Here's Quint's look at the Dick Smith Tribute featuring Rick Baker and a Who's Who of make-up effects masters!
Published at: June 23, 2009, 7:43 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here, newly returned from LA. I have a week to settle back in before my next micro-trip. Spent 2 nights in LA for this particular article and I’m headed out of country for the next one (which I’m not allowed to talk about)… probably only going to be on the ground 30 or so hours before turning back.
My LA trip started out shitty. Real shitty. There was an error in booking and suddenly I had to rebook the day before at nearly double the price and, even worse, I had to settle for US Airways. Cheap, cramped tiny planes, no overhead room, forced checked baggage, the works. Oh, and I did this travel all on 2 hours of sleep. Also, one of my scheduled activities fell through right upon landing in LA, so I was feeling really down.
Oddly enough it was the talkbackers who cheered me up. I hadn’t gotten a chance to read the feedback on the announcement of the Dick Smith Tribute I posted the night before and while I was on the rental car shuttle I flipped through them on my iPhone. The most common word used was “Jealous” instead of “Retard” like usual.
Needless to say, I stopped feeling sorry for myself really fast. I was afterall in town to see a living legend, someone who has impacted every single person who has decided they liked movies at all in the last, say, 50 years. I was going to share oxygen with some of the best, brightest and coolest people LA has to offer, the men and women who make real movie magic happen as a regular job.
I spent the day with a couple of friends of mine, just hanging out, watching movies and being introduced to the best Banana Cream Pie I’ve ever had in my life (at The Apple Pan). That’s like Zoloft for fat people. My frown was upside down in no time.
The next day was the big one. I had booked an interview with Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion (one of the kings of animatronics) and a tour around their Glendale complex. I’m going to have my adventures there (with pictures) in a separate article hopefully posted next week, but it was a great primer to the tribute that was to follow.
There was a reception beforehand that I was invited to. I bought tickets before I was able to get in touch with David Smith, Dick’s son and assistant, who was very kind in getting me into the event, reception included. One of my extra tickets I presented to Mr. Rian Johnson, who was my date for the evening (note to other would-be suitors, Rian doesn’t let you under the shirt on the first date). I gave my remaining tickets to those waiting on stand-by for the sold out show and spent the 45 minutes preceding the event mingling with the best of the best of movie make-up.
I checked in alongside Tom Woodruff Jr. who was one of Stan Winston’s guys back in the day and runs ADI now with Alec Gillis. Woodruff was the dude inside the Gillman suit in Monster Squad! I interviewed him a while back over the phone, but never met him in person until that moment.
Behind me were the N and B of KNB, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, both of whom I have known for years. Right at the entrance to the reception I could see the distinctive silver ponytail of one Mr. Rick Baker, host of the night.
There was a little bit of fear as I checked in. My name was on the list, but I was escorted to a little room off to the side of the reception. The “press area.” There were two other people sitting there looking bored and I thought I was going to be the kid pressing his nose up to the toy store window during Christmastime.
Thankfully I wasn’t there too long before the press lady released us into the reception with the strict instructions not to approach, speak with or photograph Dick Smith, with the one exception being when he posed with the giant Dick Smith head, eerily accurate, created by makeup effects artist Kazuhiro Tsuji.
That was a lot more restrictive than I expected, but I ended up meeting various industry folks. At one point I elbowed my way into a circle of geniuses talking shop. We had Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff and Stan Winston Studios’ Shane Mahan, who I had exchanged emails with after Stan passed away.
I introduced myself and Shane, who very much looks like shorter Kenneth Branagh, was very friendly and warm. I thanked him for his participation in the big Tribute to Stan that we did when he died. Alec Gillis, in turn, thanked us at AICN for running the tribute when his death was glossed over by every other major news outlet. He said it meant a lot to him personally as well as the special effects world. I told him it was only natural that we highlighted the man’s brilliant career. Stan Winston turned a whole generation of film goers into hardcore movie geeks, afterall.
I wandered a bit, noticing Hal Holbrook eating hors doeuvres by himself (didn’t quite have the gumption to approach the man. I once saw him at the Austin airport, too, and didn’t bug him then either) and I took a look at some of the life masks from Smith’s collection that were on display. He had one that was just half a face, the rest smooth and blank. I had no idea what that was from until the tribute, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
There was also a case that contained a set of the actual appliances that were used to turn the 40-something year old Max Von Sydow into the elderly Father Merrin in The Exorcist as well as before and after pictures of the actor. I was adjusting the focus on my camera when a guard stepped up to me and said that the case was off limits. So I didn’t get the shot. Sorry for not being quicker!
