Men in Black 3: Effects legend Rick Baker on bringing his retro vision to the big screen

Men in Black 3 Rick Baker interview 2

Men in Black 3 might not be the return to form that fans of the original were hoping for (check out our full review), but it is nonetheless a memorable experience. This is thanks largely to the vision of effects legend Rick Baker, who was able to really cut loose in this third movie with retro-styled aliens inspired by sci-fi classics that fit perfectly into the ’60s-era portion of the story. Baker sat down for a chat with Digital Trends last week on the eve of the movie’s release, shortly before a special screening was held at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. We talked about the challenges he faces in selling the ever-growing assortment of suits and creatives on one particular artistic vision. We also touched on the design of this new movie’s aliens, particularly Jemaine Clement’s tremendously creepy top villain, Boris the Animal.

The key thing that many Men in Black 3 moviegoers have picked up on is the retro look of the film’s aliens, a very intentional effort on Baker’s part that actually has roots extending all the way back to the series’ first movie when he pitched a similar concept, but was denied. Fifteen years later, he was given the greenlight. “They’re all lovingly based on aliens that were in movies before, tweaked enough to not get us sued. They were all an homage to aliens I loved,” Baker explained.

“The hardest part of my job is to get everybody on the same page or to actually commit to something, because I’m actually making things during pre-production. I think moreso now than ever, there are so many people involved, there are so many producers, so many people who want to be part of the creative process and who, to be frank, I think screw things up and slow things down. In this film we had a lot of people with a lot of ideas that I showed stuff to and tried to placate. It came to the point where all of my pre-production was being wasted, and I decided I was going to start making shit, and if you don’t like it, don’t use it, but otherwise we’re not going to have anything done to put in front of the camera.”

None of this foot-dragging and interference came as a surprise to Baker, who encountered a similar situation when he was working on Men in Black back in the ’90s. “I locked [director] Barry Sonnenfeld inside the studio and said, ‘I’m not letting you out until you pick something. Here’s thousands of drawings. I don’t want to be holding these drawings up in front of the camera; we’ve got to make these things.’ I totally understand wanting to know for yourself that you’re making the right decision, and it’s always a hard thing to do, but when it cuts into the quality of my work, I start to put my foot down.”

MiB3 Rick Baker

It’s not really like anyone can sit down and argue with Baker; the man knows his business, and it’s a craft that he’s been cultivating since childhood. “I did this as a hobby as a kid. I taught myself how to do this stuff. It was hard to save up $9 to buy a quart of rubber to be able to make a mask, and the fact that I managed to turn it into a job where people pay me to do these things is great,” he explained, adding that for all his experience, there’s no real science to coming up with these creations. “It’s hard to say where the ideas come from. It’s different on every movie, depending on the demands of the script, or the lack of things in the script that make you want to come up with a better idea. It’s just this ever-evolving sort of thing, as movies are. I try to be a team player, but at a certain point someone needs to make a decision and you’ve gotta make stuff.”

Sometimes it doesn’t work out. On the first Men in Black, Baker pitched the production’s top decision-makers on embracing a retro style for the aliens. They wanted something new and fresh, aliens that had never been seen before. That was a much easier thing to do before Star Wars came along, he told them. Instead of trying to outdo the infamous cantina scene menagerie, he argued for improving on designs that fans of science fiction might be familiar with. The studio ultimately went another way, but an opportunity to re-pitch the retro restyling idea emerged in Men in Black 3‘s time-jumping script.

“On this film, they loved the idea of the retro things that I came up with,” Baker revealed. “When I got the script to this movie, I realized this is why it didn’t happen before, this is the movie that [retro aliens] belong in. So I said, ‘When we go back to 1969 and we’re in Men in Black headquarters, there should be retro aliens. There should be guys with fishbowl space helmets and space suits with ribbed things on it, and big exposed brain, bug-eyed aliens.’ To my surprise and pleasure, they really embraced it. It was a brilliant idea this time.”

Baker is hesitant to call out any one source of inspiration for the new movie’s alien designs, instead pointing to the wide swath of sci-fi movies and TV from the 1950s and 60s. The spirit of Outer Limits definitely has a place in Men in Black 3, and one particular alien that he recalls modeling after a mixture of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still and the creation from the 1958 classic, The Colossus of New York. That one didn’t make it into the movie, along with many others. “We did 127 [alien designs] at the last count, from the guy who counts stuff,” Baker said. He even slipped into some makeup himself for one of those roles, though the scene he shared with star Will Smith was ultimately pared down to a brief, dialogue-free cameo.

