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Monsters, Myths, and Magic: Stan Winston (1946 - 2008)

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Tuesday, Jun 17, 2008

In an arena where many do their job without much exposure to the limelight, Stan Winston was a God. It’s a term tossed around regularly by the geek community, but in referencing this F/X mastermind, the label definitely fit. He brought the Terminator to life, helped cement the sci-fi legacies of both Aliens and the Predator, gave Jurassic Park its non-CGI giants, and provided Edward with his scissor-hands. On the Mount Rushmore of movie magicians, he’s right up there with Smith, Harryhausen, Baker, and Bottin. And now his name is added to another, less celebrated list - those who died too young, and far too vital.


Having suffered from multiple myeloma for years, he finally succumbed to the disease on 15 June. For many, it was a total shock. Winston was not open about his health, though many in the industry did know he was battling the incurable illness. He continued to work, contributing important elements to this Summer’s Iron Man, while planning for several other projects. The best way to describe Winston’s work is ‘bio-mechanical’. While other make-up wizards found ways to imitate life, his creations took on the elements of existence, found their core of truth, and then turned them epic.


Born in Virginia, the young Winston loved anything artistic. He excelled at drawing, and enjoyed creating puppet shows for his friends. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1968 (where he studied painting and sculpture), he headed to Hollywood, looking for work as an actor. When jobs became sparse, he signed up to apprentice in Disney’s make-up department. Three years later, he opened his own company, Stan Winston Studios, and in rapid fire succession, won an Emmy for his work on Gargoyles (1973) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (which he shared with future icon Rick Baker).


Throughout the ‘70s, Winston built a substantial resume, high profile gigs as part of the production team on Roots, The Wiz, and Dead and Buried shoring up his already hefty credits. But it was the Andy Kaufman comedy Heartbeeps which brought the wizard his first Oscar buzz. Nominated for the uneven robot romp, he gained the notice of newcomer James Cameron. The directing novice was hoping Winston could create the metal machine man-assassin at the center of his radical time travel action film. The results were The Terminator, the movie that would make myths out of Winston, Cameron, and leading man (and former bodybuilder) Arnold Schwarzenegger.


After his work on the 1984 sleeper, the sky literally became the limit. Winston worked on Cameron’s update of the Aliens franchise, earned another Oscar nod for Predator, reinvented the classic Universal creatures for the cult favorite The Monster Squad, and added his touch to such marginal efforts as Leviathan, Congo, and The Relic. But it was his work on Edward Scissorhands and Terminator 2 that gained the most favor. He was acknowledged by the Academy for both (winning two statues for the latter) and it soon seemed like every horror, science fiction, or fantasy film was using Winston (or one of his many protégés) as part of their production.


Like all successful artists, he tried to branch out. He directed two feature films (the minor masterwork Pumpkinhead, and the fair family film A Gnome named Gnorm) and as a producer, he guided Wrong Turn and The Deaths of Ian Stone (among others) to the big screen. But his main passion remained make-up and special effects. Even when Jurassic Park threatened to wipe out the practical side of things with its computer generated progress, Winston found a way to make his kind of input invaluable. It was a methodology that would carry him across the next two decades.


Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are arguably his main masterpieces, films that could no exist without what Winston brought to them. It may seem hard to believe now, but everything in Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space was done practically. Puppets, rod animation, animatronics, costumes, and miniatures were utilized to bring this ultimate battle between man and extraterrestrial to life. More impressively, when CGI started to show promise, Winston proved it could be seamlessly integrated into the standard F/X catalog. It’s a lesson that few in the current realm of film false reality understand. 


In addition, Winston was a great teacher, and loved to interact with fans. He was always personable and generous at conventions, and contributed all he could when DVD gave technicians a chance to champion their craft. His loss is monumental for many reasons, and not just for the work we genre fanatics lose in the process. As science sweeps all the old school trades toward the trash bin, Winston reminded us of why the classical approach was, oft times, the best. He made changes work for him, never giving up or into the prevailing cultural conclusion. He was never one to quit, which helps explain how he battled cancer for so long. It also makes his passing that much sadder.


Indeed, what we lose when we lose someone like Stan Winston is an artform benchmark, something professionals envy while simultaneously striving for. With each master that passes away, a little less reality remains and another chapter in history is written. Winston’s death means that, maybe, one less excited teen decides to take up make-up instead of majoring in business, or one less filmmaker hires a practical artist and, instead, drops his dreams into someone’s overpriced laptop. While cinema has to go on without one of its giants, there is a larger issue involved.


Stan Winston was one of the few F/X regents in a realm where vitality meant viability. Now that he’s gone, it’s up to those he inspired to carry his spirit forward. It would be the best tribute of all to a man who reveled in realizing dreams. Thanks to him, our heroes are a little more gallant, our villains far more vile…and our movies a lot more magical.

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