Men in Black's multitude of otherworldly species was realized by ace makeup effects artist Rick Baker, a recent Academy Award winner for his efforts on The Nutty Professor. But unlike his very human (if exaggerated) creations for that picture, MIB recalls Baker's spectacular creature work in such films as An American Werewolf in London, Harry and The Hendersons and Gremlins 2. In all, the artist and his company, Cinovation, created nearly a dozen distinctly different aliens for MIB, using every method available: prosthetics, rubber suits, animatronics and huge mechanical puppets.

Baker presented hundreds of alien designs to director Barry Sonnenfeld, executive producer Steven Spielberg, and producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, often recombining various elements to concoct something that satisfied everyone. As Baker relates, "They rarely agreed with each other, so there was a lot of mixing and matching going on, such as, 'Steven really likes the neck on drawing A, Barry likes the feet on 3C, and Walter likes the torso on D15, so draw one that looks like that.'"

Regularly relying upon logic and extrapolations from real-life nature to design his effects, Baker sometimes found himself at creative odds with Sonnenfeld's wry take on the film's extraterrestrial-oriented comedy bits. One example is a scene involving Mikey, an extraterrestrial "illegal alien," who attempts to sneak across the U.S.-Mexico border. The humorous slant is that Mikey has simply concealed himself under a poncho, with a highly articulated fake human head protruding out of the neck hole, in his attempt to pass for a typical, if somewhat misshapen, Earthling.

In reality, Mikey was portrayed by an actor in a sophisticated animatronic costume wearing leg and arm extensions, with three interchangeable mechanical heads offering a wide range of movement. However, as Baker explains, "The character was played by a real person until the MIB agents rip the poncho off him and reveal that it's really an alien holding this head on a stick. We made a replica of the head of the actor who played Mikey as a human. It which was radio-controlled and as realistic as we could make it, but it just had a stick coming out of the bottom.

"Barry said he wanted Mikey's disguise to be crude, and I said, 'Well, then why isn't the head crude? It should look more like a ventriloquist's dummy." But Barry said, 'No, I want the head to look perfectly real, but I want just a stick coming out the bottom.' And I kept arguing the logic of this. I said, 'Instead of a stick, why don't we have a control apparatus with levers worked by this weird froglike hand so you could see how the head was controlled?' 'No, no, no, I don't want that.' 'What if there were wires coming out of the head that plugged into the belt of the alien wearing it and you could assume he controlled it that way?' 'No, no, no — I want a stick with a head on it!' I just thought it was weird."

One of Baker's most unique characters for MIB was Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio), a 12' space bug hidden inside a human skin who undergoes a progressive deterioration throughout the course of the film. "I don't know how the alien fits inside," admits Baker, "but we went for this ill-fitting look, as if this dead human skin was stretched over a form that wasn't right. In the script, they had him adjust his neck a little bit to smooth the skin out, but I thought it would be cooler if he grabbed onto the back of his scalp and stretched his face really tight against this alien form underneath. So we went from this droopy, baggy, weird face to this really tight, stretched-out face."

Baker's concept could only work with the cooperation of a very patient actor. Thankfully, D'Onofrio allowed the makeup maestro to pull and push his skin in countless uncomfortable ways before applying the prosthetics, so he could then stretch the makeup to the max. Baker explains, "A silicon gel-filled appliance was glued to his face and ran to the top of his head, where he could actually grab it and physically distort his face into something that was quite hideous."

Baker also created two anima-tronic talking versions of Edgar in giant bug form, but script rewrites demanded that the creature fight the MIB rather than discourse with them. "Edgar was one of those designs we went on and on with," Baker says with a sigh. "I don't know how many drawings we did, but the design they eventually approved was a real mix-and-match hodgepodge of 47 other drawings. I thought it looked like something that would never live and didn't deserve to!

"When the Edgar bug finally came out of Vincent D'Onofrio, he had lengthy dialogue to deliver with this ridiculous bug mouth, so we built two big mechanical bugs that talked. I kept saying, 'It's going to be ridiculous when we hear a normal human voice coming out of this giant bug monster, but they said, 'No, no, he has to talk!'"

Somehow, that notion changed before any scenes involving Baker's mechanical puppets were shot. "Movies are ever-evolving things," he notes philosophically. "Unfortunately, the way they make films these days, they get a release date and then constantly rewrite the script through the course of making the movie. Meanwhile, we have start designing and building our stuff in preproduction because it takes a lot of time to do right. The night before we were going to shoot the scene with Edgar, they rewrote the scene again. At that point, Barry said to me, 'I don't think we're going to use this.' I was quite disappointed. But I'm sure it was ultimately the right decision for the film."

Baker's Edgar design ultimately became a 3-D template for animators at Industrial Light & Magic, who cyberscanned a scaled-down maquette of the bug-like beast for their CG model. ILM also created a CG Mikey for one shot in which he "attacks" U.S. Border Patrol guards.

The last-minute addition of a sequence depicting newly arrived extraterrestrials checking in at the Men in Black headquarters also forced Baker to do something he'd never done before: subcontract. He hired Steve Johnson, Bart Mixon and KNB Effects to flesh out the scene with seven additional creatures. "I felt that there needed to be something like the Star Wars cantina scene, because the story explains that there are hundreds of these aliens on Earth," Baker remembers. "Unfortunately, the scene's a throwaway and it never became what I'd imagined. There were probably 10 aliens, but you see maybe six of 'em."

Despite the disappointments, Baker concludes, "What I really enjoyed about Men in Black is that we did at least one creature with just about every technique I've ever used."

— Ron Magid