Science Fiction Filme.) Dear Mr. Lazzarini. It´s been a blast to have a talk with you. Really, I love your animatronic work in films. I could count a lot of good movies your were involved like ALIENS (1986), MIMIC (1997), SPACEBALLS (1987), GHOSTBUSTERS II (1989) or one of my favorites OUTBREAK (1995). Could you please tell us something what you did before you come into filmbusiness. Why have you choose the way of being into special effects?
Rick Lazzarini) One of the first jobs that I had when I was a teenager; was to help around construction sites; helping haul lumber around, hammer nails, assist the carpenters and roofers, sweeping up, etc. Another job I had was working at a Cabinet shop, making precision cabinetry. At this time I was only 14, 15 years old. But at the same time, I had also set up a little workshop and I was making custom rubber masks of characters from “Planet of the Apes”, “The Devils Rain”, and I would sell these to costume shops in the Bay Area. So I was working with my hands constructing things, taking math into account, sculpting, making molds, and reading everything I could about the process of special effects make up.
So it was a combination of interest and passion with the field combined with skills and talents that I was developing that made it kind of inevitable that this would be this field that I pursued. What I really wanted to do was to be an actor! I was jealous of the kids that I saw on TV who were child actors. Eventually I did become an actor, an actual card-carrying member of SAG, but usually in the form of another creature or character, as a Puppeteer. Anyway, when people find out
that you have these unusual skills, you get requests to do unusual jobs.
That's how by the age of 17 I was doing special effects and prop work for rock bands, local bands and famous bands like the Tubes and Kiss. Then I got a job at Peaches Records and Tapes in Los Angeles in the promotional department, and I would make very creative mockups of album covers. So I got exposed to a lot of creative people in Southern California and a lot of techniques, and so I was able to build up quite a portfolio showing how I could take a concept, an album cover and turn it into a three dimensional reality, by being resourceful and clever with building techniques.
SFF.) How do you get your first professional work on EVILSPEAK (1981)?
R.L.) I'm not sure exactly if could say EVILSPEAK was the first professional gig ever, I mean, I’d done music videos prior to that, but it was my first feature film, sure. I had applied for a job at Makeup Effects Labs because somebody I knew from Peaches Records and Tapes new somebody who is working at Mel. So Alan Apone and Doug White and Frank Carrisosa and Peter and Knowlton we're the co-owners of makeup effects labs. They took a look at my portfolio and hired me and put me in the art department, making molds, sculpting doing lab work, and the kinds of things that you do in your first, early jobs in the special effects industry.
SFF.) Okay, let´s say your first professional work in cinematic movies. Oh by the way: Do you have any personal favorite movies?
R.L.) Oh absolutely! I was eight years old when I saw PLANET OF THE APES. I was amazed that they had turned humans into apes, and I was a huge fan of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. I was probably more into primates than I was into dinosaurs, and like every kid that age I was SUPER into dinosaurs. Then they started showing behind the scenes footage of how they achieved the prosthetic effects to turn people into apes and I was just immediately taking in and I had to find out everything about how they did it. So it was many, many trips to the library and years of research; trial and error in finding the proper materials and suppliers so that I could start experimenting on my own. And then of course you go to an event like a Comic Book or Star Trek Convention and you meet fellow Geeks with similar interests and cross-pollinate with them and share and trade tips about ideas, techniques, etc.
SFF) We have talked about favorite movies. What about favorite personal idols?
R.L.) Oh, yes. Jack Pierce and John Chambers and Lon Chaney and Dick Smith were my early idols. I found Dick Smith’s phone number and used to call and bother him incessantly with questions! When I was 17 I visited Rick baker, and he was still working out of his house’s garage, baking foam latex in his kitchen. And he had two young dudes helping him: Rob Bottin and Greg Cannom!
SFF.) You´’re also working for television-series like MONSTERS or MARVEL´’S AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. What exactly is the difference between working on television and movies for the cinematic world?
R.L.) The biggest differences, back in the day, between working on television series and feature films is the amount of time that you have to prep, the budgets that you’re given, and the quality of the effects you're asked to do. Now, however, you have longform series, hour long episodes of shows, on HBO and Netflix, and the distinction between the two forms has kind of fallen away a bit.
SFF) How did you get into Stan Winstons Crew?
R.L.) I had been working at a very famous Hollywood prop rental company for a couple years, doing all sorts of special prop effects and also doing creature effects on the side out of my garage at home. One show that we got the prop house was called “Ice Pirates" and I hired quite a large crew of people to help me build the props. One of the people on my crew was Richard Landon, who was on hiatus from working at Stan Winston’s. Then, when he went back to Stan Winstons he would frequently call me to ask me technical questions. Finally I told him: “Hey, if all of these answers are benefitting Stan and making you look good, wouldn’t it be better if *I* answer these questions to Stan *myself*”? So it was a semi -joke, but Richard got the message anyway, and the next time Stan needed to hire some people, he asked his crew who knew people that were available and Richard suggested me. Stan called me up and asked if I was available and I said “Absolutely!”