At one point I saw my opportunity to shake Rick Baker’s hand. I have a framed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON poster about 4 feet to my left as I type this. I’m a huge fan of his stuff and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He was trying to get out, actually, to save his voice for his hosting duties, but he very nicely took a minute to chat with me. I told him that if someone planted a bomb in this room then movies would get really boring for about 20 years. He laughed and agreed completely, saying he had the same thought.
I let him off without being too big a fanboy (I hope) and wandered a bit. I saw John Landis having an animated discussion with Greg Nicotero and then I caught a glimpse of a buddy of mine, a make-up guy named Kevin McTurk who was there covering the event for Rue Morgue Magazine, I believe. I met Kevin in New Zealand when he was working with Weta, but he’s been with damn near every make-up company, it seems. He spends a lot of time with Spectral Motion, too.
Anyway, we were minutes away from Smith himself coming out to make the rounds when I noticed one Mr. JJ Abrams, with a childlike grin on his face, enter the reception. He came in with a friend, but nobody approached him, so I decided to be that asshole.
I had just interviewed him over the phone a few weeks before so I thought I wasn’t being a complete douchebag. When I introduced myself he smiled really big and said that I was the reason he was there that night. He has been a lifelong fan of Dick Smith’s and even corresponded with him when he was a child, but he hadn’t heard about the event until I posted my piece on it.
Apparently, as a young man Abrams was gifted the actual tongue that Dick Smith had made for Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST. How blessed is that dude’s life, right?
Abrams introduced me to his friend, a guy by the name of Larry Fong who is the extremely talented cinematographer that shot WATCHMEN, 300 and a handful of LOST episodes.
Dick Smith was out and chatting with a few people and he was brought to Abrams right away. This was as close as I got to talking with the man himself, but I’m hoping to have a chat with him over the phone sometime in the near future. Here is Dick and JJ:
I was taking pictures manually pulling focus. Fong told me I was brave for not using auto-focus on my Nikon. I told him I would be, but for some reason that day the auto-focus stopped working for me. All the switches on my lens were set to auto, but I didn’t have a lot of time to spend exploring the problem and was just winging it.
Without more than 2 seconds passing Fong points to a switch on the camera body and said, “Isn’t that set on manual focus?” I looked and sure enough it was. I have no idea how that happened, but I quickly switched it back and my camera worked! It was a miracle! Fong said that he better read that in the article, with the proper credit… so there you go.
I was also able to snap a picture of Smith reuniting with Hal Holbrook:
The tribute was about to start, so everybody was herded to the Samuel Goldwyn theater. I ended up sitting behind JJ and Larry, next to my buddies Kevin and Rian.
First thing that struck me was seeing the giant Oscars.
There were two on either side of the room, like the Southern Oracle in THE NEVERENDING STORY but will less boobs, and it really stirred something deep inside me.
I know it’s just an awards show, but it has been a dream of mine to attend an Academy Awards telecast since I was a young child. As a little geek I always daydreamed about being there, surrounded by everybody I worshiped. The Nicholsons, Spielbergs, etc. I never had a dream about winning an Oscar, but I always wanted to sit and watch the show with those idolize.
This event was as close as I’ll likely ever get, so I made sure to soak up the atmosphere. The Tribute was put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS), hence the giant Oscars. It wasn’t long before Rick Baker took the stage and the tribute began.
Now, there’s an inherent danger to giving a tribute to a man named Dick. The innuendo and double entendre was KILLING me. I respect Mr. Smith immensely and I felt bad, but my juvenile side got the better of me as someone would innocently and with real emotion say something like “I wouldn’t be here without Dick,” “They made the mistake of bringing me up here to talk about Dick and once I get going I can’t shut up,” or “Dick means a lot to me.”
To be clear, I never laughed out loud. I did my best to make sure my amusement was only shared in sidelong glances with Mr. Johnson and didn’t disturb any of the nice people around me.
Baker seemed a bit nervous, but relaxed as he went along. The way the Tribute was set up they’d show a few clips, then Baker would bring up a panel of people to talk about Smith. Then they’d show more clips and a new panel would come up. They did that three or four times that night.
