The Underappreciated Genius of Stan Winston

An Unreality guest post by David Rice.

Why I picked it: We love our unsung heroes here on the site, which is why our feature about overlooked actors is a big hit week to week. Stan Winston’s  behind the scenes work has touched many iconic films over the years, and David is able to show us just how far his influence has spread across classic cinema.

James Cameron. Steven Spielberg. John Carpenter. Tim Burton. These quintessential directors of the modern age are household names. Each of them has created not one, but multiple iconic characters and creatures. What’s the secret ingredient in their recipe for success? Nobody knows for sure, but there’s at least one thing they have in common: Stan Winston

Wait, who’s Stan Winston? In brief, he was a practical effects whiz, which means that his specialty was models, animatronics, and machines. It’s hard to overstate the impact that he had on movie history, so let’s start with the basics. How about a look at his five most impressive visual effects projects? We’ll kick off with a fan favorite sequel…

The Alien Queen – Aliens

You may have noticed that James Cameron likes to go big or go home. We’ve seen it lately with Avatar and Titanic, but he’s been like that since he started. The change in title from the first Alien to its follow-up Aliens only hinted at what was to come: “Like Alien, but more.” A tall order, for sure. Who did he need to help him bring this order to the screen? If you have to ask, please read the introduction again.

Stan Winston had already worked with Cameron on The Terminator. While the original Alien had simply been portrayed by an actor in a suit, Cameron’s vision would take the series to new biological extremes. Most of you probably remember the bitch herself, the Alien Queen.

We see her laying eggs, ripping androids in half, and engaging in a no-holds-barred deathmatch with a loader-wielding Ripley — with no help from any animation, CG or otherwise. Cameron handled all this brilliantly, no question, but it would have been impossible without the insanely complicated physical creation provided by Winston.

The T-1000 – Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Following in his own footsteps from the original Terminator, Winston had to work with Cameron to create a new, BETTER manhunter for the sequel. And did he ever. The liquid-metal T-1000 is iconic in its own right, and a lot of the most mindbending visuals were provided by Winston and his cronies.

Arnie blasting the T-1000’s head in half? Winston. Sarah Connor shooting a hole through its face? Winston. The frozen terminator crumbling into dust? Winston. And remember the penultimate view of the villain, a grenade having blown him in all directions right before he topples into a pit of molten lava? Yeah, you’re getting the idea.

The dawn of realistic CGI might be the big news story from this movie, but even the most cutting-edge computer graphics needed a little help from the man himself (see also: Entry #2).

Edward Scissorhands – Edward Scissorhands

Let’s take a break from the blockbusters. It’s important to remember that sometimes smaller movies live and die on their special effects, too. The title character of Edward Scissorhands is so defined by his primary physical trait that it’s part of his freakin’ name. If he looked stupid, the movie would tank. Stan Winston to the rescue!

Just think about all the things that have to work for us to believe in this unlikely character:

1. His hands have to look like they actually work.

2. They have to be believable as dangerous weapons, as well as dexterous tools.

3. A young, relatively inexperienced actor has to be able to deliver an emotionally resonant performance while using them in every single scene.

Winston brought off all this and more, thereby enabling anyone who watches this movie to believe in and cry over a man who literally has scissors for hands. Say what you will about the Alien Queen, but this is a whole different animal. Speaking of which…

The Thing – The Thing

Cards on the table: The Thing is my favorite monster movie of all time. And, as with any great monster movie, the monster was (partially) designed by Stan Winston.

John Carpenter took the idea of a creature who could turn into anybody it touched and ran with it, bringing us a monster whose very nature meant that it had no “default” appearance — it could look like anything. Instead, we only see pieces of it when a dog or man is suddenly revealed as alien. When that happens, anything goes.

Now, Winston only did one scene in this movie, but it’s a doozy. It’s the first time we see the Thing itself. In a kennel, a dog sprouts alien tentacles and legs. By the time the humans show up, what they see is some… thing that looks like little more than a blob of flesh with a wolf’s head. And it’s eating the other dogs. And then it sprouts two arms and crawls out a hole in the ceiling, except for the part of it that gets lit on fire. If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. But it’s also terrifying, and for that you can thank… yes, him again. You get the picture.

Seriously, what could possibly be more impressive than that scene? Oh, right…

Dinosaurs! – Jurassic Park

In most conversations attempting to identify the most convincing visual effects sequence of all time, it’s only a matter of time before someone mentions the scene in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex breaks loose.

Now, all due respect to the digital wizards who broke the ground with the CGI in this movie, but Stan Winston should get a good chunk of the credit on that scene (and the movie as a whole). With regard to the Rex in particular, Steven Spielberg said “[The T-Rex’s] eyes would stereo focus right on you. That was absolutely terrifying to watch.” He’s right. Watch the scene again, and tell me you don’t get a shiver when that thing turns and spots Sam Neill for the first time.

And that’s just one scene of many. Remember the raptors? The Dilophosaurus (fan lizard)? The Triceratops? By now, you should know who to thank for all that.

We’ve established Winston’s ability to bring fantasy to life, but Jurassic Park went one step farther. This was a movie about bringing real, ancient creatures to life, and Winston and his team faced an identical challenge in the process of making it. When we sat down to watch the movie, we didn’t see puppets and machines, we saw dinosaurs. Amazing, terrifying, and in the flesh. And THAT’S the genius of Stan Winston.

Now, this list could have included the likes of Iron Man, The Terminator, Predator, or any number of others. Sadly, Stan Winston died in 2008, but an astonishing number of the characters and creatures he helped create will live on for many years to come. So, which one’s your favorite?


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  1. Great article! I definitely agree. He is a part of everyone’s youth, a key figure to us nerds, yet so few people know his name. Plus anytime anyone can give props to The Thing, an angel gets it wings.

  2. Don’t do much postings on these sites, but paused to respect the genius that was Stan Winston. As practical effects have been pushed to the background by CGI, he was one of the true masters of the field and I dare say that CGI benefitted from his unique vision. Much respect, Stan, and rest in peace.

  3. Predator is and will be from him his favorite creation.

    Fun fact: The idea of Predator having mandibles came from James Cameron who suggested it to S. Winston.

  4. Much respect to Stan Winston. Love his work.

    If you’re into special effects people, you should also look up Rick Baker, the man behind the werewolf in An American Werewolf In London.

  5. My favorite movie since I was 3 years old has always been Jurassic Park, I’ve been a dino nut ever since ( just ask any of my friends what happens when dinosaurs show up on my t.v.). Thats all thanks to Stan Winston, and all the others who worked on the dinosaurs for that series.

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