Total Recall

Total Recall: The Best of Stan Winston

We take a look back at the celebrated career of Hollywood's beloved creature artist.

by | June 18, 2008 | Comments

With the passing of Oscar-winning makeup and special effects artist Stan Winston, RT decided to take a closer look at one of Hollywood’s most innovative and influential behind-the-scenes figures, a man whose work changed the way that the movie industry brought special effects magic to the screen.

Stan Winston is proof, if any were needed, that dedicated, inspired craftspeople can leave as indelible a mark on movies — and audiences — as any director or actor. In his four-decade career, Winston’s work was consistently inventive. He won an Emmy for his makeup work on the TV adaptation of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman, aging Cecily Tyson 19 to 110. More recently, he helped bring Iron Man to exhilarating, vivid life. But Winston was no mere craftsman; as he once said, “I don’t do special effects. I do characters. I do creatures.” This week’s Total Recall takes stock of some of Winston’s most memorable cinematic creations, many of which have left a profound mark on the imagination.

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The Terminator (1984, 100 percent)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, 97 percent)

The first two Terminator films are perhaps the best examples of how Winston’s work changed with the times — and influenced cinematic technology to come. On the low-budget Terminator, Winston crafted the machine’s exoskeleton with puppetry and animatronics. He would use similar applications on T2, but with greater complexity, and combined with the molten, shape shifting CGI, the sequel was huge leap forward for special effects (he won two Oscars for the film, for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup). The Terminator began a fruitful partnership with James Cameron; they would work together on several more projects, and co-founded Digital Domain, a cutting edge digital effects company. He also remained close to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has referred to Winston in recent obituaries as “one of my best friends.”

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Aliens (1986, 100 percent)

Taking over the helm of the Alien franchise, James Cameron brought Winston with him. They had their work cut out for them; how do you improve on Ridley Scott’s taut, nightmarish direction and H.R. Geiger’s iconic creature? The answer: go bigger and badder. While Cameron pumped up the action, Winston created a truly terrifying expansion on the original creature: the giant alien queen, a 14-foot tall combination of frightening power and dizzying speed. Supported by a crane, and utilizing a complex system of hydraulics, cables, a pair of puppeteers brought the menacing queen to life, and, in doing so, helped to deepen the legacy of one of horror and sci-fi cinema’s most memorable monsters and picking up an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

“The special-effects specialists are featured prominently in the credits that precede Aliens, and so they should be,” wrote Walther Goodman of the New York Times. “Under the direction of James Cameron, they have put together a flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-’em-up show.”

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The Monster Squad (1987, 53 percent)

In addition to his proclivity for blood and guts, Winston made a few forays into kid-friendly territory, creating effects for Mouse Hunt and directing the Anthony Michael Hall-toplined The Adventures of a Gnome Named Gnorm. In the cult fave The Monster Squad, Winston introduced some classic cinematic creeps to a new generation. The plot involves a group of pre-teen outcasts who revel in monster movies — and become the world’s only hope when some of their supposed favorites (including Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man) start wrecking havoc. Praising Winston’s work,‘s Keith Breese wrote, “The Monster Squad combines goofy humor with real scares and genuine mystery.”

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Predator (1987, 78 percent)

In creating the Predator, Winston was inspired by a conversation with James Cameron, during which the director said he always wanted to see a creature with mandibles. Winston labored on the design, and after several false starts (including a halt in production to get the creature just right), he emerged with yet another terrifying monster. Inhabited by 7-foot actor and mime Kevin Peter Hall, the Predator suit made for one of the least friendly — and most uniquely grotesque — extraterrestrials in movie history. And as arduous as the process was, Winston picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. (As for the movie itself, it features two future governors!)

“The special effects have dated quite well, and the action scenes — shot by relative newcomer John McTiernan — work well, despite a few clunky spots,” wrote Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid.

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Pumpkinhead (1988, 53 percent)

Winston’s directorial debut tells the spooky tale of a father who, after summoning the titular demon to enact revenge against those who killed his son, learns there’s a price to be paid for his actions. Set in the Appalachian Mountains, Winston’s film blends the supernatural with fairy tales, and his bony, raptor-like creature is the stuff of nightmares. Given his duties as director, Winston delegated much of the special-effects work to others; nonetheless, he crafted a creepy morality tale whose cult has only increased with time. Rob Vaux of Flipside Movie Emporium called it “satisfying B-movie fun from effects maestro Stan Winston.”

