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The Nostalgic Attic: A Farewell to Dick Smith; A Legendary Make Up and Special Effects Artist.

3 August 2014

A Farewell to Dick Smith; A Legendary Make Up and Special Effects Artist.


"Actors have to feel like they are the person they are portraying. I think my work has helped many to achieve that"


During the week, the world of film and entertainment said farewell to a true artist: Dick Smith. Passing away at 92, Smith was an active figure until very recently, though focusing on training and education rather than appearing on film sets. Despite his legacy, it's hard to truly appreciate the mans contribution to the world of film and television without going back to where it all began.


A self-taught make-up artist; Smith decided to pursue a career full-time in film, though initially found it difficult to gain entry in the notoriously closed-off Hollywood. He was advised to try his hand at television, and found himself a role as the first make-up director for WNBC, a position he held for 14 years. He had a lot of love for creating special effects appliances, and became a pioneer in how these were created and then applied to actors. Where his competitors created 'one piece' appliances that covered the actors face completely, Dick found that by creating multiple pieces that could be applied separately, it allowed the actor much more freedom to use their own facial expressions and realistic movement, breathing much more life into the performance itself. Despite initial criticism for this method, it was eventually adopted by the industry, and is the standard method taught even to this day.

His famed works on television included turning Laurence Olivier into a leprosy victim for The Moon and Sixpence (1959) and the 14 episodes of the short lived, Roald Dahl-hosted Way Out (1961). Applying an old age make-up for the vampire show, Dark Shadows, gave Smith the preparation needed to take on the task of turning Dustin Hoffman (then in his 30's) into a 120 year old native American for the 1970 film, Little Big Man; a make-up job that is still regarded as one of the finest ever applied. Shortly after this, he was called upon to transform Marlon Brando into what was to become one of cinemas most iconic characters - Don Corleone for the 1972 filming of The Godfather. Apparently Brando refused to wear appliances to age him, so Dick had to come up with other methods to get the desired effect. It wasn't long before he was handed his biggest challenge; that of turning a young, pretty girl into a child possessed by a demon in William Friedkin's The Exorcist...

His work on The Exorcist is often thought to have revolutionised how effects were created, as Smith had to employ several different techniques, quite often within the same sequence of shots. Everything from having Reagan's head spin around to the writing appearing on her stomach, down to hiding the tubes that would project the vomit from her mouth... watching it now, it's hard to see anything truly fresh or original, but that's because his work here became assimilated into the industry, and are techniques that were used on every major horror film from this point on.


Smith's name appeared on many major films from this point, including Taxi Driver, The Stepford Wives, The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, Altered States, Scanners, Amadeus, Starman... the list goes on and on. whether it was creating jaw-dropping realistic violence, accentuating a performance via old age make up or dazzling with something truly out of this world, Smith was able for it, delivering goods in moments that we nearly forget are created by a 'make-up guy' behind the scenes. 

What truly sticks out about Smith though, is that, unlike his competitors, he was willing to share his ideas and techniques. He was a man willing to re-invest in the industry, by providing guidance to new comers (both Rick Baker and Stan Winston were huge fans of his work and were open about his contributions to their careers) and it was something he continued to do right up until his death. He may have left this world behind him, but his ideas, craft and genuine love for creating will live on in those he continues to inspire.


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5 Comments:

At 4 August 2014 at 03:10 , Blogger Wes M said...

Excellent stuff John, I knew the name and the films of course but little else so the biographical detail is much appreciated. Agreed on The Exorcist, apart from the corny green vomit I still think the work on that film is very effective - especially the writing on Reagan's belly which was kinda lost for years in the fog of VHS... The make-up job that I'm thinking of though is Smith's work on Taxi Driver - we've had nearly 5 decades of squibs going pop in movies but I think the bloodshed in Taxi Driver is still some of the most visceral I've seen in a film - that shot of Travis Bickle holding his hand to his neck to stem the tide of blood leaking out still sends little electric eels down my back. I think the story was the MPAA asked Scorsese to add a red filter over the scene to try dampen the impact - I dunno if this was later corrected for DVD - but for years watching the film on VHS, the red filter just made the whole thing feel that bit more queasy...

 
At 4 August 2014 at 04:31 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes, I have a huge interest in special effects and the teams behind them, so it was sad news on the passing of Smith for me. I know exactly what you mean regarding Taxi Driver - when I first saw the film and we reached the climatic bloodbath, I was left with my jaw on the floor. Despite the relatively low body count in the scene, I felt like some of the most realistic, harrowing violence I had ever seen... of course, it was a lot to do with the excellent direction and sound design too (the screams are still in my head) but Smith is right there on screen, disgusting you with the realism. In terms of the MPAA, they asked that the colour be drained from the scene (desaturation) resulting in a washed out tone, that as many have said, almost enhances the realism of the climax. Apparently, the scene had been originally shot in a hyper-real sense; vibrant colours, etc (there are photos on line you can find relating to this). It has never been corrected for home video, which really annoys me. The option was given to Scorsese to re-instate the correct colour timing of the climax for the Blu Ray release, but he chose not to, saying that it would alter the film too much for viewers who know it and love it so well... which really annoyed me! In this day and age, we can have seamless branching, so there's no excuses for not having included both versions of the climax! As a purist, I always want to see things as they originally were, or at least have the option to do so (the reason why I love the Blade Runner boxset, and despise the Star Wars releases)...

 
At 4 August 2014 at 05:00 , Blogger Wes M said...

Ah okay... I knew the sequence had been modified in some way but wasn't sure exactly - thanks John... Its been years since I saw Taxi Driver last, it's such a ferocious picture I revisit it only once in a while, but funnily enough when I do I'm convinced its Scorsese's best work... Is it just me or does it seem that that we're losing Cinema's great artists and craftspersons almost every day now...

 
At 4 August 2014 at 05:08 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Agreed there, Wes, for me, Taxi Driver is his best film - and it's also my favorite film of all time. As you said, it's ferocious - a film boiling over with all sorts of anxiety, paranoia and depression that it's hard to watch too often.

It's sad that so many greats are slipping away from us, but this is life... at least they leave such impressive bodies of work for us to enjoy and ponder over for the rest of our lives... and I do believe that, despite the decline of 'mainstream' cinema, we are living through a great time for films. I think we'll look back when we are old men and be thankful that we experienced so much great art when it was fresh and exciting.

 
At 10 August 2014 at 20:09 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

He was the Grandmaster. An amazing man. A supernatural talent. RIP.

 

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