On the sets of his 1970s monster movies, Rick Baker used to tell his assistants to enjoy themselves, because their job would only be around for another ten years at most. Baker is the now-retired special makeup effects designer whose work on films such as Videodrome and An American Werewolf in London set a new gold standard for his craft.
He had learnt from Dick Smith, the so-called Godfather of Makeup, whose home-made latex prosthetics had revolutionised the business in the previous decade: Brando’s jowls in The Godfather were his (hence the nickname), as were Linda Blair’s flayed cheeks and stony eyes in The Exorcist.
But Baker had been watching the rise of computer graphics with interest – in 1976, the very first entirely digital hand and face made their Hollywood debut, in Richard T Heffron’s Futureworld – and he had begun to suspect the days of stick-on rubber were numbered.
One of Baker’s assistants back then was Greg Cannom, whose subsequent four-decades-and-counting career suggests his mentor’s outlook was a little pessimistic. Cannom’s latest project arrives in cinemas later this month: in the satirical biopic Vice, he turned Christian Bale into Dick Cheney, using some of the tricks pioneered by Smith and Baker almost half a century back.
Yet Bale’s Cheney-fication, and a few other recent transformations, hit a standard of seamlessness that feels like something very new. Think also of John C Reilly and Steve Coogan’s Laurel and Hardy in the just-released Stan & Ollie, Margot Robbie’s pinched features in Mary Queen of Scotts, or Tilda Swinton’s age boost and sex change in Suspiria. Then there was Gary Oldman’s metamorphosis into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour last year, which took one Oscar for the performance, and another for the makeup that abetted it.
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