Each aspect of film has had its top performer over the years. For makeup in the 1920s, it was Lon Chaney. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was Jack Pierce. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the combined talents of Dick Smith and John Chambers. Since then, one of this generation’s top makeup artists has been Rick Baker. A hybrid makeup artist, creature creator and special makeup effects technician, Baker is the most awarded craftsperson of his generation, with seven Oscars and dozens of projects which raised the bar for realism and spectacle in cinema. And he finally has his star on Hollywood Boulevard.
He was born in 1950 in upstate New York, but was raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Calif., a nascent artist just 30 miles from the heart of the Hollywood motion picture hub that he would eventually call home. Inspired by magazines such as “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” a teenaged Baker would correspond with Smith and visit working movie sets and makeup labs, a business which Smith and Chambers opened up to interested amateurs by breaking the long held rule that makeup and monster making should remain secretive. A youthful Baker can even be spotted in the background of footage featuring Smith aging Dustin Hoffman for Little Big Man at a time when visitors were rarely if ever allowed to witness the clandestine methods of such movie arts. Several years later, he would assist Smith with the rotating dummy head in The Exorcist.
When Baker broke out on his own in the 1970s, he did a succession of admirable work on films whose inherent qualities might have been below his natural artistic abilities. He created a demonic baby for It’s Alive, a series of realistic masks under which he would perform in the ambitious King Kong remake and grotesque facial effects for The Incredible Melting Man. When George Lucas asked him to create aliens for the Mos Eisley cantina sequence in Star Wars, Baker’s team included stop-motion and makeup effects personnel who would rise through the ranks of the industry in the following decades. Adopting Smith’s modus operandi, Baker mentored many young artists during this period, including a teenaged Rob Bottin, plus Greg Cannom, Steve Johnson and others who would go on to form their own creature and makeup studios.
By the 1980s, the content of films for which Baker was recruited began to match his rising status. First, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London was a personal project dating to the 1960s which the director finally got off the ground. That picture’s numerous effects – including a visceral real-time onscreen man-to-werewolf transformation – were groundbreaking in their design, implementation and execution, and garnered Baker his first of seven Oscars. Other high watermarks of the period included a horde of makeups for Landis’ long-form music video “Thriller” for Michael Jackson, a host of timeless gorilla suits and articulated masks for both Greystoke and Gorillas in the Mist and a fully expressive head-to-toe sasquatch character for Harry and the Hendersons, that film bringing Baker his second Oscar. An aborted 1980s project which would have held great interest to observers would have been Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies, for which Baker created a menacing full-bodied alien, hardly the stuff of Spielberg’s re-imagined creature in E.T. a few years later.
By the 1990s, computer-generated monster techniques were breaking through, but not before Baker delivered a massive deluge of practical puppets and articulated creatures for Gremlins 2: The New Batch at the dawn of that decade. Creating a likeness makeup for Martin Landau to embody Béla Lugosi in Ed Wood earned Baker yet another Oscar, which would be followed by The Nutty Professor, for which he created numerous character makeups with Eddie Murphy. Baker created everything from puppets to complex makeups to alien miniatures for Men in Black and in The Grinch, Baker supervised a virtual army of makeup effects artists to realize the title character and myriad Whos in Whoville. Each of these projects brought in additional Academy Award wins.
In the 21st century, Baker might have slowed his pace, but more makeup and creature challenges led to a plethora of ape-man hybrids in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the horrific makeups and effects in the Ring films, and a re-imagined title character in The Wolfman, the latter of which delivered a seventh Oscar statue.
Not content to rest on any laurels, Baker noted at his Hollywood star ceremony that he plans to continue producing makeups, monsters and effects as new films warrant his particular brand of artistry. The only question remaining is what visual treasures remain in store at Baker’s Cinovation Studio. This studio is seemingly able to produce most anything the mind can imagine, the only limits of which will be Baker’s willingness to continue forward in the future. He is devoted to creating indelible movie magic and he is one Hollywood star who will forever be remembered.