possible and look as real as possible. I like that they exist in the real world even when they’re not on film. I want them, when they’re walking around on the set or wherever, to just be cool.
CS: Beyond makeup, though, there’s a lot of puppetry involved in what you do, particularly with some of the “Men in Black” aliens. Is that a very distinct, separate skill to develop?
Baker: They are separate, but they kind of evolved with me. I mean, when I started doing makeup, it was just grease paint. You could only do so much. If you wanted to do something dimensional, you used nose putty or mortician’s wax. But there were problems with that, so I started going into rubber and foam rubber. I didn’t like having limitations on anything and that’s when I started getting to puppetry and animatronics and stuff. You could design something that didn’t have to work on a person’s face and put things wherever you wanted. It was a slow evolution and it was kind of the evolution of makeup effects as well. It used to be that I would do that stuff myself and then there started to be people whose jobs got more specific. They’d get much better at the mechanics than anything else and they’d make nice, polished mechanisms where mine were all blobs of stuff and hot glue and popsicle sticks and things like that. But they are different things. Now, we usually hire guys who are the mechanical guys to do that kind of stuff. We hire a guy who’s a moldmaker or hire a guy who’s a sculptor or hire a hair person. It’s departmentalitzed. But I taught myself to do it all. I had to, in the early days. It was a one man show to begin with.
CS: It’s fascinating to see some of the older costumes on display here, like Harry from “Harry and the Hendersons.” Is there a risk of degredation in dealing with ageing materials?
Baker: Yeah, foam rubber deteoriates. It’s an organic material and it rots, basically. It’s sad. In fact, we did a show in here some weeks ago and the host of the show was hugging Mikey, which is the alien standing here. That’s actually the foam rubber suit from the first “Men in Black.” The foam is pretty decomposed. It’s to the point where, if you touch it, you can actually make it crumble. I walked in and was like, (screaming) “Don’t touch that!” That was my introduction to that lady. But Harry, too, is the actual suit as well. At some point it is going to not exist. But the “American Werewolf” head in the case there is one of the heads from the film. It’s like 30 years old. It’s been in a case for a long time but, if you touch it, it’ll crumble.
CS: Do you know what’s coming up next for you?
Baker: I did some work on a film called “Maleficent.” They’re just starting that now. I designed the makeup for Angelina Jolie. At this point, I’m actually finished with that part of it. I’m working on a book about my career. I wanted to do that before I took any other films. This Angelina Jolie thing came along and kind of slowed me down, but now I’m going back to that.
Men in Black 3 hits 2D and 3D theaters this Friday, May 25th.