When Hollywood special effects wizard Stan Winston died from cancer at age 62 on Sunday, the film industry lost one of its most revered alums of old-school craftsmanship.
Winston’s Oscar-winning achievements in the realm of “practical” effects -- analog artistry such as creature building and otherworldly makeup -- encompassed everything from the killer cyborgs of “Terminator 2" to the monstrous queen of “Aliens” to the full-scale animatronic dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park.” Other signature credits included “Predator,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “A.I.” and, most recently, the high-tech armor of “Iron Man.” Among the Comic-Con crowd, Winston was a brand name as recognizable as Lucas, Spielberg and Cameron.
Inevitably, Winston’s passing puts a new, sharper focus on frequently glossed-over industry debate about the place of practical work in today’s digitally dominated effects landscape. For all the hype surrounding the computer-generated creatures of such movies as “The Incredible Hulk” or “Prince Caspian,” a number of filmmakers readily voice their continued creative preference for the tactile experience offered by Winston and his colleagues. And that’s to say nothing of backlash from moviegoers turned jaded by the digital leaps of the past decade, with hard-core “Indiana Jones” fans even grousing about how “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” betrayed the franchise’s vintage aesthetic with its reliance on computers.
So just how unevenly weighted is the balance between disciplines at this point exactly? Is there a certain danger of Winston’s art being lost along with him? “I think a lot of filmmakers have a love-hate relationship with CG,” says director Jonathan Mostow, who worked with Winston on “Terminator 3.” “It makes anything you can imagine possible, but you have to surrender a degree of control to legions of computer technicians, many of whom you may never meet.”
An unheralded, vital part of Winston’s legacy, adds Mostow, was his willingness to adapt his craft -- at times a real tonic for directors feeling creative unease on the digital side. When “T3" called for the requisite shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg with the flesh peeled away from his steely skull, Winston conjured the old makeup magic, but this time with green patches inserted as “blanks” for digital artists to fill in later.
“Stan really embraced the digital revolution and felt that the more photo-realism he could provide, practically, in front of the camera, the more it forced artists at their workstations to up their game and match that,” says Mostow. “You never felt that he was trying to sell you the prosthetic or makeup solution to a problem -- he was always just trying to advocate what would look best on screen.”
Look for more of the same on Winston’s final film, the currently shooting “Terminator Salvation.”
“You never want to say, ‘Hey, let’s just put a data suit on our performer and we’ll fill it all in,’ ” says “Salvation” director McG. “That’s something that Stan and I really bonded over, getting that tactile quality and the physics of machines in combat.”
“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau traces what he feels is the current over-reliance on CG to, ironically, one of Winston’s career highlights. “People walked away from ‘Jurassic Park’ thinking, ‘OK, let’s just use computers for everything now,’ ” he says. “What they didn’t get, and I had a lot of conversations with Stan about this, was that it was a combination of skilled professionals in different media.
“We tried to emulate that with ‘Iron Man,’ ” he says. “We tried to strike a balance between Stan’s suit and the CG so that the audience couldn’t tell from shot to shot what they were looking at. That’s what was so wonderful about his work on ‘Jurassic.’ I’m not a Luddite, but I also don’t think you unroll linoleum over a perfectly good wood floor. And I feel like that’s what filmmakers have done -- they haven’t used CG effectively or responsibly.”
Tim Burton enlisted Winston to create Johnny Depp’s “Edward Scissorhands” prosthetics, Danny DeVito’s Penguin makeup in “Batman Returns” and effects for the tall-tale fantasy “Big Fish.” Looking back on their early collaborations, Burton says he’d do it all the same way today. “Technology wouldn’t change a project like ‘Scissorhands,’ ” he says. “Working with Stan on that, you felt as close as you could to watching [pioneering makeup artist] Jack Pierce create Frankenstein, and that energy rubbed off on everybody. There’ll always be projects like that, projects that you just don’t think of in digital terms, even though things have obviously moved in [that] direction.”
Regardless, Mostow says, Winston’s influence is simply too far-reaching for his brand of movie magic to face any real threat of obsolescence.
“Almost anybody who does creature work or effects makeup has worked for Stan or his proteges at some point,” he says. “His way of thinking pervades that whole part of the business, and I can’t think of another craft that you can say that about.”
“We’re not going to lose the craft,” agrees McG, who plans to dedicate the new “Terminator” to Winston’s memory. “I know a lot of people who served as Stan’s understudies, and they get [his passions]. Everyone wants to carry that DNA on forward.”