While on a trip to California recently, I was extraordinarily lucky enough to meet Rick Lazzarini—animatronic puppet builder, SFX make-up artist, practical effects wizard and the man who invented WALDO®, a remote control system for animatronics that revolutionized the industry. Lazzarini—who’s responsible for the practical and make-up effects in movies including Ghostbusters II, ALIENS, Batman, Hook, Alien Vs Predator, Spaceballs, MIMIC, Snakes on a Plane, The Sandlot and Hocus Pocus—was gracious enough to let me interview him in his spacious warehouse studio, The Character Shop.
RICK LAZZARINI: I was born in San Francisco and grew up in Morgan Hill, which was a “cow town” at the time. I saw The Planet of the Apes when I was 7 years old and said, “oh that’s awesome.” Then they played the behind-the-scenes [stuff] showing the makeup and prosthetics used. There was no GOOGLE back then—you had to go to the library to learn more—so I started getting books on theatrical make-up and making molds. By the time I was 15 years old I was making masks and selling them to costume shops.
What was your first big gig? How did you get it?
RL: I started out doing make-up and special effect for bands, like The Tubes who had a very visual act. I’d make gigantic outrageous props for them and that turned into a gig with KISS. I got to live-cast Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in their hotel room. There I was, a 17 year old kid working with KISS! They were like, how did this kid get in here?
So when did you move to L.A.?
RL: I moved to L.A. in 1978 and went to film school when I was only 18. I rented a garage off-campus from this nice, old lady named Mrs. Keeny. I [remember loading] up my supplies from my home studio in my car and [driving] back to Mrs. Keeny’s, but on the way back I noticed sparks flying. Turns out the shelves on the roof of my car fell off! I got new shelves after that.
And bungee cords?
RL: Yes, and better tie down skills!
So I set up shop in Mr’s Keeny’s garage doing freelance jobs, music videos, slasher films, and started out working for Roger Corman Studios… what was that name of that first one we did?! (talking to his wife and partner in crime)
DEBORAH LAZZARINI: SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE!
OH, my gawd! I’ve seen that. So many red drinks.
RL: That was at Make Up Effects Lab. CUZ IT LOOKS LIKE BLOOD! *laughs* The other one I worked on unaccredited was Galaxy of Terror. It was a good learning experience [and] I eventually got to hook up with nerds with similar interests… people that ended up being big time in the industry.
RL: Like Alec Gillis (Tremors, ALIEN 3) and Richard Landon (Jurassic Park)—some of these guys are legendary now. I had been doing work helping Richard on Stan Winston’s projects and he kept asking for my help. I finally said, “I keep making you look good for Stan, how about I get to look good for Stan?” At one point I was going to start working for another prop shop when Richard said that Stan Winston would need help. Richard asked if I knew Alec Gillis, I said “yeah!” he’s been working right with me.
It was only supposed to be a two day gig, but they wanted us longer so I asked the prop shop,”can I delay starting for a couple days?” They said, “Hey no, you made a commitment man. You either start here or nothing!” So I told them “EFF off then! I’m working for Stan Winston now!”
What are your top 3 favorite creations?
RL: Well, I would say the Queen Alien from ALIENS. I was 26 at the time and I kinda muscled my way into it. I kept saying, “I can do that, I can to that!” I had an Osbourne computer with a tiny screen and this thing was huge… we designed the queen’s inner mechanics and how she would operate on that computer in CAD.
I built the main animatronic head which moved up down, the teeth that came out , and the snarls… I built that and puppeteered her in the fight scene with Sigourney Weaver.
Also the running face-hugger I built for ALIENS. Stan says Jim Cameron wants me to put in a motor from a model air plane, but I tell them that’s not going to work. At which they replied, “Well, Jim said to do it, so do it that way.” I tried to plead my case, but they said “no you do it.” Here’s the thing though, they make a lot of noise and smoke. They run at a very high rpm so I would have to get a gear reducer custom made and it’s going to be big so it’s not going to fit in the body well. All over, it was just a bad idea.
RL: No. And you have to have to break these engines in. So there I am with a model engine in a vise revving it up and it’s spitting out this oily black smoke, and I ask “So THIS WHAT YOU WANT in there? Is this what you want on set?” and they said no.
So we did it different in a very clever way, which is easier to explain with diagrams. It was clever but still low tech to where it would creep along as fast as you pulled it. You could also make it jump and leap by by lifting the thing you were pulling it with. We made the wires thin on that and we didn’t even need CG to erase them out.
…what, is that two now? The third was my full-size, realistic animatronic elephant that we did for Operation Dumbo Drop, which is fun because that is something that hadn’t been done before or since. If I had to squeeze in a fourth, it would be the giant cockroach in MIMIC I did for Guillermo Del Toro.
How much did the Queen Alien weigh? And how many people did it take to operate her?
