Tricky things, werewolves. Not getting rid of them – all you need is some silver bullets and / or fire (depending on your lore). The tricky part is getting a convincing one on screen. Through the cinematic age there’s been the ridiculous and there’s been the sublime. What’s been even more of a problem has been creating a convincing transformation scene. It’s a problem that’s pushed make-up artists and VFX merchants to dig deep and bring their best work to the table.
For me, the first and still one of the best man-to-beast transformation was Fredric March’s from 1932’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, created by Wally Westmore & Karl Struss. The effect is achieved by a combination of different coloured layers of make-up filmed against different coloured lights. Also in the mix were several smart camera cuts, simple but very effective.
Soon after this came Henry Hull’s transformation in Werewolf of London, which was pretty tame compared to the one in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Next up was The Wolf Man (1941), in which the transformation scenes were more effective although still limited to camera dissolves. The major development was that the creature design in this movie had evolved since Werewolf of London. The monsters in both of these movies were created by Jack Pierce, one of the original monster makers whose iconic designs are the ones we no doubt think of when we imagine Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy or Dracula.
The sub-genre carried on very much in the same way for some time. There were no shortage of lycanthropic outings over the years – there were some excellent incarnations (Curse of the Werewolf) and some horrible ones (The Beast Must Die, which was just a dog in a fur coat, lets be honest). But with all of these, the transformations on the whole were lumbering and lacklustre.
Things changed (pun intended) when John Landis decided to give Rick Baker a shot to come up with something for his script, American Werewolf in London. So what was the upshot of that decision? The best werewolf transformation scene in cinema. It’s well over thirty years old and still blows away anything that’s had the balls to challenge it. Even The Wolfman (from 2010 which Rick Baker worked on) while a great transformation, fell short of the power of American Werewolf. Why though?
Before American Werewolf started production, director Landis asked Baker what it would take for him to make the transformation as cool as it could be. Baker simply asked for time and money. So here you have Rick Baker, an artist who was about to leave his mark as a legend, who was yet to fully harness his imagination and creativity, being given the luxury of time and resources to come up with something special. Also consider that Baker and his crew were pioneers, youthful and experimental who relished the challenge now in front of them.
With these ingredients in the mix it was inevitable something amazing would happen. When it was announced that Baker was to work on Universal’s update of The Wolf Man, the geek world imploded, expecting Baker to work his magic on a transformation which would see them through the next thirty years. But it didn’t happen like that. Despite winning his seventh Academy Award in 2010 for his work on The Wolfman, Baker has stated that little of his actual work showed up on screen. The production was difficult and the usual process Baker would be involved in just wasn’t there. With the release date looming, Baker found himself outside of the circle and frustrated – along with many who would’ve loved to have seen his ideas fully realised.
The desire to make werewolf movies soldiers on though. Recent successes have been the Twilight and Underworld franchises. These movies have released the monsters into the mainstream and it’s been great to see. For me, the most impressive were the monsters in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. They were particularly beastly and as far as I’m concerned, the best in the series. Possibly because Patrick Tatopoulos was directing. Tatopoulos was creature designer for the previous Underworld movies and he worked closely with Visual Effects Supervisor James McQuaide, who had also worked on the previous entries. So the relationship was there, the technical synergy was there. There were 80 CG werewolf shots and over 15 shots that featured around 250 werewolves on screen at once. Rise of the Lycans was CG heavy for a werewolf movie. Damn, it was werewolf heavy for a werewolf movie! But for all the admirable attributes, there was still something a bit “uncanny valley” about the transformations. It’s here that Baker’s work in American Werewolf really overshadows everything else. We know, without doubt, that what is happening is real. Real inasmuch as whats on screen can actually be touched and sensed. Flesh, fur and bone, muscles shifting under skin – from that our mind fills in the blanks. At the time, it was showing audiences something that they had never seen before but the same can’t be said now. The scene remains impressive amongst genre fans, casual observers, even for younger film aficionados well used to digital onslaughts.
That said, CG can’t be blamed for any modern quality issues. CG is a tool just like a pencil or a prosthetic, used to create an illusion. Even Rick Baker who some would consider an old-school artisan is a fantastic ZBrush artist.
By all accounts, he’s actually an advocate for the technology and would love to see the perfect union between traditional and digital techniques. So if CG isn’t the rub, what is? Why is it that even after thirty years, no transformation scene has come close to being as impressive, shocking or exciting as the one in American Werewolf in London?
I refer back to earlier in this post, when Baker said time and money made the difference. Seeing that studios today are all about release dates – often with only a title, or maybe just an idea of a movie, Baker went though a kind of hiatus due to becoming “disenchanted” of the direction the movie industry was going. Drew Struzan, another legend has felt the same way. Struzan is an amazing illustrator who created many movie posters which have become entrenched in our affection and nostalgia. This man with years of industry experience has had his fill with executive suits. The artists working in animation / VFX studios today are talented, dedicated and brimming with ideas. They do excellent work, despite rough business challenges. But consider what could be accomplished if they were given the gift of time and resources like Baker was given. The market has showed that these are gifts that studios aren’t willing to give freely. Is the industry in danger of crushing the art – eliminating that degree of freedom an aspiring Rick Baker needs to create the next milestone?