Makeup Magic: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf?

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Werewolves are one of the archetypal creatures in mythology often symbolizing the beast within all of us. In today’s cinema, we’ve been blessed with the use of computer-generated special effects that allow lycanthropic transformations to appear real, fluid, and transparent. But there was a time, not too long ago, when effects had to be achieved with makeup, animatronics, and special tricks with the camera. The scenes today are incredibly grotesque with a terrifying authenticity, but I kinda miss the old-fashioned, hands-on methods that it took teams of artists to create. During the 1980s there were a few movies that expanded on what had been done in the past and really created some amazing scenes long before the mix of live action and CGI became commonplace. In this article, I will watch three of these films.

The Howl (1981) – The artist credited with performing the special makeup effects is the highly respected Rob Bottin, with special tips credited to famed Rick Baker. In truth, Rick Baker was originally supposed to be the lead artist on the film, but he left to work on another film, leaving his twenty-one-year-old assistant in charge. One of the film’s big climactic scenes involves a character’s complete on-screen transformation into a werewolf. Rob used air bladders under the latex to create the illusion of muscles and bones moving under the skin. The use of animatronics and puppets has also been used to aid in the transformation, such as the slowly growing protrusion of the muzzle as it lengthens. The overall effect nearly overshadows the rest of the film. Additionally, each werewolf’s appearance seemed to reflect the character of the person who was transforming. Make the werewolf in the final scene look completely different. For its time and honestly for the budget of the film, it was very well done. 1981 marked the very first Oscar award for make-up and many believe that Rob Bottin should have at least been nominated for the work on this film, unfortunately another werewolf film would be released a few months later which would also feature a transformation scene incredible and would go on to win the Oscar.

An American Werewolf in London (1981) – I mentioned above that Rick Baker would leave The howling to make another movie, well it’s that movie. This movie’s transformation scene took a week to shoot and months to prep. There were several heads and limbs that would be changed during filming and depending on the character’s stage of transformation. The hair growth has been turned back with the long hair applied and then a little cut at a time. The stretching effects of the hands and feet were achieved by using a unique material. Sometimes the actors’ legs were actually under the ground with filmed animatronic legs. Overall, the effect is amazing. Director Joe Landis even said the scene was too long, but seeing what Rick Baker was doing was so amazing he didn’t want to cut it short. The werewolf itself was something different than what we had also seen in the past. Not bipedal, like the werewolf, but not a full wolf either. This look was achieved using prosthetics built on a device that the actor posed on a board and only used the front arms. Camera angles were careful never to show the creature’s hind legs. In addition to the werewolf, Baker also had to design the zombified undead of those killed by the creature. One of these characters gradually breaks down as the film progresses. The work on this film earned Rick Baker the first-ever regular Oscar for makeup (Planet Of The Apes 1968 landed a special Oscar for makeup). But in a candid interview with Fangoria, Baker said this movie would end up driving a wedge between him and his protege, Rob Bottin, because that’s what turned them from friends to competitors.

The Company of Wolves (1985) – Another kind of werewolf movie, The company of wolves focuses on a fairy tale mixed with a horror theme using lots of imagery. But like the other two films, the transformation scenes are elaborate and gory. Special makeup effects artist Christopher Tucker believed that a werewolf would completely transform into a wolf, so the scene uses a mixture of makeup, animatronics, and puppetry to achieve the desired effects. To begin the transformation, the actor appears to rip off all of his skin, leaving a muscle-clad skeleton, which then begins to change shape. From there, several animatronic creatures were used, each becoming more canine as the scene progresses and each baring exposed muscles and tendons, until finally arriving at a fully formed wolf. The ultimate effect is unique and intense. Considering the film’s very low budget and incredible cast, this scene is truly amazing. Christopher was nominated for a BAFTA award for his work on the film, but guess who took home the award that year. Rick Baker for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.

By the way: the three artists mentioned in this article worked on Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (The original 1977 film) and all three worked together specifically in the Cantina sequence. In fact, Rob Bottin who was only 17 at the time plays the tallest player in the Cantina group. Individually, all of these artists have gone on to do groundbreaking and amazing work.

Makeup Magic: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf?
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