RIP Carlo Rambaldi: Farewell To ET's Puppet Master

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. Here's my tribute to the late puppet master.
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When I was fourteen years old, I started making a monthly pilgrimage into Sheffield. There was only one bus that passed through our village, and a return trip into town took the best part of two hours. From the bus terminal, it was another twenty-minute walk to a dusty little comic shop that was the sole reason for my journey. In the late eighties, this was the only place where I could buy the latest edition of Fangoria – the horror movie bible.

Whereas other film publications were happy to run PR-approved puff pieces about the stars whose names appeared above the film’s title, Fangoria had a different view of what constituted A-list talent. For film fans like me, the names that got us excited weren’t to be seen on the red carpet at premieres. Instead, they toiled away in sweaty workshops, working around the clock in unwashed Iron Maiden wife-beaters, attempting to perfect the perfect exploding head.

We were the ones who went to see Total Recall, not for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but for Rob Bottin. And the promise of ‘Screaming Mad’ George was far more likely to entice us to see the next Elm Street sequel, rather than another anonymous parade of photogenic finger-blade fodder.

As we pored over page after page of details about how these illusionists learned and perfected their craft, the same three names cropped up again and again. These were the legends 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 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.

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

By the mid-seventies, Rambaldi had followed his fellow countryman, and uber-mogul, Dino De Laurentiis to Hollywood. His life-size animatronic King Kong demonstrated the scale of his ambition, limited only by the available technology at the time. Although the full-scale ape was something of a cinematic banana skin, the fully articulated head and hands he created for close-ups with Jessica Lange remain convincing, even today. 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.

However, Rambaldi’s greatest contributions to cinema came about as a result of a short but effective collaboration with Steven Spielberg. 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.

Five years later, when Spielberg once again began watching the skies, Carlo found himself responsible for the star of the show, rather than the special cameo appearances. 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 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.

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