The first series of clips was Smith’s early work at ABC, including an episode of a show that I had never heard of before, but want to track down now called WAY OUT, a Twilight Zone rip-off. They showed what felt like almost the full episode from the show called Soft Focus, which Baker mentioned contained one of his all-time favorite Dick Smith make-up jobs.
Also in this era was a live broadcast of ALICE IN WONDERLAND which featured Smith’s first use of foam latex.
The WAY OUT episode blew me away. It’s about a photographer whose wife is a cheat. While mixing chemicals he stumbles across something new. When using this liquid he can retouch any photo by hand and the effect happens in real life. He’s had enough of his wife, so he ages a photo of her up gradually. That’s one make-up job for Smith, one of his first aging jobs.
But the big one is later. The husband not only ages his wife up, he starts aging himself younger. He makes the mistake of letting on that he has this power and the wife grabs what remains of the liquid and spills it on his own photograph. He stumbles for it, the photo falling the floor. In his haste he steps on it and when he comes back up his face looks like this:
What that particular photo doesn't show is how flat the face is. The nose is just gone. It's very remarkable and can I see why that particular make-up job is what got Rick Baker into the industry. Remember when I mentioned the lifemask on display that was half-smooth? It was from this show. Incredible work.
Baker remembered reading an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland (the mention of which got a soaring round of applause) where Smith went step by step through that make-up process. It blew Baker’s little mind that the whole face was a make-up effect. He thought the non-fucked up part was the actor.
They also showed a clip from Mark Twain Tonight, starring Hal Holbrook. It was this make-up that won Smith an Emmy.
Speaking of Holbrook, the first panel was actors so Hal took the stage alongside Linda Blair. Baker immediately went into “The Power of Christ compels you!” which got a laugh from Blair.
They talked about how their performances were enhanced or informed by Smith’s make-up. Holbrook was first to talk about the Mark Twain show, which was a four hour make-up job. Holbrook had done his own make-up on the tour and Baker brought that up. Holbrook still tours around doing Mark Twain and he said the make-up doesn’t quite take as long now.
Blair started out talking about meeting Rick Baker on THE EXORCIST. He was Dick Smith’s apprentice on the show and that she cried when she saw Smith tonight. “I hadn’t seen Dick for a while,” (snicker snicker)… But she brought up Smith’s kindness and openness and how it has inspired a generation of make-up artists. This sentiment has been expressed by everybody I talked with that day and the crowd burst into huge applause when she said it on stage.
They then spoke about the grueling stuff Blair had to go through on the shoot, at 13 years of age. She had a full body cast, multiple head molds, including one where they put hard contact lenses into her eyes and did the process with her eyes wide open.
Blair talked about how in casting THE EXORCIST William Friedkin made sure his choice for Reagan had to be able to mentally cope with not only the subject matter, but the actual tough production. Blair credited Smith with a lot of the reason she could handle the film, that he went out of his way to make the make-ups easy for her. He apparently had a pet squirrel that had her looking forward to the visits to Smith’s place for the next round of make-up needs as well as setting up a mirror so she could watch a TV playing behind her.
They started with a full mask for the possessed little girl, but Friedkin kept saying “Cut it back, cut it back. I need to recognize it’s her.” Which meant a real, lengthy prosthetic job every day.
Blair also touched on the intimacy involved between the make-up artist and the actor. Their faces are inches apart for hours, weeks and months at a time. She said she knows every detail of Smith’s face as well as he must know hers.
Baker mentioned feeling a bit of outrage when Friedkin changed the concept of Smith’s make-up. “How can you question Dick Smith?!?” But then he was thankful for it because without that extra workload Smith wouldn’t have needed to hire Baker on, so it proved to give Baker the opportunity to work with Smith.
They played the two actors off with a 10 minute clip from THE EXORCIST and goddamn that’s a great movie. It was the entire first round of the Exorcism all the way up to “It is God himself who commands you!”
Next up were Andy Clement (Star Trek, Spider-Man 3, Basket Case 2), Shane Mahan and John Rosengrant (both of Stan Winston Studios). The thrust of this talk was about Smith’s openness with sharing trade secrets to anyone who wanted to know. Most in the business kept their various tricks a secret, but not Smith. It’s part of what drew so much young talent to him, especially when he opened up his own school of make-up.
Clement was one of the first to sign up for the course in the ‘80s and now is gathering material to update it since it’s been about 25 years since Smith wrote the book.
