Exclusive: “The Mechanics of Monsters: From Carlo Rambaldi to Makinarium”

“Three years ago, when I was here for King Kong,” humbly said Carlo Rambaldi at the 1980 Academy Awards, “I don’t know English, and I said ‘Thank you’. Now I learn very well English, and I say, ‘Thank you very much!'”. Carlo Rambaldi (September 15, 1925 – August 10, 2012) was an Italian special effects artist, and in many ways, a pioneer of the craft. In his 30-year-long career, Rambaldi collaborated on a great many films, some more well-known and others more obscure, with directors such as Mario Bava, Federico Fellini, Dario Argento, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg.

His efforts paid off with a total of three Academy Awards: one Special Achievement Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1977, for King Kong (1976), one for Best Visual Effects for Alien (1979) and another in the same category for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Since his death in 2012, Rambaldi’s family kickstarted the Carlo Rambaldi Cultural Foundation, whose purpose is to preserve the surviving props from his career. The Foundation is currently developing a museum, which is to be held in Vigarano Mainarda, Rambaldi’s hometown.

This early January, the Rambaldi family granted me a free ticket for their exhibit at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (Exposition Palace, ndr) in Rome, titled La Meccanica dei Mostri: da Carlo Rambaldi a Makinarium (The Mechanics of Monsters: From Carlo Rambaldi to Makinarium).

The exhibit opened with several props and paintings from Rambaldi’s early artistic years, where he experimented with puppet animation and stop-motion. Test maquettes and puppets were also on show. A roundup of set photos and concept art from several of Rambaldi’s early film credits followed, including the 50s-60s Italian Peplum productions. Those included photos and concept art of the full-size Fafnir dragon from Dragon’s Blood (1958), the full-size Medusa animatronic from Perseus Against the Monsters (1963), the aptly-named “Giant Limnophilus” from Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965), built as a full-size animatronic, and the Cyclops and other make-up and animatronic effects from the 1968 Odyssey miniseries produced by Dino De Laurentiis in collaboration with RAI. Embellishing the whole thing, there was a theater room projecting vintage documentaries with Mario Bava and Carlo Rambaldi, produced by RAI, detailing the many collaborations between the director and the special effects artist.

The exhibit segued into Rambaldi’s more well-known creations. Among other props, one of the puppet heads of the infamous doll from Deep Red (1975) was on display. A wide space was dedicated to the Rambaldi-dubbed ‘slave’ Pinocchio puppets built for Luigi Comencini’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1972), an Italian miniseries. The puppets themselves were used for tests, but did not appear in the miniseries. At Rambaldi’s unbeknownst, they were used as reference for other puppets built by Paolo Manfredia — an engineer, and Comencini’s brother-in law. A legal cause was held, which Rambaldi eventually won.

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The exhibit then introduced creations from Rambaldi’s American years, starting with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). This section was also embellished by projected footage of Rambaldi’s brief Oscar speeches, accompanied by the three Oscars he won, on display next to the projected footage. Props from Encounters included a full-size alien maquette, one of the alien animatronic skeletons, and a surviving alien stunt head, along with original concept art and blueprints of the alien puppets.

Interestingly, photos of maquettes and a concept art drawing by Rick Baker, done for the never-released Night Skies, were on display, although mislabeled as being for E.T.. When Night Skies fell out of development, Baker’s concept art, puppets, and test footage returned to the production team. By way of concept artist Ed Verreaux, the design transitioned into the friendlier face of E.T., which was conceptually finalized and then brought to life by Carlo Rambaldi and his special effects team.

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Rambaldi’s concept drawings for E.T. occupied a large space in this section, going from the concepts showcasing the range of facial emotions to the illustrations implementing elements from Rambaldi’s pet cat, to illustrations detailing how the mechanic elements would work, to blueprints. Many original puppets from E.T. were featured, including the full mechanical skeleton of one of the hero puppets, several puppet skins and armatures, the puppet portraying the withered E.T., and more. Production photos of the puppets under construction were also on display.

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The largest space of the exhibit held a variety of concept drawings, illustrations and maquettes, blueprints and props from King Kong (1976) and King Kong Lives (1986), the less-than-known sequel to Guillermin’s film, for which Rambaldi directed the construction of suits and animatronics portraying the three simian characters — Kong himself, Lady Kong, and a baby Kong. Props on display included the baby Kong suit (held in a wooden crate), and the lady Kong suit.

