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Carlo Rambaldi: In Motion Pictures, He Put the ‘Special’ in Special Effects

If you were enthralled by the diminutive, charming protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the towering ape in the 1976 remake of King Kong,  or the hideous, homicidal beast in Ridley Scott’s Alien, thank Carlo Rambaldi.

Rambaldi, a special-effects wizard who died Aug. 10 at age 86  in his native Italy, won Academy Awards for visual effects for all three of those films. Spielberg hailed Rambaldi as “E.T.’s Geppetto,” a reference to the fictional woodcarver who created Pinocchio, but Rambaldi’s skills were even more elaborate. He was perhaps the movie world’s foremost practitioner of mechatronics, a hybrid profession that uses mechanical engineering, electronics, and other disciplines to create ingenious industrial gadgetry – and, in the case of films, mechanized fantasy creatures with startlingly lifelike movements and facial expressions.

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In some ways, it’s ironic that Rambaldi, a fine-arts painter by training who got his start when he was hired in 1956 to build a dragon for an Italian low-budget fantasy flick, Sigfredo, reached his apex in the 1970s and 1980s, as computer-generated special effects were just beginning to dominate movies. As his obituary in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera noted, he was an old-school FX man who insisted that his work not only was superior to digital illusions, but cheaper.

Now all kids can create their own special effects with your home computer. Digital costs about eight times as mechatronics. E.T. has cost a million dollars, and we made “‹”‹it in three months. In the movie there are about 120 shots. If we were to accomplish the same thing with the computer it would take at least 200 people a minimum of five months.

Here are five of Rambaldi’s greatest creations.