Memories of a Monster Maker

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FX artists pay tribute to Stan Winston

On Sunday, June 15th, the FX world and cinephiles lost pioneer Stan Winston to a seven-year battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. At 62 he leaves behind a legacy of iconic horror, sci-fi and fantasy figures each making an indelible impression on the viewer they play to, whether it’s fear (Pumpkinhead), wonder (Small Soldiers), a rush of excitement (Jurassic Park) or a touch of sadness (Edward Scissorhands).

In the spring of 1987, I remember my father picking me up from school and hustling me over to the nearest newsstand. A monster lover himself, he told me he had to show me something really cool. He picks up a copy of Fangoria – which, at 10, I wasn’t allowed to read – and flips it open to a picture of this otherworldly ass-kicker with mandibles, dreadlocks, intense beady eyes and one helluva arsenal to play with. That June, I watched the Predator in action. In the subsequent weeks, I couldn’t stop drawing this creation Winston permanently fixed into my memory.

Many, many years later I was able to tell Winston how much Predator, furthermore, Jurassic Park and Pumpkinhead made me seriously flirt with a career in FX. He jokingly chastised me for ditching my pursuit. We met at the Shrine Auditorium to talk about his Showtime series (and toy line) Creature Features. He was personable, well-spoken and carried the confidence of a sales man but never came across as cocky. And, in addition to being an amazing FX wizard, he gave a great interview. The same could be said of our second encounter at the Standard in Hollywood where he was promoting Skinwalkers, a labor of love.

News of Winston’s passing hit me late Sunday through a friend seeking confirmation. The next morning, I was weary from trying to find some solid information on the AP news wire. Solid word came, appropriately enough, while I was sitting in a chair undergoing a zombie transformation for an upcoming horror film. The solemn FX team had received a text message from someone in Winston’s shop. The next day, I tossed on Predator, the first film to make me truly appreciate the special FX craft.

A number of notable FX artists in the industry reached out to me this week to express their thoughts on Winston. How they were inspired by him. What it was like working alongside someone who realized such incredible visions.

Steve Wang (The Monster Squad, Predator): Undoubtedly people will remember Stan Winston as a prominent icon of the makeup effects industry and perhaps more. Having worked for Stan, I will always remember him as not only a mentor, but also a jokester. I want to share one of many funny stories about my working experience with Stan Winston. I feel this will give people who have never met him a small taste of whom Stan was.

I was working for him on Monster Squad back in 1986. Stan heard I was going to the post office during my lunch break. He asks me if I could mail a letter for him. I was more than happy to oblige. He gave me a dollar to cover the postage. After lunch I came back and gave Stan a change of 10 cents. Now, it’s no secret Stan is Jewish and no doubt everyone has heard of the old stereotyping of Jews as being very tight with money. Stan certainly knows this stereotype well and plays it up all time. He calls the attention of the ‘entire’ shop to which he publicly thanks me for mailing his letter, then he proceeds to tell me, very slowly and deliberately to “KEEP THE CHANGE” all the while making a show of it in good humor. The entire shop busts out in laughter and we all continue on to our work. It was good vibes knowing the boss had a sense of humor and could make fun of himself just to make us laugh. It also made us all feel closer as a team and a family.

The incredible opportunities that Stan gave me jumped started my career and I will forever be grateful to him for believing in me even when I doubted myself. Thank you Stan. You will be missed…

Greg Nicotero (KNB EFX): I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, immediately after wrapping production on Day of the Dead. The 1st film I was hired on was Invaders from Mars at Stan Winston Studios. Since he was shooting Aliens at the same time, they had a substantial crew working seven days a week. My first walk through of the shop had displays from Terminator, artwork from The Thing and designs from Aliens adorning the walls. I was thrilled to see such amazing work up close and personal and was struck by the talented artists that Stan attracted. He was a tireless showman and his studio was truly inspirational.

It was here that I met people that would change my life. Shannon Shea, Gino Crognale, to name a few. The caliber of artists that were cultivate by Stan are countless….Steve Wang, Matt Rose, Mike Trcic, Dave Nelson, of course Howard Berger and Bob Kurtzman who eventually became my partners. Stan took makeup effects and creature work to a whole new level, employing makeup, animatronics and puppet technology at the height of its popularity. It was this blend of techniques that I feel contributed dramatically to the crossover between various effects techniques even today with practical and digital creature work – always fool the audience – keep them guessing. The work in Jurassic Park literally floored me – cutting from this amazing full size T-Rex to a walking digital creature in one shot was sheer genius. Stan’s imagination and vision have left a legacy that will continue to inspire film makers and film goers for decades to come.