RL: Umm, I think the she might of weighed 1,200 pounds 23 feet long 17 ft high.
There were two guys inside, me operating the head doing the mouth and tongue, two guys on the legs, one or two guys on the tail, and one person doing snarls and head moves… upwards of 7-8 people.
RL: We did The Changeling, Zach and Miri Make a Porno, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, The Five Year Engagement and Identity Thief. A lot of the work we do isn’t just for features, with the economic downturn we turned elsewhere to people who appreciate us. We’ve done some installations with museums and theatrical productions as well.
Do you recall one of your worst experiences on a project?
RL: Snakes on a Plane, I can say is one of the worst experiences I’ve had. It was one of those situations where you weren’t hired for your expertise, not looked on as an equal, but hired on by the visual effects crew to fill in any gaps that they had. You’re working with a crew that hasn’t had much experience in practical effects. Honestly, was it a great film? No. And we did a lot of really good work for that and had a lot of cool snakes. But they hardly got used or properly used. So after that I shied away from features and got more into commercials.
Okay, so that was your worst client experience, what was your best?
RL: I would say Mel Brooks, on Spaceballs. Dream job. Working with Mel Brooks and John Candy everyday. Just Fun. Funniness. Laughter. Support. There was nobody saying “no.” The only time I got told no was [when] Mel would say “You don’t have to move the ears so much!!” I was upstaging the actors with my ear work. Not only did I get to be Barf’s ears, but I got to be Pizza the Hut (uncredited) and one of the apes in the end where there is a The Planet of the Apes spoof. Pizza the Hut was originally played by Richard Karen and they had to do a re-shoot and Richard said “eff that, I’m not putting that damn thing back on!”
Who would you love to get a chance to work with?
RL: Michel Gondry and Paul Fieg again.
Have you talked to Fieg about working on the new Ghostbusters?
RL: I did work on Ghostbusters II… maybe that will happen.
What about the new ALIEN movie with Neill Blomkamp?
RL: I know he did a bunch of spec work to get that going. Now see my buddy Alec and Tom… they did the last few Aliens sequels, Alien Versus Predator and so forth. I assume they would get that or that Blomkamp will just use his own crew of people in South Africa.
If you could make anything, from books or comics to a dream creature, what would you love to get the chance to make?
RL: Dream creature? I’d love to do a rhinoceros, I like to build animals. I am making a gorilla suit in my spare time. I like making large-scale stuff too. We did a 20 foot tall marionette. I am currently bidding on building some large scale puppets for a theater show.
What was the most technically difficult creature you have made?
RL: Technically would probably have been the elephant from Operation Dumbo Drop, because we couldn’t operate it remotely in another helicopter while it was suspended from the main helicopter. So we equipped the inside with a computer pre-programmed with the elephant’s performance along with a generator to power it.
The fun part was the villagers would see me open up the butt flap and put my arm in and yank on the rope to rev up the generator and the exhaust would come out. So smoke would come out and it just looks like elephant farts.
MIMIC was technically challenging too… you have 7 foot cockroach creatures with multiple arms, wings, antenna, and mouth parts, all needing to be manipulated. [It] took 6-7 people to operate. We would get into a scene where like 6 of them were scratching on a window and just the logistics of that. It’s like getting a bunch of people together to play music together who haven’t played together before. So there’s the technical and performance aspects. I love a challenge, I love solving puzzles, and figuring out things people think can’t be done. And then doing it.
What advice would you give to anyone working in this field?
RL: Move to LA, have a working car, scrape up what savings you can, crash on someone’s couch if you have to and owe them later in life-do it, because this is where it’s happening. I know a lot of kids go to make-up school and get bogged down in student loans. Use that money to come here. Just create, and don’t let anything stop you.
RL: If you went to my house, you wouldn’t know what I did for a living. I know a lot of us creature effects guys outfit our homes with paraphernalia and collectables, [but] I get away from it all. Debbie and I like to go hiking and enjoy nature, clear our heads. Also, we teach here at The Character Shop—I have an Animatronics Institute. There are a lot of places that teach sculpture, mold-making, or SFX make-up, but we are the only place that teaches animatronics.
Before we wrap up, I’ve got to ask: what’s the strangest thing you did as a kid?
RL: I’m a horror effects geek. They used to make this stuff called scar wax and vampire blood, right? So me and my friend would “injure” ourselves up and lay in [the] intersection… people would see these two battered kids at the side of the road and would stop to check on us and we would get up and run away giggling into the woods.
OH! Another time we found a sail cat and strung it across the same stretch of road between two stop signs with some fishing line. We assumed someone would see it and stop, but someone drove right into it! Hit it with a loud SMACK-O! We thought it had dented the car or broken the windshield. They were very angry and tore it down… saying that we tied a live cat up and it’s like, how can I tell you that it was already dead without revealing my guilt?!
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Rick—this was a delight and and honor!