Inside Cinema

The Men Behind Men in Black 3

December 03, 2012 - 12:01 am   |   By 

The wacky world of Men in Black 3 showcases the talents of Rick Baker and the visual effects wizards at Sony Studios.

In a recent exclusive interview, I had the opportunity to meet with Hollywood legend Rick Baker, a special makeup effects artist who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on November 30.

Baker grew up in Covina, CA and was fascinated at an early age with monsters, especially the classic Universal creatures. He made an impression pushing what was traditional known as makeup effects with An American Werewolf in London (1981), turning actor David Naughton into a four-legged werewolf and winning his first Academy Award in the process. Baker’s creative work can be seen in such diverse films as Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Ed Wood (1994), the first Men in Black (1997) and The Wolfman (2010) for which he won his seventh Oscar.

Baker has witnessed many changes to his industry, especially the use of CGI technology. He has mixed feelings about computer graphics but realizes they are now a big part of movies. Baker said there is a difference between an actor interacting with his makeup creations and CGI balls.

“There is magic that happens when you have an actor in the makeup,” he said. “They’re looking in the mirror and the face that is looking back at them is a different face.” Baker said he always tried makeup on himself to see how it feels and test its comfort and look.

Doing makeup can be exhausting, he added, explaining why he didn’t do his own for a brief appearance in the movie as Brain Alien. Baker said adding all this work on himself before even beginning a long 12 hour (or more) day on the set made no sense.

There are benefits to digital technology such as being able to erase things that go wrong with the makeup, he said. You can go in and get rid of smears. “Makeup looks its best when it is just finished,” he said. However, many directors leave the close up until late in the day when you can’t fix the makeup so CGI helps to smooth things over.

Baker ended up creating 127 different aliens for MIB3. The hardest part of the process was getting approvals, he said. One of the studio requests was to get rid of the goggles on the character of Boris because they hid the actor’s face. Baker insisted it would cooler and funnier if you couldn’t see where the character was looking. “I tried to choose my battles,” he said. “It’s one of those that I fought.” The movie is better for it.

“I liked being part of the process,” he said. That’s why he enjoys working with Sonnenfeld because he considers Baker a collaborator and makes him feel part of the decision making.

For his next movie, Maleficent, Baker tried to stay as close to the source material as he could. Based on Sleeping Beauty but told from the perspective of the princess’ evil nemesis Maleficent, Baker said it was a real challenge because of the high expectations.

Baker prefers classic monsters like the Wolfman. “I don’t like what horror movies have become, all this torture porn,” he said. “I would like to do a Frankenstein movie.” All things being considered though, Baker considers himself lucky. “I got to say, I’ve managed to do a lot of things in my career.”

Baker has been friends with Ken Ralston, creative head and senior visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, since they were kids but MIB3 is their first movie together.

Ralston has been involved in special effects for over three decades, dating back to the original Star Wars (1977). A five-time Academy Award winner, he was instrumental in creating unique visual effects for the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and many of the Star Trek movies. Ralston also lent his artistic and technical skills to the development of recent 3D movies such as The Polar Express (2004) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Jay Redd, visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, said Baker’s creations make a big difference, especially in being able to hold something in his hands. Working with computers so much, you lose the feel of texture and color, he said. Baker’s models bring it to life.

Redd began as a CG supervisor on television commercials and movies like Waterworld (1995) before joining Sony for Contact (1996),  satisfying his interest in astronomy. He was integral in creating the title character for Stuart Little (1999). More recently, Redd completed work on three Looney Tunes CG shorts.

The artists benefited from the prior work in the franchise. “We were lucky on Men in Black 3 because there were two movies before this one so you can start to feel what that’s like,” said Ralston.

The evolution and stunning changes of special effects have been tremendous in the past decade. For example, the scenes of New York City circa 1969 could not have been done ten years ago the way it appears in MIB3, he said. Nuances and subtle expressions on a character can be added today,  “You can be more inventive,” noted Ralston.

L to R: Ken Ralston, Rick Baker and Spencer Cook

Spencer Cook, animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, agreed that they now talk more about character traits than about the technology. Being more proficient with the tools lets the special effects artists concentrate on the story, he said.

