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“Men in Black III”’s U.S. release inspired Kris to post a list of legendary effects/makeup artist Rick Baker’s top 10 contributions to cinema earlier this week. With 12 Oscar nominations and seven wins, Baker is perhaps the most well known and revered man working in his field.
As Kris’s article indicates, the creature effects mastermind’s catalogue of work is both varied and prolific. Baker has run the gamut between horror (“The Ring,” “Cursed”), comedy (“Tropic Thunder,” “Ed Wood,” “The Nutty Professor” and, a personal favorite, “Coming to America”), fantasy (“Hellboy,” “Enchanted”) and of course, sci-fi comedy with the distinctive “Men in Black” franchise.
In his interview with Baker, Drew McWeeny mentions the transformation sequence in “An American Werewolf in London” as a moment that forever altered his perception of what is possible in the world of filmmaking. McWeeny is certainly not alone. For many, the thriller remains, if not the most successful, the most beloved on-screen rendering of the shape-shifting beasts.
Interestingly enough, however, in my own conversation with the artist, Baker confessed that “American Werewolf” makes him “cringe” each time he sees it. He stressed:
“I just know that we can do so much better now. I mean my crew was 18-years-old. They were kids; they were fans who'd never worked on a movie before. I brought one kid from Connecticut and another kid from Texas and we trained them and did stuff that nobody had ever done before, and there are a lot of mistakes. Colors don’t match, things don’t connect, but the concept was good."
For Baker, the creature and film that stands the test of time is the sweet-natured, mythic Sasquatch Harry from 1987’s “Harry and the Hendersons” starring John Lithgow and Melinda Dillon, which of course topped Kris' list. As he put it:
"You can look at Harry today and he still holds up. He's a character in the movie and you feel for him even though he's rubber. He's the one I'm most happy with."
Indeed, the combined efforts of the three puppeteers (including Baker), Kevin Peter Hall’s work inside the suit and Lithgow’s performance against the massive puppet yielded one of the more heartwarming and emotionally gratifying relationships between man and (created) beast on film.
For me, it had always felt that Harry’s face had been designed with Lithgow’s visage in mind as if we as an audience were meant to feel, at least subconsciously, that the two were in some strange way, brothers. Said Baker to that point:
"It's funny because I designed Harry before I knew that Lithgow was going to be in the movie. The director gave me this whole spiel about how I give my characters souls and nobody else does that. He was kissing up to me and it worked. But we would watch dailies at lunch time and we would be so fascinated by what John Lithgow was doing acting wise that probably a lot of that came through in the performance that we were creating as well."
Baker refers to his work on Harry as one of those magical moments in cinema where everything comes together. That same spark seems to find its way into the vast majority of his work; sometimes it highlights a strong story and occasionally it shines despite an otherwise weak one.
Audiences can glimpse the latest bits of genius to emerge from Baker’s brain (my favorite of which is Jemaine Clement’s biker-alien Boris the Animal) when "Men in Black III" opens in theaters today.
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