Robert Kurtzman (Precinct 13): I had the great pleasure and privilege of working with the Stan early in my career on Predator, Aliens and Invaders from Mars. Stan was an incredibly generous person, family man and artist who gave me the opportunity, at a very young age, to learn from him and the talented team at Stan Winston Studio. His creations inspired not only me, but a generation of artists. He was a true master of movie magic and he will never be forgotten.

Aaron Sims (Concept Artist, A.I., Constantine): I was very one of the few he told me about his condition early on. His fear was that if the industry knew he was sick, they would stop coming to us for work. So, in a way, it was a selfless act that he wanted to keep it quiet more for us than himself. He’s a warm, positive, man. No matter what. When we were not getting work, he’s always say, ‘We’ll get something, don’t worry about it.’ He was always good to be around during that time, he always took care of the guys in the shop. He had a goofy sense of humor and would catch you off guard. We were having a meeting with producers one time and he’d always have a new cell phone ringer. The day we had this meeting, and when the phone rang, it was salsa music. He just got up and started dancing. It was an intense meeting, so it broke the ice. He always knew how to deal with situations like that. He will be missed. It’s shocking to think he was gone.

Robert Hall (Almost Human FX): Stan’s untimely passing has sent shockwaves through the entire FX business at lightning speed. In 1995, I had the pleasure of working at Stan Winston Studios for a year and Stan was always supportive, positive and above all else an inspiration to anyone in his studio. My best memory of Stan was when they were doing Planet of the Apes tests (way back in ’96!) and Stan himself was wearing ape prosthetics for a video test. As I was painting something for The Relic he snuck up on me and scared the living shit out of me. His scares will be missed.

Norman Cabrera (Thirteen Ghosts, House of 1000 Corpses): I never worked with Stan, but I was very sad to hear of his death. His enthusiasm and love of movies showed in every interview I every saw of him. The work he and his very talented crew produced showed exceptional taste and skill. Although growing up I was much more obsessed by the work of Rick Baker, seeing his stuff in the pages of Fango when I was a kid was quite inspirational. It’s the end of an era, but he did leave us with a pretty impressive and influential body of work. RIP Stan.

Jason Collins (Autonomous F/X, Inc.): I’ve never had the chance to work with or for Stan Winston, yet I’ve felt his influence since I was thirteen years old. To say that he was just an artist or business owner doesn’t even begin to define what he leaves behind. The man was an institution. On a personal level I’ve been inspired by him and his iconic characters such as Aliens, Pumpkinhead and Monster Squad since I was 13 years old making my friends up and causing trouble.

One of my personal favorites has always been Edward Scissorhands, although Johnny Depp is amazing it’s tough to imagine what he would of done without Stan’s touch. I’ve always felt that he’s created characters – not just guys in suits or nicely-painted makeup. Living, breathing, iconic characters.

Since I’ve professionally started in this business, almost everyone I’ve ever worked for or with has used his company, along with Rick Baker, as a standard to reach for. He’s taken the rag-tag garage boys that would stay up all night inhaling fumes to get a job done and built them a home. He insisted on time and appropriate scheduling with production to make sure the job was done right. His business-savvy is the thing that I’ve come to respect most. None of the art that we have come to love is ever created without someone who can stand up to producers for it. Not only has he taught us to stand up for it, he taught us how to stand behind it with quality, care and professionalism. Today, as I was reorganizing my own shop I thought a lot about him. I think about how things are complicated and overwhelming whether it be client politics, organizing everything for efficiency or challenging your own skill set to become better. I think about these things and how they effect and navigate me in my decisions as we work to carve out a name for ourselves in this business and find myself in awe to think of all that Stan did. Not only do I find myself inspired by his legacy of professionalism, I think about his marriage of 30 plus years to his wife. From the outside looking in I hope to have the same stability in both my personal and work life like he did. Again, another inspiration!

Source: Ryan Rotten

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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