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The highlight of this section was the full-size Kong arm built for King Kong Lives, though mislabeled as being one of the arms devised for Kong ’76. The two full-size arms built by Glen Robinson and his team for the Guillermin film, operated hydraulically, did not survive for long after production, and by the time of King Kong Lives, their mechanical skeletons were rotting away; a new cable-operated forearm was created by Rambaldi’s team. William Bryan, a crewmember on King Kong Lives, confimed the prop’s identity. He told Monster Legacy in exclusive: “I sculpted a thumb, two fingers, a palm and back of hand — in 1986 — then had it molded and cast in latex and fiberglass, then rolled up and shipped from CA to NC — to get me off of Carlo’s payroll and onto production’s — where I unrolled them, stuffed them with hemp, re-molded them, cast up enough pieces for two giant apes, then assembled the parts.”

Allegedly, the mechanical skeleton of one of the Kong ’76 arms was recently obtained by the Academy Museum, and is currently undergoing restoration for display.

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The Kong section was followed by production pictures and set photos from White Buffalo (1977), for which Rambaldi built full-size buffalo animatronics with life-like galloping motion. Only one prop from Alien (1979) was at the exhibit: a surviving stunt head, partially restored with somewhat pointy fangs in place of the missing signature inner jaw. Along with it, an original mockup of the head’s main functions was also there.

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A surprisingly large space was dedicated to one of Rambaldi’s lesser known projects — the Japanese film Rex (1993), for which the artist and his team built a variety of props, ranging from full-size animatronics to hand puppets. Many full-size puppets, including a restored nest set, were on display. A separate room projected a behind-the-scenes documentary on the special effects work of Makinarium for various productions, including Tale of Tales.

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Following Rex was a small section entirely dedicated to David Lynch’s Dune, ending the main exhibit on a high note. As a long-time enthusiast of the film and its creatures, this was the real showstopper for me. Projected set photos from Dune and other films (among which King Kong, Conan the Destroyer and White Buffalo) were surrounded by one of the small-scale Guild Navigator puppets, two hero Sandworms, and a number of stunt Sandworms.

The exhibit lacked mention of some of the effects maestro’s work – notably, Possession (1981) and Silver Bullet (1983), with Conan the Destroyer‘s Dagoth only receiving a passing cameo in one of the aforementioned slideshows.

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Outside the main exhibit, some more of Rambaldi’s work was showed, including an unnamed devil character from the early ’70s. This already showcased some defining characteristics of Carlo’s sculpting aesthetic. Another surprise was the surviving troll suit from Cat’s Eye (1985), accompanied by one of Rambaldi’s original concept drawings. Definitely not a prop I expected to be in (mostly) one piece!

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Another surprise was in a separate room, which hosted more than a dozen warrior costumes devised by Rambaldi and his team for the cult sci-fi film Barbarella (1968), all preserved in remarkable conditions and with a suggestive light display.

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The coda to the exhibit dedicated large space to concept art, maquettes and props created by the team at Makinarium, an Italian special effects house that has also worked on international productions. Highlights included one of the Flea puppets from Tale of Tales (complete with the small Flea’s carriage as seen in the film) and a disembodied limb of the full-size Water Dragon prop devised for the same film. The animatronic beating dragon heart was also present, along with the decapitated orc’s head. The orc’s make-up appliances for head and arms were on display as well.

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An interesting piece from Tale of Tales was an early version of the cave creature the Queen (played by Salma Hayek) transforms into, dubbed ‘the harpy’, which went for a more make-up effects-heavy approach, as opposed to the final monster, which was brought to life with a hybrid approach employing a creature suit and green element removal.

The prototype ‘harpy’.

One of the most interesting props was not even made for a film: a sleeping baby dragon devised by Makinarium for a collaboration with Gucci, a fashion expo held in Milan in 2018.

It is heartening to know that many props from even obscure films survive to this day in some form, with people taking care and looking after them. Most of the props on display at the exhibit will be available to view at the Carlo Rambaldi museum currently in-development.

About the monster philologist

I'm always bored and monsters were the first thing to entertain me

Posted on 29/01/2020, in Monster Legacy, Monster Legacy Exclusives, Monster Legacy Specials, Movie Monsters and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Holy crap, Omega is back! Hi dude!

    This article, that museum, is amazing! The Kong Arm, the Barberella suits, a half-dissected E.T. (guess the gov did catch him!) and more. I doubt I’ll ever get to see it in person, but just knowing so many pieces still exist for these movies is great.

    • Hey mate,
      Yeah, 2019’s been a kind of hiatus for me. But I should be able to churn out something more than nothing this year 🙂

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