The unused designs are now just examples of efforts that ended up on the cutting room floor. Baker isn’t sure if any of that missing material will work its way into transmedia treatments for the movie, such as the recently released video game, but he admitted to fielding a number of calls asking for background information on some of his designs.

MiB 3

“They have asked me some funny questions, like I’ll get a call where they need to know what the backstory on this alien is,” he explained. “There was a time in my life where I did worry about that more, try to think what the planet was like that this guy came from. Now it’s just about making a cool-looking thing, because they ended up not needing all that stuff a lot of the time.”

Walking into the interview, I expected a physical effects master like Baker to tell me what a drag all of the new-fangled computer-generated stuff is, but he’s actually got the opposite attitude. Not only does Baker embrace the concept of CG effects work, he actually tailors many of his designs around the idea that they’ll be improved in the final cut with the addition of CG flourishes. “From my experience in other Men in Black movies, we overbuilt stuff,” he explained. “We made all of these animatronic things that did all kinds of stuff, and then… it was just a blur in the background. Everything worked on them, but you couldn’t tell.” For Men in Black 3, he had the luxury of counting on CG to fill in some of the blanks, allowing him to put a priority on creating a greater variety of alien life forms.

Perhaps the most memorable of the aliens in the new sequel is the villainous escaped convict Boris the Animal, played by Jemaine Clement and bolstered with a heavy dose of Baker’s designs. The design on Boris ranks easily among the creepiest for the effects whiz. What’s amazing is that it didn’t start out that way. The producers originally had a much more tame vision in mind for what Boris would be.

“He was a hard battle,” Baker said of the movie’s big bad. “In the script I got originally, he was a biker but they described him as Dennis Hopper from Easy Rider. I said, ‘You know what? I think he should be intimidating, like Charles Manson or [1960s Hell’s Angels president] Sonny Barger. He should be a bearded, dark-haired, badass fucking biker from space.’ So I did these designs and kind of reinvented what I thought he should be, and I showed it to them and I sold it to them.”

“You see that guy from a distance and he looks like a human, he looks like a biker. Get a little closer and you can tell that he’s not someone that you want to have eye contact with because he’s going to kick your ass. Then if you get even closer you see that he has fucking goggles shoved into his head and he’s got these crazy fingers holding them in place.” The studio didn’t initially go for it and the battle began.

They asked where his eyes were. “It’s much cooler to not have eyes, to never know what’s in there,” Baker told them.

men in black 3 effects legend rick baker on bringing his retro vision to the big screen interview 1

The studio didn’t see it that way, they wanted the audience to be able to know where Boris was looking. Baker defended the idea. “Something’s weird about people in sunglasses,” he said. You never know if they’re looking at you or not.”

Next came the insistence that Boris not be too scary and alien. Baker again rose to defend his vision “He’s the bad guy in the movie! You remember Edgar, in the first movie? He came right out of a horror movie. We didn’t pull back on him at all. He was a successful character in that movie. Serleena, in the second movie? Did anybody give a shit about her? Wouldn’t it be better to err on the side of Edgar than Serleena? Have some balls.”

Baker chuckled as he thought back on the fight for Boris. “The problem is, the studio’s afraid, everyone’s afraid. Originally, [Boris] did a lot more than what ended up in the movie. The whole idea was, he was actually on Earth and he was eating people. [The studio] kept saying, ‘Well let’s have him open his mouth really wide.’ I told them that that was cool in 1980, when I first tried to do it on a puppet head, but we’ve seen it in so many movies and I don’t think it looks good, especially when it’s a digital thing that stretches out. I thought his whole body should open up and devour them in this weird way, like interlaced fingers that open up and wrap around them. That’s why he’s got this weird knuckle formation in his neck which you can kind of see under his beard at times. But they were wimping out. And I said, ‘We don’t want to wimp out on this guy. Trust me. Please trust me.'”

Ultimately, Baker’s arguments won out and Boris became the series’ creepiest-looking villain to date. He might have still been pared down a little from the original vision described here, but his presence in the film remains one of its top triumphs, all thanks to Baker. There’s a reason you bring a guy like him, someone with decades of experience behind him, into a production like this one. The fights may be long and the frustrations numerous, but the experience and creative talent that Baker brings ultimately makes for a better movie, and the alien designs in Men in Black 3 speak to that directly.

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