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Master makeup artist Rick Baker on “An American Werewolf in London” and “Men in Black III”

Master makeup artist Rick Baker on “An American Werewolf in London” and “Men in Black III” (photo)

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It’s hard to believe “An American Werewolf in London” is thirty years old. It looks way too good and scares way too hard to be a three-decade old film. A lot of the credit for the film’s longevity goes to the film’s master makeup artist Rick Baker, who designed its creatures and engineered the movie’s legendary transformation scene. Once you’ve seen David Naughton become that wolf in “American Werewolf,” you never forget it.

Baker came down to Fantastic Fest 2011 to take part in a 30th anniversary screening of “American Werewolf” that included a new ultra rare Mondo print by Olly Moss. Here’s a picture. Cue lycanthropic jealousy in 3…2…1….


While Baker was in Austin, I was lucky to get to talk to him for a few minutes. I took the opportunity to discuss the making of one of the greatest horror movies of all time, uncover a few morsels of info about his work in next summer’s “Men in Black III,” and pick his brain about the most underrated movie makeup of all time.

When was the last time you saw “American Werewolf?”

There was a screening at the New Beverly or the Nuart or something when the Blu-ray came out, and that was fairly recently.

And what did you think seeing it again fairly recently?

I cringe looking at some of the stuff in the transformation.


Yeah. It was thirty years ago and I was thirty years old and the average age of my crew was like nineteen. There were kids who had never worked on a film before. I do think it’s pretty amazing that people still hold it in pretty high regard, this thing that was done by a thirty year old and nineteen year olds who’d never done this stuff.

Looking back at a thirty year old movie, it can sometimes be hard to tell just what was groundbreaking when it first came out. In your mind, what was the really revolutionary stuff in “American Werewolf?”

People always talk about the transformation, but I think the film was so ahead of its time in so many ways: the blend of horror and comedy and the way music was used. So much was innovative about that film. That’s probably why people still like it so much. But it was definitely a showcase for the kind of stuff I do and I was so thankful to have that opportunity.

John Landis wrote this movie when he was a kid. When I did [makeup on] John’s first movie “Schlock,” when he was twenty-one and I was twenty, he had already written “American Werewolf.” We shot the movie he originally wrote back then. The only exception was the porno theater was a cartoon theater in the original script, because it really was a cartoon theater when John was in Piccadilly while he wrote it. It had since changed to a porno theater, so he changed that part. It was one of the few times in my career of forty years working in films that we had a script and we actually shot it.

How collaborative were the creature designs?

I’ve learned over the years to appreciate John because he comes to work prepared. He wrote the script and he knows what he wants. He would describe the shot to you, he would listen, and he would say things like “You’re the expert at what you do and I want you to do it. That’s why I hired you.”

He gave me a lot of freedom, although I wanted to make the wolf a biped and he said “No, I want this four-legged hound from hell.” I kept trying to talk him into the two-legged wolf. “No. Four-legged hound from hell.” So I made it. It wasn’t like it is today where I have to do 2,000 Photoshops. No, it was just “Make a four-legged hound from hell.” So I sculpted it, made a mold, and made it.

I feel like the underrated creature/monster things in “American Werewolf” are the Nazi ghouls in David Naughton’s nightmare.

They don’t get enough credit for being as truly terrifying as they are.

I wanted to do more. They’re basically Halloween masks. They’re soft rubber masks that don’t move. And John said, “That’s all I want. They’re going to be seen in really quick cuts so there’s no reason to do anything else.” But I think they do pretty much look like Halloween masks. It is still a well-done sequence.

But there’s something scary about the way they don’t move. It makes them seem more unnatural and otherworldly, which fits the fact that it’s a dream sequence.

When I do a mask, I do try to put a lot of character and a lot of expression into the sculpt. The bald Nazi guy grimacing with the machine gun, that was me, looking in the mirror making faces and then drawing and sculpting that.

Are you often your own model for a character?