SFF) Why did you choose starting an own company named THE CHARACTER SHOP in 1986? Was it because you want to do your own independent thing?
R.L.) Well, I almost didn’t get to go to England on “Aliens”. Stan only had a budget for 5 people, his original 4 crew members plus one more. Alec Gillis got the plus 1 because he’s tall and handsome and always kissed Stan’s ass while I was more argumentative (I love you, Alec!). But I told Stan: “You NEED me on this show! You’re bringing 4 Art Department guys and only ONE mechanical guy, and I’ve been dong the bulk of the mechanical design!” Then, having done my homework, I showed him how I had formed my own corporation so he could save a LOT by not paying me payroll taxes or insurance on my wages. The combination of saving money and actually needing me sealed the deal to get me on the Set Crew, where I made myself even more indispensable with my work on the Alien Queen, the Opening Egg, and of course the Running Facehugger. Plus, forming my own corporation turned out to just be a good idea because I was *already* moonlighting and doing my own projects out of my home shop, even while working on “Aliens”. I was always destined to do things independently, my way.
SFF) You are also a master in creating realistic puppets like in OUTBREAK, DUDE, WHERE IS MY CAR or OPERATION: DUMBO DROP. Which one is easier to build: real existing animals or fantastic beasts and why?
R.L.) I think fantastic beasts are easier to create, and they are more readily accepted. The reason is: when you are building a realistic creature, everyone know what that animal is supposed to look and move like, so if you get tit wrong, it becomes very obvious very quickly. This is why you have never seen a convincing animatronic cat. I mean never, by nobody. Well, except for maybe Persian cats, because they are bizarre looking already, But not plain tabbies. We’re too familiar with what they look like, it’s too easy to spot flaws if you don’t get everything exactly right. With a fantastic creature, like the Queen Alien, you’re not copying anything known on Earth, so how could it be “wrong” or “inaccurate?
SFF.) Do you believe there is some kind of recurrence by practical effects in modern cinema instead of CGI?
R.L.) I wish there were, and people say there is, but in practice…I don’t see it actually happening. On the most recent “Ghostbusters 2016”, we were going to do all kinds of cool practical ghosts…and then they yanked the budget from us and did those FX in CG. CG Supervisors are arrogant, egotistical jerks who want to take all the work for themselves so the effects have a “uniform look” to them, unfortunately, too often the look is uniformly awful. Not always.
SFF.) What kind of your work can we except to see in the future?
R.L.) I would love to finish my gorilla suit. I would love to make an animatronic Rhino. I do have some cool stuff in the pipeline but nowadays everyone slaps an NDA on everything so it’s like I’m in the CIA, can’t talk about it! But I’ (and other shops, too) are doing a lot more in the realm of real, live performances, live activations, theme park and convention happenings.
SFF) You´ve done so many great animatronic effects. Which one was the most challenging and why?
R.L.) I’ve had many, many that were challenging; I love challenges. The Queen Alien and the full-size, realistic elephants from Dumbo Drop were very difficult but rewarding. Probably the giant cockroaches from “Mimic” were the most mechanically complex. But really, the severed head effect in “Barton Fink” was the most difficult…and disappointing. We had an effect where a guy staggers out of an elevator, and then his head falls off, and the *desired* effect was to have it roll, like a bowling ball, towards camera. Well…human heads are not spheres, They have noses and ears. So this fucking thing would never roll like a bowling ball. It would bounce, bound and head off randomly. And that was for Joel and Ethan Coen, and so I walked away from that having disappointed two of my favorite filmmakers. The teachable moment here was: Don’t promise your thing can roll like a bowling ball unless it’s a bowling ball!
SFF.) One last question…just for me: You were doing the animatronic of the Alien Queen in ALIENS. What exactly did you do and could you name some technical details of the Queen? I’m a little technic-freak by myself (at least I’m a teacher for technic for physically disabled children).
R.L.) Well, for the Alien Queen, my first responsibility was during the mock-up process. I brought in my portable Osborne Computer with floppy disks and a 4 inch screen, and designed and drafted the internal structure, a center plat of aluminum, with a hinge that the two guys inside could push with their feet and make her hips move. Then I helped cut and weld the metal for that and the attachment to the camera crane for testing, then helping rod-puppeteer the limbs for tests. Basically, I designed her inner body structure in the beginning. Then, when I got to England, I was responsible for creating the animatronics that allowed her head to move Up/Down and Side-Side under her cowl, and her jaw opening and closing, and, most cool, here inner telescoping tongue with opening/closing “tongue teeth”, so she could open her jaw and SHOOT out her tongue-teeth, snapping at Sigourney. I also got to puppeteer it, too, so that was a full-circle job for me. That it turned out to be so epic is the best thing in the world.
SFF) Dear Mr. Lazzarini. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
R.L.) You are very welcome!!! Thanks for letting me share my story!