Remembering Stan Winston

On July 15th of last year, the Academy Award-winning visual special effects artist Stan Winston died at age 62 from multiple myeloma. For over forty years, he had been one of the best alive at makeup and prosthetic special effects. In that time, Winston garnered five Emmy nominations when he started out in television and then, in film, was eventually nominated for ten Oscars, winning four total for Aliens (visual effects), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (visual effects and makeup) and Jurassic Park (visual effects). Stan Winston even received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2001.

And some of the final films he worked on were the big action hits of last summer and this one: Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator Salvation and G.I. Joe all feature his work. Perhaps the most awaited is Avatar, his long-time collaborator James Cameron’s return to science fiction and Cameron’s first full-length non-documentary film since 1997’s Titanic. Even in the CGI-driven later work, Stan Winston knew that “what digital can’t do is help the performance of an actor or the visual understanding of a director.”

Winston’s work helped create the look for films by Steven Spielberg (AI) and Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns). Ray Harryhausen is one of the few names that can be invoked in comparison to Stan Winston’s impact on the field of movie monsters. Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man, called Winston the “king of integrating practical effects with CGI,” and director Frank Darabont said that “as revered an industry figure as he was, he was still basically the kid who loved movies and broke into the business for the magic of it, and he never let go of that attitude.”

Growing up in Arlington, Virginia, puppetry, drawing and classic horror films were his inspiration. Winston’s undergrad degree was in acting and he moved to California with dreams of playing that different type of role in the film industry. Instead of acting, he apprenticed for Disney in the early 1970s and then formed his own studio. That path led to his becoming the special effects creator and monster-maker of his generation. All of the Terminator films, the stand-alone Predators and Aliens (but not the combined ones) and the Jurassic Parks show how dedicated he was to creating creatures. His impact is so widespread that he even made a giant octopus for The Goonies that never got used in the film.

In 1988, Winston directed the film Pumpkinhead. It stands as a powerful example of his ability to create monsters. Few others could make the premise of a grinning monster with a pumpkin-shaped head look so scary. While Winston could be critiqued for being prolific enough that not every work was groundbreaking and he had a long-standing stable of people working with him so multiple projects were always being juggled, his studio stuck with makeup and animatronics because those were his expertise and those were what he loved. That commitment, alone, makes his work something that special effects fans will always miss. His companies were expanding into digital when he died and continue to do so, but he knew that combining the best of both techniques was what mattered most, saying:

Ultimately, any new technology, if used properly, should be embraced; however, I think it’s very important for people to realize what happens whenever a new technology is introduced. I think it’s a wonderful new tool to be able to use digital tools to help create magic. But, the secret is creating magic….and you don’t create magic by your audience knowing how you did your trick. The downfall is when too much digital is used.

Stan Winston’s reputation will almost certainly be that he was one of the last masters of actually building monsters, not building 3-D rendered computerized versions to be edited in after an actor performed in front of a green screen. So, on the one year anniversary of his passing, it is a great moment to remember Stan Winston…for the giant franchises and for personal favorites as varied as The Thing and The Monster Squad.

A clip of his studio building dinosaurs for Jurassic Park III can be seen here.


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