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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.

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.

  • King Kong: Spectacle-loving producer Dino De Laurentiis brought Rambaldi to Hollywood in the mid-1970s after admiring his work on the 1975 Italian horror film Deep Red, to create an immense ape that was realistic enough to have frightened moviegoers crawl under their seats. Rambaldi didn't let him down. As King Kong aficionado John Michlig has pointed out, the nearly-40-foot-tall $1.7 million robot, which took 20 lever-pulling technicians to operate, not only could walk and move its mouth and eyes, but had arms capable of 16 different positions.
  • Alien: The monster's hideous features actually were crafted by avant garde fantasy artist H.R. Giger, but it was Rambaldi whose genius actually enabled them to move.
  • Silver Bullet: Producer De Laurentiis initially hated Rambaldi's werewolf suit, but it turned out to be the best thing in an otherwise forgettable mid-1980s adaptation of a Stephen King novella. 
  • Dune: David Lynch's mid-1980s sci-fi epic was panned by critics, but Rambaldi's giant sandworms were horrifyingly vivid. 
  • E.T.: The gentle, childlike visitor from space probably was Rambaldi's masterwork. To bring the character to life, Rambaldi created three different robots, plus two costumes worn by actors in the scenes in which E.T. walked.
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