An American Werewolf in London

Universal Pictures

There’s a reason that, 33 years after its release, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London remains a gold standard in on-camera special effects. The detailed and inventive use of makeup and animatronics by Rick Baker and his team meticulously fashioned a transformative threat to one man’s body that proved to be enduringly terrifying and enthralling, not to mention a bit cheeky. While CGI and other digital techniques age remarkably quickly, the indexical standard of animatronics and makeup create an ever-convincing case for the relative permanence of older means for producing spectacle. It’s simply a different thing when the effect was genuinely there, on set, alongside the events and people filmed.

Hollywood spectacle has changed dramatically over the past thirty years, and Rick Baker’s career is evidence of that, with his role behind the scenes increasingly combined with the work of digital engineers. Yet Baker has always embraced the opportunity to collaborate with other disciplines of special effects, from puppeteers to stop-motion animators to today’s armies of talented digital artists.

So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the only person to have won an Academy Award for Harry and the Hendersons.

Share Your Talent

As he expressed in his speech after winning the first-ever Oscar for makeup (for An American Werewolf in London), Baker has looked up to the work of Dick Smith (The Exorcist) for decades. Here the two titans of their field discuss the camaraderie between talents in the industry, and their shared desire to push their craft forward. There’s no magician’s code for these artists.

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Learn from What Came Before

In the area of special effects, there sometimes exists a false and oversimplified “evolutionary” notion: that things are improving as time moves forward and technology changes. As Baker illustrates in his discussion of multiple adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s never that simple. There is remarkable artistry and technique in older forms of movie magic, from which there is much wisdom to be culled.

The march of time should never discard the instructive treasures of the past. What might seem primitive is usually quite complex, particularly within the limitations of its context.

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Remember What DIY Stands For

Baker during part of this interview sounds like many of us when we hear of a Hollywood remake of a beloved property: “They’re going to do that!?”

However, unlike most of us, Baker was in a position to make sure they got 1976′s King Kong right. He did so not only by lobbying himself as a talent uniquely capable of executing the effects needed, but by immersing himself in the task.

Sometimes collaboration isn’t quite enough, and you need to put yourself as far into the project as you can in order to make sure it’s completed properly. You not only need to make the ape; you need to become the ape.

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There Isn’t a School for Everything

Baker and his colleagues are prime examples of what it means to learn by doing. Makeup effects require a specific combination of hands-on artistry, media literacy and robotic engineering skills. There isn’t exactly a long-held institutional framework for the expertise required of someone in Baker’s field.

Thus, the only recourse is to learn by doing, both on an at-home amateur level (Baker started out as a child making Halloween costumes for his friends that freaked out his neighborhood) and as a trial-by-fire, approaching each project as its own unique set of tasks and challenges.

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Have Fun

At some point, Baker forgets that this is an interview. The joy he has in bringing Harry to life is palpable.

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New Challenges are Creative Opportunities

The above is an excerpt from a short documentary about the complex makeup effects in David Cronenberg’s masterwork Videodrome. The film came out on the heels of Baker’s game-changing work in An American Werewolf in London, yet it presented astounding new challenges to him and his team. At the beginning of this documentary, Baker offers two companion comments that betray his ambitious approach to the craft of on-camera special effects: “This is impossible” and “How are we going to do it?”

The nature of a new challenge motivates an act of making the impossible possible. Few things encapsulate this ethos quite like the task of bringing a television to living, breathing life.

Baker and his team accomplished these tasks through collaborating, by combining everyone’s set of unique skills and imaginative abilities. The result is a complementary effort manifested toward a shared goal, of making the impossible possible. Baker and his team couldn’t adequately complete Videodrome‘s animated TV based upon their past practices, so Frank Carere comes up with the idea of using a keyboard as a means of bringing the object to life. This problem-solving neatly summarizes the creative mind: allowing new challenges to inspire new solutions.

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What We’ve Learned

Though it’s nowhere near as simple as this, it often feels like current digital effects practices (especially in studio filmmaking) allow for an ostensibly limitless realization of the basic special effects needs of the film. Place the actors in the scene, and let post-production fill in the gaps.

Baker’s work, by contrast, thrives on limitations. More specifically, it works based within the possibilities inherent in a given set of limitations. The limitations of the physical world, the limitations of budgets and the limitations of what film technology is capable of doing at any given point helps inspire and motivate his creative mind. How can one make the fantastic appear real in front of a camera? There is great risk in this approach (what if it doesn’t work onscreen?), but its rewards are exponential. Is there yet an on-screen transformation that has bested An American Werewolf in London?

While Baker’s effects work is incredibly complex and specialized, it harkens back to something originalist about filmmaking, specifically about filmmakers’ focus on what illusions the camera (and what’s in front of it) can produce. From Méliès to Harryhausen, mechanical, optical, animatronic and makeup-based trickery made movie magic something specific to the cinema for nearly a century.

In today’s uncanny valley, the lineage of Baker’s contributions is increasingly scarce and inscrutable. Yet that’s exactly what has made his legacy so rewarding many times over.

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