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Leviathan (1989, 11 percent)

Even on the most middling of projects, Winston proved to be an inventive craftsman. Case in point: Leviathan, which was panned by critics for its hackneyed underwater monster-movie plot. Still, Winston labored to create a unique creature; pouring over medical books and photos of deep-sea life, he designed a baddie that fused human, octopus, lamprey, and eel characteristics. Andreas Samuelson of Slasherpool called it “forgettable and predictable, but with a good cast and some fun special effects.”

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Edward Scissorhands (1990, 90 percent)

Winston and director Tim Burton shared a taste for the macabre, so it’s little wonder the pair worked together on several films (Winston was the special effects director on Big Fish and handled the makeup on the Penguin in Batman Returns). However, it was one of Burton’s most personal projects, Edward Scissorhands, that may be the acme of their collaboration. Winston transformed Johnny Depp into one of cinema’s most poignant outcasts, and got an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup in the process.

With his pale, scarred visage, haunted eyes, and unkempt hair, “Depp is tender, affecting and, quite frankly, bloody pretty,” wrote Desson Thomson of the Washington Post.

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Jurassic Park (1993, 86 percent)

Critics had plenty of bones to pick with the plot of Jurassic Park. However, virtually no one complained about the dinosaurs — least of all audiences, who were dazzled by the film’s technical marvels. Steven Spielberg used a number of state-of-the-art methods to bring his prehistoric terrors to life, from go-motion to groundbreaking CGI. Winston was called in to create animatronic dinosaurs, and the result was uncanny. Winston received yet another Oscar for Best Visual Effects (and would be nominated again for 1997’s The Lost World. “If they didn’t look real, if you didn’t believe their skin, their flesh, their reality… no matter how good the performances were, it wouldn’t be real,” Winston said in The Making of Jurassic Park.

On that count, Winston and his crew succeeded wildly: “Jurassic Park does for live-action critters what Who Framed Roger Rabbit did for toons,” wrote Rita Kemply of the Washington Post. “In that sense, it’s a cinematic landmark.”

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Congo (1995, 20 percent)

After the revolutionary CGI/animatronics of Jurassic Park, Winston used models and puppetry for another Michael Crichton adaptation, the ape-gone-ape flick Congo (since director Frank Marshall didn’t think computers could accurately duplicate the beasts’ fur). The film fared poorly with critics (“This glib, overheated film about vicious primates delivers little suspense,” wrote Janet Maslin of the New York Times), and fanboys were disappointed with the lack of digital razzle dazzle.

However, Congo was an important film for Winston, who said his work on the movie was a learning process: “The next thing that I did was a movie called Instinct with Anthony Hopkins, which I think was the best gorillas I’ve ever scene on film, and I could never have done that movie if I had not made mistakes on Congo.”

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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001, 72 percent)

In his TV days, Winston was the makeup artist for a version of Pinocchio. So it wasn’t much of a stretch when, working on Steven Spielberg’s A.I., he was tasked with crafting animatronics that would make artificial humans as lifelike as possible. The result were a number of puppets that bridged the uncanny valley, as well as Teddy, a super toy that required five crew members to aid it in its movements. Winston’s work on the film impressed MIT scientists and the Academy, garnering his last Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Critics found the film flawed but worthy, especially on a technical level; Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune called A.I “a provocative, personal and intensely engaging picture made with big-studio resources and technical magic.”

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Iron Man (2008, 93 percent)

When the adaptation of Iron Man was first announced, Marvel Comics fans eagerly anticipated the design of Tony Stark’s super suit. Winston, a big fan of the original comics, was tasked with the job, and he delivered, creating rubber and metal versions of the Iron Man suits, as well as an eight-foot, 800-lb. animatronic version of Stark’s nemesis, Iron Monger. Though Winston’s untimely passing is deeply sad, he went out on top of his game; Iron Man is the best-reviewed wide release of 2008 so far.

“[Director Jon] Favreau has turned what might have been just another comic strip formulation into a completely engaging amalgam of storytelling, romance, performance, acrobatics and organically motivated effects,” wrote Jules Brenner of Cinema Signals.

Winston’s credits by no means end there. His effects work also includes End of Days and Galaxy Quest, and The Wiz, The Thing,Friday the 13th Part III, and Constantine partially comprise his makeup contributions. He was also working on two forthcoming films at the time of his death: Speed Demon and Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins.

Here’s a clip from one of Winston’s earliest efforts, the made-for-TV film Gargoyles:

And, finally, here’s a clip of NBA all-star Steve Nash on a tour of Winston’s studios:

For more of Stan Winston’s filmography, click here.