Stan the Man

Over the last few weeks, the entertainment industry lost some giants.

Last week, we learned that Geoge Carlin had shuffled off this mortal coil. Though he would probably scoff at the kind words being thrown his way (His famous retort to anyone offering bereavement support – “You want to help? Fine, why don’t you come over tomorrow and paint the garage.”) – I decided that he made me laugh (and think) enough in my lifetime to warrant a few words of remembrance. Look for that later this week.

Simply because he passed on first, today I decided to pay my tribute to Stan Winston, the great makeup artist and creature effects wizard who engineered some of the most beautiful beasties Hollywood ever set loose upon my fragile psyche.

Now, I’m a huge movie buff. Everyone knows it. What this means is that I don’t just catch a flick. I also read all about ‘em. I devour entertainment magazines, visit the trades (Variety, Hollywood Reporter) on a daily basis, hit the rumor sites (Ain’t It Cool, CHUD, Dark Horizons) and sit through most credit sequences. When you live and breathe the rarified air of film you get to know the names and faces of the vast menagerie of craftspeople that toil their hardest to put on a show.

But, I understand that for most people, it’s hard enough remembering Character Actor names let alone Screenwriters, Cinematographers, Directors and Second Unit Assistant Key Grips (my fave is Boze Wilkins).

That said, there are those who rise from the ranks of the invisible buoyed by the excellence of their craft. Those whose talents so draw upon an infinite, intimate well of creativity that they’d be hard-pressed to toil for too long in the shadows without ever being noticed.

Stan Winston was that guy. Here is a makeup and creature effects wizard who in a mostly obscure field, became somewhat of a household name. Even if you didn’t know who created the creatures, you could easily pick his rogue’s gallery of phantasms out of a dark alley.

The Terminator. The Alien Queen. The Predator. The T-Rex. These are just some of Stan’s babies.

What was great about Winston was he was able to father indelible creations (made of real-world fabric and glue) that felt more alive than most CGI monstrosities. And when CGI inevitably forced his hand, his real-world models would effortlessly segueway to the animated showpiece to the point where it became hard to discern what was virtual and what was Stan’s creation. Case in point – the Jurassic Park dinos. By the time, the T-Rex busts loose and gobbles that lawyer, you believe the fantasy. Just think back to that head dropping down at Explorer level and that eye opening and taking a gander at a frightened Joseph Mazzello. From there, we bought it. Somehow, Winston had harnessed DNA from amber and brought these dinos kicking and screaming to life.

The excellence of Stan’s models inspired the CGI artists to dream and draw better – to equal Stan’s quality to the point where the mind’s eye was fooled. The same can be said about his work on the Iron Man suit. It’s hard to tell which effects are practical and which are computer-generated. Robert Downey Jr. said it best – “Yeah, I can fly.” And Winston gave him the wings.

Anyway, Stan Winston sadly passed away on Sunday June 15th at his home near Hollywood, CA. He had worked with the greats (Spielberg and Cameron among others) and all had come out to pay tribute to his great work and shining soul.

I, of course, never met Stan but I am strongly acquainted with his children.

To me, this is what defines Stan Winston’s greatness. The second you saw his name in the opening credits (or even better: Creature Effects – Stan Winston) you perked up. It didn’t matter how the rest of the film ended up, you knew that somewhere in there you were going to get a tasty treat served up by the master chef. His creature designs were delicious.

Think about it, aside from Rick Baker, how many makeup-effects guys carry that instant name recognition? As I said, I’m a huge movie fan so I could rattle off a few, but Winston is arguably a God of Geek cinema.

And from reading a recent Ain’t It Cool News tribute (that invited a number of industry luminaries to wax nostalgic on their lost friend), it’s nice to see what a genuine human being he was. While the James Cameron and Steven Spielberg tributes were excellent, I was struck by the lesser known director Jonathan Liebesman’s (Darkness Falls) account of his unsure, fledgling steps as a first-time director that were propped up by Winston’s genial, professional rapport with him.

“You like what you see, boss?”

I liked what I saw (even if it was sometimes peeped through hand-covered eyes). Winston’s creations haunted my nightmares.

They truly are the stuff dreams are made of.