Carlo Rambaldi, Italian Effects Master Behind 'E.T.,' Dies at 86

Carlo Rambaldi Headshot - P 2012
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Carlo Rambaldi Headshot - P 2012

Rambaldi, whose work also includes "Alien" and "King Kong," won three Oscars using robotics and makeup. But his career began to suffer with the rise of computerized effects.

LOCARNO, Switzerland – Carlo Rambaldi, the Italian special effects wizard behind Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and the 1976 version of King Kong from John Guillermin, died Friday at the age of 86, the Italian media reported.

Rambaldi, a three-time Oscar winner, had been living in the southern Italian city of Lemezia Terme, where he died Friday after a long illness. Further details about his passing were not immediately available.

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Rambaldi was born in the northern village of Vigarano Mainarda in Emilia-Romagna in 1925, where he was graduated from Bologna’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1951 with intentions of becoming a painter. But six years later, he was asked to create a dragon for the low-budget fantasy film Sigfredo, directed by early Italian film pioneer Giacomo Gentilomo. Enamored with the medium, Rimbaldi moved to Rome and stayed in the world of cinema.

Rambaldi worked in Italy during the Golden Era of Italian films that lasted into the 1970s. In 1971, he had the unlikely distinction of becoming the first special effects specialist required to prove that his work was not “real,” when Italian magistrates prosecuted Lucio Fulci, the director of a film called Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) for animal cruelty in connection with bloody dog mutilation scenes. Rambaldi famously illustrated his special effects techniques to a judge, garnering headlines for his talents and sparing Fulci a two-year prison term.

Eventually, he caught the attention of famed Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, who brought him to the U.S. to work on King Kong. Within a few years, he made a name for himself in Hollywood, where he also played key roles in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Richard Fleischer’s Conan the Destroyer and David Lynch’s Dune, both in 1984.

Rambaldi won a special achievement Oscar in 1977 for King Kong, before the Oscar for special effects existed. Once the category was created, he won it twice: in 1980 for Alien and three years later for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the film he remained best known for.

“Carlo Rambaldi was E.T.’s Geppetto,” Corriera della Sera quoted Spielberg as saying, a reference to Pinocchio’s mythological creator.

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Rambaldi’s role in films, in which he created robots and puppets and used makeup on actors, started to diminish with the rise of computer graphics. He never hid his disdain for computerized effects in film.

“Digital effects cost around eight times as much as mechatronics,” the newspaper La Repubblica quoted Rambaldi as saying. “Effects on E.T. cost $1 million and took three months. If we wanted to do the same thing with computers, it would take more than two hundred people and five months.”

Jeffrey Okun, the chair of the Visual Effects Society, remembered Rambaldi in a statement sent to THR Friday.

"While I never met Mr. Rambaldi, I know I speak for the entire Society when I say that the lifelike breakthrough puppeted alien he created for E.T. significantly raised the bar for all creatures, including what would become CG created creatures," Okun said. "His ability to inject emotion into plastic and metal still stands as a monument to what is possible.... His talent was immense and he will be missed, but his legacy and challenge will live on."