Dick Smith

An American Werewolf in London

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.

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For those of you new to the column, I’m recounting key experiences of my life that made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st century. I’ve dropped out of CalArts after my sophomore year and have moved in with up and coming Make Up Artist Mark Shostrom, who was seeking a roommate. I am nineteen years old… I had never experienced a Motion Picture dry spot before. In fact, I hadn’t worked on a film yet. My friend, James Cummins had left and returned from Canada with Margaret Beserra, Brian Wade, Bill Sturgeon, and Henry Golas after executing the alien effects for a film entitled Strange Invaders. Although I asked to accompany them and work on the film, James told me that he didn’t feel comfortable hiring me with no professional experience. Now, back in Los Angeles, James wanted to focus on his screenplay writing and wasn’t pursing any creature effects jobs. Clueless how to get hired at any other make-up effects studio, I stayed in Pasadena, setting up in Mark Shostrom’s apartment. Mark bid on a few small projects. One job in particular was to produce a life-sized statue in the Greco-Roman style for a commercial. We even went so far as to sculpt a maquette (a small scale model) of our proposed design, but did not land the job. Mark had also been developing some creature effects for an independent film entitled The Last Resort (which has nothing […]

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For those of you new to the column, I am revisiting formative events in my life that have made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist searching for relevance in the 21st Century. I left my home in a suburb of Gretna, Louisiana, traveled to Valencia, California where I attended the California Institute of the Arts. I am nineteen… Being in college, in California, in 1981, was like being in the front seat of an incredible roller coaster. Unlike how it was in New Orleans, where I would be lucky if I was able to get a hold of a genre magazine like Cinefantastique because it was not consistently available in news stands, now I felt like I was closer to “the hub” than ever. Magazines, trade papers, Hollywood poster stores, all were up to date with what was happening in motion pictures. There was also the benefit of being in one of the two (or three) “preview” cities for new films. Altered States, for instance, had opened in late November rather than at Christmas time when it opened wide, nationally. This, for a fan and initiate to Make Up Effects, was like being at ground zero.

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For those of you who are new to the column, I’m revisiting formative events that have contributed to what I am now: A Special Make Up Effects Artist seeking relevance in the 21st Century. So, I’ve learned about liquid latex, got my camera, am hyped up on Star Wars, and ready to move up to the next level. I am sixteen – When the box appeared at my house, I was surprised at how heavy it was for its relative size. The shipping label was yellow and red, and in the upper left hand corner it confirmed that my order had arrived. “R&D Latex Corporation, Commerce, CA” it read. Finally, after a decade I held in my hands a box that contained the mystical material, the magical substance that turned actors into apes, had aged Dustin Hoffman to over 100 years old, and was the stuff of Ray Harryhausen Stop Motion Models! As you may remember, I read about R&D Latex Corporation in an article about building Stop Motion Models in “Super 8 Filmmaker” magazine, and I had sent in my fifty dollars (forty-five dollars for the one gallon kit plus five dollars shipping). By today’s standards that seems fairly reasonable, but in those days, when you worked at a grocery store and took home about $100 or less, $50 was quite the investment.

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