On Saturday, makeup and special effects icon Rick Baker trekked down to Austin, TX, for a retrospective screening of “American Werewolf in London,” where he conducted a Q&A with fans and presented a special limited-edition poster created by artist Olly Moss. Prior to the screening, he sat down with The Playlist for a conversation about his career then and now, where he didn’t hold back about his mixed feelings for the advent of CGI.
In 2010, Baker won his seventh Academy Award for his work on “The Wolfman,” after creating the make-up effects that transformed actor Benicio Del Toro into a modern-day facsimile of the monster Lon Chaney popularized in 1941. According to Baker, however, little of his actual work showed up on screen. “The whole transformation was done on computers, but it was based a lot on ideas I had and sculptures that I did,” he revealed Saturday. “But I was kind of pushed out of that, and I’m still kind of stinging about it.”
Although computer animation has radically overhauled the sort of work that Baker made his name on, 'American Werewolf' is still a standard-bearer for make-up and special effects three decades after it was first released. Although he said he liked the end result, he confessed that part of the reason he took the job on “The Wolfman” in the first place was to show how he could update his signature style using the latest technology. “I so wanted to have that opportunity to do like what I did with ‘American Werewolf’ but 30 years later, utilizing the technology but still doing some old-school stuff,” he explained. “But it still was fun to do a 'Wolf Man' movie, an old-school gothic monster movie, and I think even though it didn’t do that well, I think it’s the closest thing to an old-school horror movie that’s been out in a long time. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing it, and it was fun.”
Although a quick glance at Baker’s IMDB page indicates he’s as busy as ever, he said that the industry’s preference for more modern approaches to the same work has resulted in fewer jobs coming his way. “I don’t get the calls now,” he said with a laugh. “They’re like, he’s this old school, old guy, and we want to do digital stuff, some crappy digital stuff, and it’s really too bad. And I’ve embraced the technology -- I do a lot of digital stuff for fun.” Meanwhile, he observed that the ease and convenience of computer-generated effects work has resulted in many filmmakers approaching their craft with less discipline than before.
“I think the worst thing about digital technology is that it’s made a lot of sloppy filmmaking,” Baker said. “It’s like, well, we can fix it in post; I’m like, ‘Seriously – I can move that sand out of the shot, and it’s only going to take me a second,’ but they’re like, no, we can paint that out later. There’s so much of that, and for some reason they have no problem spending the money on that stuff, and it’s too bad.”
Nevertheless, Baker insists that he’s less critical of the technology itself than how it is used. “I’m excited by that technology. It’s another trick in the bag of tricks for how you can fool people, and I think it can be used a lot more creatively. Everything doesn’t have to be computer-generated with the character there; we can utilize the compositing aspects of it, we can do it digitally now with little things to realize [something].” In fact, Baker pointed out that he was among the first in the industry to start using computer programs to augment his practical work. “I started using Photoshop when it was 1.0, like 22 years ago, and starting using it for After Effects when it first came out. I used to put real eyes on a puppet head, because its eyes are so hard to make, and it was so cool. And it was like, why isn’t anybody doing that?”
Given the glut of available technology to teenagers and young filmmakers, Baker wondered why he hasn’t seen more – and more impressive -- work from them. “When I was a kid, we had 8mm cameras, and you would put a 50-foot roll of film in and you’d have to turn it over halfway through to do a split screen, and it was a real accomplishment and hard to do and there was no way to do blue screen stuff. But kids today have so much stuff available; there’s like free software that you can get to do things. And so I’m waiting – like, why aren’t there a bazillion really incredible films that kids have made? And I don’t know. Maybe it’s too easy.”
Baker was mum on what he’s working on next, but he said that despite his pedigree, and the enormous success he’s had working with studio filmmakers, he’s just as interested as ever in helping young artists realize their vision – as long as they really have one. “It’s funny, because of my awards and everything else, they won’t call me for an independent film,” he observed. “But if it’s something I thought was a really cool idea, where I could really show what I do, as long as there’s money for me to actually do the work, I’d be interested."
“I like people that love what they’re doing, and make passionate things that have a vision – not films by committee.”