The focus then switched to Mahan and Rosengrant, which led to a small remembrance of Stan Winston. Baker said that he thought, frankly, that Stan would have been a better guest than Rosengrant and Mahan. They laughed and agreed. Mahan said it would have somehow turned into the Stan Winston Tribute to a lot of laughter.
There was talk about a series of How To magazines that Smith published in the ‘60s that was aimed at kids, teaching them how to make monsters using household products, stuff out of their mother’s kitchen. It was here that he published the formula for blood, red dye and Karo Syrup, that is the standard even today.
Rosengrant recalled working with Smith, Winston and Baker on STARMAN and how excited he was to work with Dick Smith. He was going to be doing a lifecast of Jeff Bridges and was happy to show off for Smith. He mixed the alginate and, apparently, “got an education.” Apparently, Smith is scientific, like a chemist, working with these materials and accepts no less than perfection. Rosengrant and Mahan would test the temperature of the alginate by sense of touch and when Smith came in he used a thermometer. He was that exact.
Next up were clips from ALTERED STATES and THE HUNGER, followed by a panel featuring Carl Fullerton (worked on both of the above as well as F/X, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, GOODFELLAS and much more), Mike Elizalde (Spectral Motion) and Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff of ADI.
The focus of this panel was on Dick Smith’s innovations. Fullerton spoke to what we just watched, the primitive man scene from ALTERED STATES, and how that was an 11th hour cast and make-up. How would they make the hair?
Smith found a hairy dude in his shop, ordered him to strip down and looked at the hair pattern on the dude’s body, made meticulous notes and took a wax casting of the actor and drew that pattern on the body. He then transposed sections of that hairy blueprint onto formica sheets and then, ultimately glued these now hair-filled sheets onto the actor every day. It wasn’t a suit, very low-tech, but served the purpose.
Alec Gillis made sure to shine a light on Smith’s talent as a creator of animatronic and puppetted creatures, specifically his work on GHOST STORY. He loved the eye-less, shrieking design and the ghost puppet that comes out of the car at the end and, this part is fascinating to me, described how he made the effect.
The skin had to slide off of this creature, so Smith made it with a gelatin skin, which reacts to heat, and applied that on top of heating elements built into the puppet’s skull that he could control. So he could essentially melt the skin off from inside, creating the effect.
How great is that? That’s the magic of the movies to me.
Then the legend of Dick Smith’s finger was told. I had never heard this before, but apparently it’s well-known in the make-up world.
Basically, there was an accident on an early film that Smith worked on. His wedding ring got caught on something and it stripped all the flesh from his finger. Gangrene set in and they had to remove the finger. Knowing that his hand was going to be in actors’ faces for the remainder of his career, he had the doctors remove the finger bone all the way down into his hand, so you really don’t notice. He calls it his Mickey Mouse hand. You can see it in some of the pics of him.
I wouldn’t point it out if he seemed at all self-conscious about it, but the next series of clips they showed were all home video (or 8mm or 16mm) of Dick working, shot by his son, David, and in it he demonstrates how stipple is used to create the illusion of aged skin on his injured hand. He says something like, “No, you’re not seeing things, I only have 3 fingers on this hand” and continues the demonstration.
The clip-show was amazing. I hope this footage makes it out there. It opens with Smith applying old age make-up on Dustin Hoffman for LITTLE BIG MAN and Smith is telling him how to act. Dustin Hoffman! Smith tells him to do a few certain old-man things, like slump over and scrunch the mouth so it appears that there aren’t any teeth left. Hoffman scrunches the mouth and Smith immediately goes, “Don’t do all one thing, I mean… vary it as much as you can.” Hoffman takes it in stride (as far as I can tell through the make-up) and decides puffing up his upper lip gives the illusion of being toothless after trying a few things.
In this footage you can also see Hoffman let out some belches through his old-man lips as Smith is applying latex. This may be on a DVD as this footage also features Hoffman talking to the camera about his process and the make-up.
We then see Smith talking about The Godfather and working with Brando. Now, Brando didn’t want to do a complicated make-up and what Brando wants is what Brando gets. So very few appliances were used. They collaborated and did some tests and in about an hour and a quarter Smith settled on using Old Age Stipple (which he demonstrated on his hand, as per above).
It’s liquid latex that you dab on, stretch the skin and then dry it with a hairdryer. The more layers the deeper the wrinkle effect.
Brando was 40 playing 60, so Smith used two coats of Stipple and when he’s 10 years older in the film, he went to 4 coats. Over the Stipple went shadows, liver spots, freckles, etc.
