Well, this is an awkward way to make a start here.
This is somewhat awkward because I had first been asked to work here doing television reviews. On top of that, I had already planned to start writing here next Monday with this most recent episode of The Strain.
Then life threw an interesting curve ball near the end of the week.
Last Thursday, make-up effects artist, Dick Smith died.
To some, this name may not immediately register – you mention special effects and the first names that usually come to mind are people like Rick Baker (who saw Smith as both a friend and mentor) or the late Stan Winston. Smith, while not having quite the same recognition, made his name in a lot of techniques people would recognize, even if they didn’t process it was a makeup job at the time.
Working in film as early as the 1940s, Smith had made his mark, both with normal and unusual makeup and special effects jobs over the course of almost sixty years. During that time, the man was involved in several high end productions, including the likes of Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Amadeus (which won him an Oscar,) and The Exorcist. With regards to the last in particular, I have to pay my respects. Besides the impressive job he did with Linda Blair’s scarred up and twisted face while possessed, he was also responsible for taking a then mid-40s Max von Sydow and turning him into the white haired and frail Father Lankester Merrin. He did his job very well at that – for a period in high school I genuinely thought von Sydow WAS that old. It made seeing him in films from the 80’s like Conan the Barbarian and Flash Gordon a bit of a double take. It got even more impressive years later when the world actually did see von Sydow naturally at that age, and we could see that Smith’s look for him was actually rather accurate.
Flash forward almost forty years to the really awkward CGI aging job on Guy Pearce in Prometheus and it’s hard not to feel a twinge of regret at the loss of both an artform and a master at it.
Besides the makeup, as I said, he was also known for some of his effects work. In this field, his crowning achievement being the simple but incredibly effective sequences of body horror in David Cronenberg’s sci-fi thriller Scanners. Alongside the film’s body-warping final duel between psychics, Smith was the man who came up with the technique that ultimately put the film on the map – the now famous exploding head, that’s gone on to become a pop culture staple in its own right.
Remembered by many as an ardent professional, even on low-budget cheese films like the killer snake movie Spasms, Smith’s passing is being regarded as a loss to the effects world, despite his having retired in 1999. In some ways, it almost further speaks to his skill at the visual arts that most people don’t actually realize some of the tricks he pulled off. From the graphic to the subtle, his legacy is one to be proud of.
Rest in peace, Smith. Don’t worry about the blood – we’ll clean that up.