A lot of times, yeah. And I think it’s true of a lot of creative people because they’re the only ones there when they’re working. “What’s it look like when a person makes that face?” And you look in the mirror and go from there.

When you say that these days you’re doing a lot of Photoshops and thousands of versions of designs, is that for “Men in Black III?”

That’s any movie these days.

That’s just the way it works now.

Yeah. I’ve been using Photoshop since 1.0, twenty or twenty-two years ago now. It was love at first sight. Never picked up a computer before that.

It’s interesting because I feel like your makeup work is so good that you’ve become sort of this de facto spokesperson for practical effects. I read interviews where people expect you to defend practical makeup and bash CGI. But you’re a guy who likes working with both sets of tools.

That’s because I’m a fan of the stuff that happened before me. Jack Pierce, who designed Frankenstein and The Wolf Man and the great Universal monsters, was eventually kicked out of Universal after saving their asses so many times because he didn’t change with the times. He was still doing stuff with cotton and collodion when other guys were using foam rubber. That’s why he lost his job, so that got tucked away in my brain. I always want to stay on top of things.

It’s fun doing new things. It’s another trick in the bag of tricks. I think it’s a great tool. The thing I dislike about digital is that it’s made for sloppy filmmaking because of the fix-it-in-post attitude that has come along with digital. So you don’t have to think about it now, you don’t make the decision now, you can think about it later and figure it out later. I don’t like that. When I did “Schlock” with John, I did two pencil drawings and said “You want this one or this one?” And he said “I like that one better.” That’s the one I made. On “The Wolfman,” for example, I did thousands of drawings. And it was like “Do one in between this one and that one. Now do one in between this one and that one.” Because you can. But I loved Photoshop the first time I used it; it was just so freeing to know that I could try things and I could always go back to what I had before, or I could take the eyes from this one and put them on this part of the face on this one.

You mentioned the famous Pierce makeups, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. We all know those. What’s a great example of movie makeup that’s underrated, that never gets the recognition that it really deserves?

That’s a good question. In general, the things that don’t get appreciated are the human kind of makeups. The things I always liked so much about Dick Smith was he could make human makeup work. Dick was the master of doing nice, subtle makeup. People always go “Oh yeah, a werewolf, cool. Aliens, cool.” Real cool is the Father Merrin makeup in “The Exorcist.” Most people who saw the film didn’t know that was a younger man playing an older man. That’s one of the ones that gets appreciated by a lot of makeup artists.

All right, so “Men in Black III” is next. What should we expect from the movie?

I made, at last count, 105 aliens. A lot of aliens, a lot of crazy stuff.

Should we count all 105 while we’re watching the movie?

[laughs] We’ll see how many make the final cut. Something I’ve learned from working on the other “Men in Black”s is that we’ll do aliens as if you’re making a whole movie about this specific alien. It will good enough to hold any kind of close-up, and it’s usually in a panning shot for two seconds, or it’s so far in the background you don’t even know it’s there until you watch it 47 times, which I guess is part of the success of the series. It is cool to spot things you never saw before.

What drives you to pick a project at this point? Is it the director? Is it the material?

I’m definitely at a point in my life where I’m trying to be a little more selective. When my parents died, it became clear to me that there was an end in sight. Death was never a real thing to me. And then when that happened I realized I only have so many years left, if I’m lucky. I don’t want to be doing movies that I don’t want to do. They take so much out of you. I took some time off and got rid of crew that I kept on for fifteen years. And people don’t call as much anymore, actually.


Yeah. I think when my name comes up my competitors say “Oh yeah, he’s retired!” Or they say “I’m sure he won’t want to do this movie because he’s too big to do this.” “Men in Black III” they called me, and I was really happy to do it because I really enjoyed doing the other films. It felt great to be part of it again.

Is there a technical challenge that you’ve never done that you still feel like you need to conquer?

If I died today I would be happy with what I’ve done in my life. But I hope I don’t die today.

Where’s “American Werewolf in London” rank amongst your favorite horror films? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…


A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.