The famous jowls and were created with a dental appliance that fit onto the lower jaw and had rounded soft plastic on the sides that pulled the cheeks down a bit. I’m sure that also influenced the now iconic speech of the Don.
Then the Dick Smith on the screen brought out the possessed Linda Blair dummy from THE EXORCIST specifically made for the scene when the head turns around backwards (I think they reused it for the actual exorcism scene where her head spins as well). It took a month and a half to build for two shots in the movie.
The lower body was from the full body cast and was rubber filled with soft Styrofoam and the chest and head piece were hard plastic. The head housed a mechanism that controlled her eyes. He opened the head and showed the mechanics of it. Fucking creepy. Fucking cool.
They followed these home movies up with a clip from AMADEUS, the film Smith won his Oscar for. Baker said the Salieri old age make-up was inspired, in part, by Smith himself. The forehead piece is cast directly from Smith’s own forehead.
The final panel consisted of Kazuhiro Tsuji (builder of the big Dick Smith head and worked on flicks like PLANET OF THE APES, HELLBOY, THE RING, ENCHANTED and ANGELS & DEMONS), Greg Cannom (who won the Oscar this year for BENJAMIN BUTTON) and Kevin Haney (DICK TRACY, CHUD, COCOON, BASKET CASE).
Kazuhiro Tsuji talks about seeing a Fangoria article as a kid that had an article with Smith’s step by step process on turning yourself into Abraham Lincoln. Tsuji went to the library, found a book on Lincoln and proceeded to go about turning himself into Lincoln. He did it four times, improving each time… the dude even did his own life cast.
Tsuji told the audience that Dick Smith was like a father to him, in fact did more for him than his actual father.
After another 20 minutes of praise the time had come to call Dick Smith himself up to the stage. But before they did that they ran a special video salute recorded by Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Guillermo del Toro from Weta Workshop in New Zealand.
Guillermo gave all credit to where he is in life to Dick Smith. Without his course he would not be where he is today. Richard shared the sentiment, saying that without the letters of encouragement and the line of communication Smith opened up to him 23 years ago there might not be a Weta today.
Peter talked about Smith’s influence on them all, saying that everyone who has been influenced both directly and indirectly are essentially his children and grandchildren.
And Guillermo finally did it. The innuendo was threatening to break me in two when Guillermo followed up Peter’s heartfelt sentiment with “Yes, we are all Dick spawn.”
The audience cracked up as Peter, Richard and Guillermo signed off, each putting a hyphenate Smith on their names. “It’s the New Zealand Smiths.” The video ended with a line of text saying something along the lines of “We’ll see you soon,” hinting at the consultant work he’s going to do on HOBBIT.
Dick Smith took the stage to a standing ovation.
He took the mic and started talking about Rick Baker. That he had seen some of his work in an Eddie Murphy film and thought Baker did a good job. Days later he realized that an old Jewish character in the movie was wearing any make-up at all. Sounds to me like he was watching COMING TO AMERICA.
When he realized that Eddie Murphy played the old Jewish man and that the make-up was so good he didn’t see it he thought to himself, “He fooled me! He’s passed me by.” Smith said he came to that realization and he thought it was wonderful. Smith said Baker always felt like a son to him and it’s only natural that a son should surpass the father. “That’s the way it should be.”
Unfortunately that was it to the tribute. The AMPAS gathered all the Academy members (pretty much everyone who has won an Oscar for make-up) onstage for a big group picture.
I was hoping for more of Smith himself, but what I got was more than good enough.
The sheer amount of respect in that room was enough to bowl you over, not to mention the outpouring of emotion. As an outsider looking in I was very moved to see the man’s peers showing so much unadulterated adoration.
I’ll never have the artistic talent to be in their ranks, but that doesn’t stop me from being a fan of the medium and of the living legends still contributing to the art of making movies magic.
This ended up being a horribly long piece. I thank everyone who stuck it out with me on this night.
If you want to know more about Dick Smith’s classes you can visit his site here.
On this trip I did a few interview with more make-up and practical effects people, including Spectral Motion’s Mike Elizalde. I’ll have that interview and photo-journey through the studio for you in the very near future.
I’d like to do a series of articles for this site that focuses on practical effects, centering on different artists as I go. We don’t really have that kind of focus out there anymore and I’d like to do what I can to bring some of that back. What do you guys think?
Follow Me On Twitter