Cook began his career as a stop motion animator in many television commercials and music videos like Peter Gabriel’s Big Time. He was part of the successful team for Hollow Man (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), both nominated for visual effects at the Academy Awards.

All agreed that the most challenging sequence of the movie was the time jump. Hardest thing was “making everything photo real,” said Redd. They all worked on rough sketches, many which were thrown away. “The job you have on each movie is to become the director, his eyes and how he thinks if you can,” said Ralston.

Each artist worked on a number of ideas that never made it into the story or the finished film. Ralston said the character of Flaco was one example of a character that almost made it into the finished movie. He made a ton of designs on the character which even show up in the teaser trailer. “Things do get changed and shift constantly,” said Ralston.

There was a deleted scene idea near the beginning of the film when Boris was supposed to eat Obadiah. “Why don’t we have his whole body open up?” said Baker. Originally, you would have seen it in shadows and when the camera pulled back, Boris’ chest would be closing up except for one shoe sticking out of his chest. For some reason, the studio didn’t like that idea, said Ralston. “It could have been neat,” he added.

Asked about unique stories relating to the making of MIB3, they all pointed out Sonnenfeld’s quirkiness. “He sits on a horse saddle that’s on an apple box and he wears a cowboy hat,” said Ralston. On MIB3, the crew put wheels on it so he could be rolled around the set, he added.

The director is afraid of heights which made for an interesting experience when the crew visited Cape Canaveral in Florida. “Imagine when we went to do location scouting in Cape Canaveral on top of the launch tower,” said Cook. He was hanging on to us for dear life that day, he said. Anything to do with heights represented a hard challenge for Sonnenfeld.

L to R: Rick Baker and Spencer Cook

That didn’t stop the director from being in the movie: he is one of the stockbrokers falling down the tower and appears with his wife at the launch site. “He was going to be in the movie no matter what,” said Cook.

There’s an interesting story about Will Smith in New York City during pre-production. Cook said he attended a meeting with three other artists in a tiny production office to work on pre-viz. “Barry came in with Will Smith and we were talking about the time jump sequence and Will starts acting the whole thing out in this tiny room,” he said. Keep in mind Smith is a big tall guy and this small room had some desks and computers too. “We’re kind of against the wall trying to make room for him,” said Cook. Smith was on the floor with post-it notes on his feet replicating a scene where he has to reach the time device. “Will Smith is hands-on,” he said.

Overall, all four artists are happy with the movie even if many of their concepts never made it into the final version. “Like so many movies, there’s so many things that you do and so many ideas that get watered down,” said Baker. The artists are glad fans can appreciate their hard work enjoy the movie on home video, along with many special features.

The Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack includes a number of special features:

·  Spot the Alien game

·  The Evolution of Cool: MIB 1960’s vs. Today featurette

·  Keeping It Surreal: The FX of MIB3 featurette 

·  Four Scene Investigations

·  Five Progression Reels

·  Partners in Time: The Making of MIB3 featurette

·  Gag Reel

·  Back in Time music video by Pitbull

There’s more: Movie Touch allows viewers to learn so much more about the movie by downloading an immersive app at iTunes App Store on iPad or through UltraViolet on the Blu-ray. The special features from Movie Touch include:

·  Customizable viewing experience while watching the movie

·  Filmographies by taping on an actor’s or alien’s face

·  Behind-the-scenes videos timed to the events in the movie

·  Photos and images, including conceptual art and set photography

·  Multi-angle and green screen to see a scene’s progress

·  360 Turnarounds which allows viewers to spin props, gadgets and vehicles

·  Interactive Timeline with facts about the film universe

·  Fun Facts about the production of MIB3

Sony’s Men in Black 3 is now available in stores on Blu-ray 3D Combo and Blu-ray Combo.  You can order each from Amazon.com by clicking on the cover artwork below.

- Mario Boucher

 

 Men in Black 3 (Blu-ray 3D Combo)    Men in Black 3 (Blu-ray Combo)

 

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