I have been spending a great deal of time lately revisiting the pre-CGI Golden Age of cinema special effects. Photographers and filmmakers have been making things appear to be what they aren’t since photography and film were invented. But, a series of innovations and the coming together of a talented group of film industry heavy-hitters led to a string of releases in the late 1970s through the early 1990s that changed film making and watching for good.
More often than not, these films are associated only with the directors who made them. They could not have been possible, however, without the creativity and ingenuity of the effects teams who designed and built all of the monster makeups, miniature spacescapes, and exploding, moving, morphing oddities that, thirty years later, still make us all say, “That! Was! Awesome!” Two effects and makeup artists in particular were on the forefront of their field.
A Few Historical Highpoints
During the early nineteen eighties, Rick Baker was leading a team of brilliant makeup and effects artists who created some of the most revolutionary effects of the era. Earlier in his career, he worked as makeup and effects assistant on William Friedkin’s groundbreaking film The Exorcist in 1973. From there, he went on to work with John Landis to create the effects in An American Werewolf in London in 1981. Baker and Landis blew audiences away when they created the illusion of David Kessler (played by David Naughton) transforming into a werewolf on screen in real time.
In 1983 Baker headed up the effects team for David Cronenberg’s thriller Videodrome. (For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Videodrome, along with The Brood (1979), and Dead Ringers (1988), is one of his best, most mind-bending, special effects-tastic works. But I digress.) That same year, Baker teamed up with John Landis to make music industry history with Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.
Rob Bottin trained under Baker before heading up makeup and effects departments in his own right. Probably his most recognized work was with John Carpenter on his 1982 horror film, The Thing. Bottin designed special makeup effects for director Paul Verhoeven on two of his most notable films: Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). I have recently come to the conclusion that Total Recall might, in its own way, be a perfect movie. Incidentally, Total Recall contains one of the earliest uses of primitive CGI in film (see the X-ray screen scene in the transit station).
Why Mechanical Special Effects are Awesome
Special effects are always about creating the illusion of the unbelievable. Effects and make up masters like Barker and Bottin worked with directors and production designers to make their visions a physical reality. Starting from drawings, these people had to figure out how to build convincing, filmable effects from scratch. Often, this involved working within a very limited budget and surmounting issues of engineering, pyrotechnics, and mechanics. Once built, the problem remained of filming these scenes in such a way as to disguise their artificiality to the viewing audience.
Effects created using CGI exist on the other end of the spectrum. Because all of the aforementioned obstacles are moot, the possibilities become endless. Clearly, the limitless opportunities of CGI can and have led to some truly amazing cinematic moments. I contend however, that it is precisely this very concrete and physical set of limitations specific to mechanical effects that led to some of the most clever and totally awesome cinema of the late twentieth century.