Universal - AFP

The New York Times reports that Carlo Rambaldi, three-time Oscar winner for special effects, has passed away in Italy at the age of 86.  His Oscars were:

  • Special Achievement Award for visual effects for his contribution to King Kong.  (The giant hands were his design.  Read more about that amazing accomplishment here.)
  • Best Effects, Visual Effects for Alien.  (His contribution, the Alien head and mouth, which was detailed enough for closeups.  The final head has about nine hundred moving parts and points of articulation, and is currently part of the collection at the Smithsonian Institution.)
  • Best Effects, Visual Effects for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  He designed E.T., which included the full figure, the head, and gloves for actors.

His résumé is long and varied.  Initially working in the Italian film industry, he made contributions to Roman epics such as “Perseus the Invincible” and “Hercules and the Princess of Troy”, creating monsters for the heroes to battle.

He contributed costume design for two Italian comic book movies, creating the signature mask for “Danger: Diabolik” and the costumes for the leather guards in “Barbarella”.  (Click to enlarge.)

Later, he worked on the hallucinogenic-themed “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin“.  He was later called to testify in Italian court, as the director, Lucio Fulci, was on trial.  In the movie, the heroine (?) encounters a room filled with live vivisectioned dogs, their hearts beating (a scene so gruesome, it was cut from the American release).  Rimbaldi and the producers had to demonstrate the special effects to the judge to prove that the suspected animal cruelty, depicted so graphically on screen, was, in fact, fake!

In addition to his award-winning work in Hollywood, Rimbaldi also worked on other well-known science-fiction movies.    Although not cited on the nomination for “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”, he designed the aliens seen at the end of the film.  For “Dune”, he designed the sandworms and space guild navigator.  (Click for behind-the-scenes reporting and production photos.)

Via Tor.com, a collection of his cinematic work:


Born in 1969, I came of age during what I would call the Golden Age of Special Effects.

I never saw the movie, but I remember the talk over Jaws, a movie featuring a mechanical shark realistic enough to convince millions of beach-goers to reconsider their vacations in the summer of 1975.  (I lived in Nebraska, so we didn’t worry too much about sharks.)  In 1977, what was once a sub-culture of conspiracy theorists, UFOs and benign aliens entered the public consciousness with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  (Right after Star Wars single-handily revived a genre moribund in dystopian dreariness.)  In 1978, I religiously watched Battlestar Galactica every Sunday I could, spending my quarters for packs of the Topps trading cards, crushing over Cassiopeia, and imitating the lifeless drone of the Cylon Centurians.  (And I still call the basestars “yo-yos”.)  On Wednesday evenings, the family would watch The Muppet Show during dinner, and every so often, The Wonderful World of Disney would show a masterpiece, or a fantastic movie like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Wizard of Oz would air.  Or the hypnotic spiral of A CBS Special Celebration would grab our attentions on Friday evenings.

Growing up, there was a never-ending run of magical cinema.  Star Wars inspired and revived a large number of movies.  Steven Spielberg produced E.T., Indiana Jones, Poltergeist, Goonies, Back to the Future, and Gremlins.  Star Trek and Superman revitalized their franchises.  Original stories such as The Black Hole and TRON, if not great stories, still enchanted with their cinematic eye candy.  Jim Henson, long a maestro of puppetry, pushed the technology forward with animatronics in Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal (and even as recently as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!)

Even when the magic curtain was pulled away in televised “making of” specials, I still marveled at the magic.  So much art and craft was involved.  Giant models were built and shot in parking lots.  Giant matte paintings on glass were used to create grandeur and scale.  Tiny stop-motion models created harrowing sequences.  Something as simple as  injecting a latex rubber and ammonia mixture into a cloud tank filled with fresh and salt water created the climatic nebula of Star Trek II.  A high-speed chase through the forest of Endor was filmed by under-clocking a movie camera and having the cinematographer stroll through a redwood forest.  Add to all this the set design, the costumes, the music, the make-up… and it was a glorious time to be a kid, when everything was new!

A video-game geek of the Arcade Era, I was seduced by computers.  Any mainstream acceptance of computers in society justified my interest.  I was first in line (not that there was a line) when War Games opened.  The same for TRON.  Or when a snippet would appear in a movie, like at the beginning of Labyrinth, or in The Last Starfighter, or the Genesis Effect, or the Time Travel sequence in Star Trek IV, or the Stained Glass from Young Sherlock Holmes.

Parallel to my video game fixation, I was also a fanatic of animation, mainlining my daily addiction with MGM and Warner Brothers straight to my optic nerves, giggling maniacally in the basement at the cartoon violence!  But then I needed more!  So I taped whatever I could find on cable, and occasionally, a local university would screen The Tournée of Animation or bring in a maestro who would explain their method and screen long-forgotten gems.  That’s how I discovered the cartoons of a small computer company, created as commercials to showcase what their computers could produce.  One of those computers was sold to Disney, which made it the heart of their CAPS animation system.  Disney used that to create mechanical and difficult scenes, from the clockwork of The Great Mouse Detective, to the ballroom of Beauty and the Beast, to the flying carpet of Aladdin.

Similarly, movie studios did the same, from adding small pieces in Future World to creating computer-generated characters such as Bit, the T-1000 Terminator, and the pseudopod of The Abyss.  Now, fully-animated computer movies are common-place, and we rarely notice motion-capture characters.

I’m not critical of computer generated imagery.  Sometimes, it’s the only interesting thing in a movie obstructed by explosions, editing, and mediocrity.  It does allow storytellers to create even more amazing and immersive worlds.  Yet, I feel something is lost from the tactile special effects used decades ago.  Just like radio and comics storytelling require the reader to fill in the blanks with one’s imagination, so does an actual on-stage effect in a two-dimensional movie supply the stucco which allows one to create a three-dimensional relief  which makes the fantasy that more real.

“Carlo Rambaldi was E.T.’s Geppetto,” Steven Spielberg recently said.  He created a high-tech puppet which came to life (and died) and yet made millions empathize with a strange, gray-skinned extra-terrestrial.  That’s magical, and that’s what makes us fans of the fantastic such fervent believers.  Maybe there are benevolent aliens out there.  Maybe a multi-ethnic crew can work to spread peace and understanding throughout the galaxy.  Perhaps Good does triumph over Evil.  Maybe dreams do come true, if only for a few hours in a darkened room.



  1. When I was a kid, before a faceless army of CGI wizards were making SFX @ computers.. there were only a few guys, like Carlo Rambaldi, who could and would deliver the shit.