Stan Winston: A Tribute

Comparing Stan Winston’s legacy to that of Cecil B. DeMille or Orson Welles might be viewed as some as being sacrilege. After all, special effects and make-up artistry is considered secondary to writing, acting or directing.

But Winston, like DeMille and Welles, was a creative genius who expanded the boundaries of his chosen field. And he excelled in the quality that makes any movie maker into a legend, he made the fantastic seem real. Winston might have lost his battle with multiple myeloma on Sunday, but Hollywood lost a true legend.

Born on April 7, 1946 in Richmond, Virginia, Winston studied art and sculpture at the University of Virginia. He came out to California in 1968 with the hopes of becoming an actor.

It is bizarre to think that if Hollywood would have been a little bit more receptive to his acting talents, his legacy might be quite a bit different. But, as it is, his road to building his legend began one year later when he became an apprentice at the makeup department at Walt Disney Studios.

Over the next 40 years, Winston developed his craft, broke out on his own and made a name for himself in the special effects world. He had one leg in the past and one leg in future, becoming a bridge from the stop-motion effects of a Ray Harryhausen and the computer generated imagery that is so prevalent today.

His multiple collaborations with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Tim Burton not only helped enhance those creators’ reputations, but also aided in creating the cultural landscape for a whole generation of moviegoers. We will take a look a several examples of Winston’s creations and the impact they had on Hollywood history.

Terminator
A killer robot from the future has to be hard to design. If it looks silly, all sense of menace is lost. In the wrong hands, the Terminator endo skeleton could have turned the Terminator from a taut sci-fi thriller to a mock-worthy, Z-grade misfire.

Winston created a robot that was truly frightening. From the glowing red eyes, the head that resembles a shiny, metallic human skull, to the perpetual grin, the Terminator was almost as terrifying when being portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger as it was in its robotic form.

What makes it even scarier is the fact that the robot looks like it could really exist. It appears logical that a humanoid robot could look and function exactly like the T-100.

Aliens
Winston didn’t design the Alien creatures for the franchise (That would be artist H.R. Giger) or work on Alien, but what he brought to the effects was enough to garner him his second Oscar nomination and his first win.

The characters had a lot more aliens to deal with in this movie, and Winston made them all come to life. Not only that, but he made the beasts seem like a serious threat to a troop of the toughest Marines Earth had to offer. Not only did the danger seem real, but the aliens did too. Again, without Winston’s work, people would have considered Aliens a franchise killer instead of the rare sequel that might actually be better than the one that came before it.

Predator:
Winston was once again faced with the awesome task of creating an alien creature who was a threat to a group of military trained commandos. However, it was more difficult this time because one of the commandos was the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

While we don’t see the alien’s face for most of the movie, when we do, the danger is made all too real. The creature was fearsomely ugly but still had a look of determination on its face that fit the character to a T.

The predator was part warrior, part gladiator and all hunter. And Winston brought all these qualities to life. Look to the right and then tell me that you don’t believe that guy could be a menace to Arnold.

Edward Scissorhands
Granted, a great deal of the success of Tim Burton’s misunderstood title character–a gentle soul perceived as a dangerous monster by the narrow minded townspeople–had to do with Johnny Depp’s nuance performance.

However, I don’t believe it is out of line to say that Stan Winston’s artistry helped out quite a bit. The hands Winston created was a chaotic bouquet of sharp blades. They look evil and menacing. The other characters not being able to look beyond these weapons to see the tortured soul attached to them becomes all too believable.

Another effects guru might not have been able to bring Burton’s vision of the character to life. Winston made it look simple.

Jurassic Park:
I am sure that many people in Hollywood’s visual effects industry saw the advent of computer generated imagery as a death knell for the way they did business. Why pay to construct models or design effects when someone at a keyboard could take it farther than you could ever imagine?

Not Stan Winston. He adapted to the new reality in Hollywood and continued to thrive. He would design effects that would mash seamlessly with the CGI to make the experience more real for audiences and actors.

This film is an example of that. He made the long dead dinosaurs come back to life. No longer would they be drawings in a science book or a skeleton in a museum, they now could run after you and make you their lunch.

Interview with a Vampire
One of my friends is a big Anne Rice fan, especially of her vampire novels. I had the opportunity to go see this film with this friend as she saw it the first time. After the movie ended, I asked her what she thought of it.

She replied, “They have translucent skin!”

Apparently, in the Rice novels, vampires have opaque skin through which veins can be clearly seen.

The makeup work on this film might be a relatively minor addition to Winston’s resume, but that comment by friend spoke volumes. His makeup work helped make the transition from page to screen that much easier, and. in the process, made a lot of hardcore Anne Rice fans happy.

Iron Man

Translating the garish costumes found in comic books to the screen is a dicey proposition. Few could pull it of, which means we often see major changes when comics are adapted to the screen.

Iron Man proved an especially tough challenge because his superhero suit was not made of cloth or spandex, it was made of iron and steel. In the wrong hands, it could look fake and unrealistic.

Once again, Winston succeeded where many others might have failed. The movie Iron Man armor was almost the exact mirror image of the comic book one. And the actual suits of armor Winston and his team created for the film helped add realism to the proceedings and worked hand in hand with the CGI to make the film’s special effects believable.

These films listed only begin to scratch the surface of the mastery Stan Winston brought to the world of special effects. His nine Oscar nominations and three Oscar wins show the respect he has garnered from inside the community. If it wasn’t for him, many summer blockbusters would seem lackluster, unbelievable situations would seem unrealistic, and the look and feel of modern movies would be greatly different. Hollywood has lost a legend in every sense of the word, and movie fans have lost someone who constantly sparked their imaginations.

About William Gatevackes 1952 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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