Scene is Believing: An American Werewolf in London

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In cinema, to attempt the previously unattempted takes bravery – to be that lone trailblazer can be a real tightrope; mess it up and you look stupid, get it right and you will go down in history.

In the 1970s, when John Landis talked to Rick Baker about making a werewolf film, he wanted to do it in a way no one had attempted. Up until 1981, a werewolf transformation had been done with someone falling under a table and coming back up as the beast, or with a dissolve effect, in which our terrified wolf-to-be would sit and watch his body slowly fade into a wolf like appearance with a facial expression akin to a sprained ankle.

Landis wanted more however, he wanted to do the transformation in one shot. He wanted to see the kind of childbirth-like pain that the process would trigger – he wanted it to seem real and just as terrfying as the wolf itself and he gave Baker exactly that remit.

In Landis’ finished script, he detailed how he would like the transformation to occur:

New bolts of agonizing pain wrack through David’s body. He grabs at his pants, pulling them off as if they are burning him. Standing naked in the center of the room, David gasps for air. He falls to his knees and then forward on his hands.He remains on his hands and knees, trying to master his torment; but it’s no use.  On all fours he gives himself over to the excruciating hurt and slowly begins to change. The metamorphosis from man into beast is not an easy one. As bone and muscle bend and reform themselves, the body suffers lacerating pain.  We can actually see David’s flesh move, the rearranging tissue.  His mouth bleeds as fangs emerge.  His whole face distorts as his jaw extends, his skull literally changing shape before our eyes.  His hands gnarl and his fingers curl back as claws burst forward. The camera pans up to show the full moon outside through the window.  David’s moans change slowly into low guttural growls. We hear the four footfalls as the WOLF begins to walk.  As the camera pans back over the room, we see the front door pushed open and hear the Wolf padding off into the darkness.

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Sounds easy right? Landis was confident Baker was the only man who could pull it off, Landis later recalled in an interview with Total Film, “When I was 21, the first feature I directed was Schlock, which was appropriately named, the 20-year-old Rick Baker did the effects for that and I gave him the screenplay for American Werewolf in 1971.”

I was pretty confident that Rick could do it. After years of telling Rick I wanted to make the movie, he’d already figured out a technique he called ‘Change-O-head’, the stretchy heads that he used. He showed it to me and I said, ‘great’, but I couldn’t get the money.”

Then, after Kentucky Fried, Blues Brothers and the others made so much money, I got that negative pickup deal and called up Rick. ‘We got the money!’

Having got his start making monsters and makeups in his bedroom as a youngster, Baker was the perfect man to tackle the complicated transformation and wolf models that Landis needed to ensure that the film worked.

John wanted it not to be a ‘wolf-man’ at the end, but an actual four-legged beast,” recalls Baker in an interview with Total Film. “There would be pain and movement in this transformation, unlike anything that had been done before.

I said, ‘at one point, we should switch to a fake head.’ I figured that if we did a piece with the hair punched in and reverse-printed it, it would look like the hair was growing out. It would look much cooler. And I could push a fake head in weird dimensions, which meant we could shoot parts of the process without any camera trickerySo we made a head, a back, various bits. And we put the guy’s body in the set and created a fake body to let the transformation take place on camera.”

It would take us months to make one of the Change-O-Heads, but it would be quick to shoot. So John, being a smart filmmaker, shot the transformation in post-production. They kept the set up, had the wrap party for the main film, and the next day started filming the change.

We laughed that the head parts took so little time on camera. It would be, ‘action!’, the thing does its job. ‘Cut! We got it!’ seconds later. I’d be, like, ‘What? Is that it? Don’t we need another take?’ And John would ask, ‘Does it do anything else?’ ‘Nope…’ And that would be it. All that work and it was over in a blink! But when the movie came out, I took my crew to see it and when the transformation came on screen, people stood up, clapped and cheered…

The result was so impressive that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided it had to create a new awards category specifically for the film – and Outstanding Achievement In Makeup was born, with Baker the first recipient (which he has now won 7 times).

The transformation itself is terrifying, effecting, memorable and nothing short of remarkable. It comfortably stands the test of time thirty years later and is a potent reminder of how effective make up effects can be when done with care and attention. Many werewolf movies have been made utilising modern CG techniques since and none have come even close to matching it, never mind bettering it.

Originally posted 2013-04-03 21:11:30. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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