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Hollywood's 'Monster Maker' Says Goodbye To His Creations


You know that scene at the beginning of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video? He's with a girl and then he transforms into a monstrous cat thing.




BATES: Rick Baker made that mask. And later when Michael turns into a zombie, he made that mask, too.


BATES: Rick Baker is Hollywood legend. He's responsible for some of the most iconic costumes and stage makeup in movie history. Everything from creatures in "Star Wars" to the "Gremlins" to the aliens in "Men In Black." And on Fridays just days after he announced his retirement, Baker said goodbye to hundreds of his creations. He auctioned them off. Baker says after selling his warehouse, he didn't have anywhere to keep his work.

RICK BAKER: You know, I had to face reality. I no longer was going to have this 60,000 square-foot building to keep stuff in. And, you know, it's something that had to be done.

BATES: Rick Baker has been sculpting, often by hand, the fantasy creatures of Hollywood since the early '70s. He started making masks and doing makeup as a kid in Covina, Calif. Baker says he was painfully shy and spent a lot of time trying to disguise himself as someone or something else.

BAKER: First of all, it's just kind of a strange sensation to, you know, be looking out of your eyes and seeing that face in the mirror that isn't you. It was kind of like this is no longer me. I can do things that, you know, little Ricky Baker can't do. For my short-lived blood and guts period, I would put like a bullet hole in my head and go out in the street and lie in the street 'til somebody saw me and freaked out. And then they would like - then I would get up and run, you know? (Laughter).

BATES: After high school, he honed his craft on small low-budget movies. Then he landed a bigger gig - much bigger - 1976's "King Kong." He's also the actor inside the suit. For the next 15 years, he worked with bigger budgets and longer timelines. Baker says when he did "Gremlins 2" in 1990, he had a full year to create the 350 gremlins.

BAKER: It was kind of like the golden age of this stuff. They actually let us and, you know, gave us the proper time and the proper money. Then it started to evolve back the other way. And the people that were in charge of the studio weren't so much show people as accountants and lawyers and - you know, but was it better for the film? No.

BATES: As computer-generated images became better and cheaper, studios realized they could fix things in postproduction, and Baker's budgets started to shrink. He says he appreciates what the computer can do for film, but...

BAKER: There is a magic that happens when you have a really good actor in a really good makeup.

BATES: In saying goodbye to his studio and many creations, he worries that Hollywood is also losing a part of its identity.

BAKER: When you're sitting in that makeup chair and you see yourself evolving - for example, I did Eddie Murphy in "Coming To America" as an old white Jewish guy. And by the end, all of a sudden he was this old white Jewish man sitting in the makeup chair. And Eddie said to me, Rick, this looks so real.

BATES: Even his former warehouse, which housed tons of old masks and movie costumes, seemed a shrine to the idea of transformation and fantasy.

BAKER: Inside, you went into this other world that was this strange castle with flying monkeys and gargoyles and things everywhere.

BATES: Even though Rick Baker sold his warehouse, he's not done creating, although he is aware he's fighting time.

BAKER: You know, I've kind of got arthritis in my hands now, and it seems to be getting worse. And it's - there's a number of things that I want to sculpt before my hands give out, you know? It's just time for me to do my own thing.

BATES: He's planning on starting his retirement by sculpting a series of half human, half animal creatures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.