If a movie monster from the 1980s has elicited your terror or fascination, smart money says either Rick Baker or Chris Walas molded the rubber and clay responsible. Walas turned the faces of Nazis into molten jelly in Raiders of the Lost Ark and gave us Jeff Goldblum's gorgeous visage devolving into that of a human-sized insect in The Fly. Baker contributed to the groundbreaking "Thriller" music video and won an Oscar for Best Makeup in 1981, the first year it became a regular category at the Academy Awards, with the painstaking (and still really good-looking) transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London.
We caught up with both pioneering practical effects artists ahead of the Hollywood Theatre's screenings of some of their best work this weekend: Baker's Harry and the Hendersons and Walas's Gremlins on Saturday as well as Baker's American Werewolf on Sunday. Both will attend Q&A sessions after the screenings.
What's the best reaction a director had to seeing your work in their film?
Chris Walas: Steven Spielberg when he saw the melting-head shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was like a little kid on Christmas morning. He later said it was his favorite shot in the whole movie.
Rick Baker: Usually the director just asks why it's taking so long.
What's the most impressive feat of practical effects you've seen in a movie this decade?
Baker: Last year's Wonder about the kid with Treacher Collins syndrome. With a child actor, you can only work so many hours. I don't know how the hell they did the makeup that fast and that well.
Walas: What I love seeing is an escalation in the field. I keep seeing practical creature effects that I assume are CG just because they are so darn smoothly done.
Chris, what's your favorite practical effect from Rick's career? Rick, same question regarding Chris.
Walas: His two-headed gorilla suit in The Thing With Two Heads . It was a dirt-cheap suit, but it really did usher in a new wave of more physically realistic gorilla suits in the movies.
Baker: Chris was always known as Chris "Exploding Head" Walas. I think the coolest one was in Scanners .
What role have your own fears played in your work?
Walas: My nightmares were always about budgets and schedules. But I think there are a number of visual aspects to living animals that trigger fear. The rapier-like teeth of a deep-sea anglerfish are so exaggerated they look like something from a nightmare.
Baker: People are always surprised to learn I'm very squeamish. They want to send me pictures of things, like, "Oh look, my dad fell down and busted his arm." I don't want to see that.
What's one physical or kinetic quality you have to get exactly right to create the appearance of life?
Walas: When I sketch out my creature designs, I always start with the eyes. That way I connect with the character at the beginning of the process.
Baker: Creating something that looks actually human is the hardest thing in the world, makeup-wise.
What was the first movie creature to capture your imagination as a child?
Walas: The original King Kong. Monstrous, savage, but with real emotion. Kong made me want to be a stop-motion animator initially, until I realized that I could never be that focused.
Baker: Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. I was fascinated by the whole concept of creating life, which is kind of what I do, but not with corpses.
What irks you when watching even good digital effects?
Walas: I think the biggest problem is that filmmakers let the effects grow larger than the story simply because they can almost effortlessly.
Baker: I embrace the technology, but suddenly everyone looked at us like dinosaurs. If you look at Harry and the Hendersons, Harry still looks good. If you look at CGI from the '90s, it looks like something from a bad video game.
SEE IT: Chris Walas and Rick Baker will attend screenings of the following movies at the Hollywood Theatre: Harry and the Hendersons on Saturday, Nov. 10. 2 pm. $12. Gremlins on Saturday, Nov. 10. 7 pm. $12. An American Werewolf in London plays Sunday, Nov. 11. 7 pm. Sold out.