Tribute to Carlo Rambaldi R.I.P. (1925 – 2012)
Carlo Rambaldi was the go-to-guy for gory monsters and fantastic creatures, working with everyone from Dario Argento to David Lynch, and most significantly creating Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
A legend of the industry, whose art and innovation inspired future generations of effects genius. If you wanted convincing make-up effects, Dick Smith was the master. For gore, you looked to Tom Savini. But if you wanted a fantastical creature, whether it was a terrifying monster or a benevolent interplanetary visitor, there was only one name in the Rolodex – Carlo Rambaldi.
The designer and puppeteer, who died on August 10 at age 86, achieved cinematic immortality with the creatures he devised for notable Hollywood blockbusters. Among the films Rambaldi left his stamp on were the 1976 remake of King Kong, the 1979 thriller Alien, and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – which featured Rambaldi designing the immortal title alien. His work was done at a time when special effects was all about the use of cables and animatronics, with little or no need for computers and digital technology.
The iconic Italian first came to prominence working on the early Giallo films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, at one point even helping to spare the latter from a two-year prison sentence. The props used in 1971’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin were so believable that Fulci was prosecuted for animal cruelty, prompting Carlo to bring his creations into the courtroom to prove that no dogs had actually been vivisected for the film. The case, as well as several stomachs, was promptly overturned. Rambaldi went on to work with Paul Morrisey on Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974) and Dario Argento on Deep Red (1975). Hollywood grabbed him for the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong (1976), although very little of Rambaldi’s to scale mechanical Kong made it to the final cut. However the big animatronic arms that grab Jessica Lange are Rambaldi’s work.
For E.T., Rambaldi drew inspiration from a number of sources, famously combining the nose and mouth of a baby, with the eyes and forehead of Albert Einstein
Over the years, Rambaldi continued to work with De Laurentiis, providing the giant sandworms for David Lynch’s big-budget adaptation of Dune, plus a monstrous menagerie for the various Stephen King adaptations that proliferated during the early eighties.
Often the unsung hero, one of Rambaldi’s most memorable creations was the eponymous xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Not that you’d realise it, since H.R.Giger received most of the credit, for his monstrously phallic design. But it was Rambaldi who developed and built the creature formerly known as ‘Star Beast,’ delivering a terrifying monster that was so much more than just a tall bloke in a suit.
The 1980s started with Rambaldi’s name attached to Oliver Stone’s directorial debut The Hand and the horror romance Possession.
Yet his biggest success that decade – and possibly ever – came with his second collaboration with Steven Spielberg. For the director’s powerful drama E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Rambaldi was brought in to design the title alien – including his long neck, hands and mouth movements. While E.T. was an animatronic creature, the emotional impact of his visit on Earth to befriend a lonely boy was immediate. The film was a box office triumph, and Rambaldi would win his second competitive Oscar. With no clear description in the script to work from, Rambaldi drew inspiration from a number of sources, famously combining the nose and mouth of a baby, with the eyes and forehead of Albert Einstein – in order to evoke innocence as well as a benign intelligence. Spielberg was insistent that the extra-terrestrial be both frightening and appealing, giving the plucky Italian effects maestro the kind of contradictory brief that would have lesser creatives pulling out their hair in frustration. Using a combination of body suits, puppets and complex animatronics, Rambaldi’s masterpiece was able to capture the imagination of an entire generation. Watch the remastered and reswizzled version of Spielberg’s classic, and look out for the noticeable CGI enhancements. The newly animated version may be more expressive than Rambaldi’s pile of servos and rubber, but it has none of the authenticity.
On Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Spielberg was struggling to give his interplanetary ambassadors a suitably other-worldly presence, at one point strapping orang-utans onto roller-skates and pushing them down the ramp of the mothership. You don’t need to be an effects genius to figure out how that experiment ended up. Instead, Rambaldi developed a complex puppet for the lead alien, which boasted a complex range of facial features, and the ability to communicate using a sequence of hand signals. At times, the polyurethane skin on Puck’s arm looks as though it’s wrapped in a rubber leg-warmer, but the effect is no less magical for it.
On hearing of Rambaldi’s death over the weekend, Spielberg commented ”Carlo Rambaldi was E.T.’s Geppetto.” But he was more than that. Geppetto may have crafted the puppet boy, but it took the Blue Fairy’s magic to make him real. Rambaldi did both.
Along with Stan Winston, we’ve lost the two great masters of this craft within a few years of each other.