Make-up, animatronics and effects legend Stan Winston passed away on Sunday at the too-young age of 62. In memoriam, Cinematical humbly presents this list of the man's most enduring achievements.
Some of my most treasured movie memories -- childhood and otherwise -- are courtesy of Stan Winston. What impressed me about this list as I was making it was that Winston specialized in realizing the imaginations of our greatest filmmakers -- directors like Burton, Spielberg, Cameron. Winston was a genius himself, of course, but he also facilitated genius, and that's just as important. Those guys owe him so much.
He had many accomplishments beyond the ones I've listed. That's what the comment thread is for.
1. Jurassic Park's Dinosaurs.
It's hard to describe the impression Jurassic Park made back in 1993. I was 9 years old, which was just old enough to be properly amazed. This was the new generation of popular cinema: perfect, lifelike wonders on the screen as if it were the most natural thing on the planet. Earlier technicians did a lot with simple puppetry, stop-motion and miniatures, but now all bets were off, and all barriers seemed lifted. Once you accepted the scientific goofiness of the film's premise, no further suspension of disbelief was necessary. Winston opened the gates to a whole new cinematic playground.
2. Edward Scissorhands
A pasty dude with scissors for hands. What? That's stupid. Just don't tell that to Winston, Tim Burton or Johnny Depp, who teamed up to turn the silly concept into a heartbreaking, dead-serious fairytale and one of my favorite films of all time. Rather than frightening or impressive, Edward is damaged, mangled and pathetic, and Winston makes his scissorhands as expressive as Depp's big, soulful peepers. Like the best effects, these aren't calculated to awe or impress, but rather to hone and sharpen the filmmaker's vision.
3. The Penguin, Batman Returns
Last week I put together a list of the seven best superhero and supervillain casting decisions, and I wound up including Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman Returns. (Many of you yelled at me for not including Jack Nicholson as the Joker instead, but too bad.) DeVito is great, no doubt. But his performance peeks out from behind the sad and scary façade that Winston constructed. The sight of that awful creature standing there in a top hat and fur coat, bellowing "A Penguin is a bird that cannot fly! I am a man! I have a name!", is one of the most memorable images in comic book moviedom. No amount of CGI could have created it.
4. A.I.'s Cyborgs
The challenge here was actually similar to Winston's task in Spielberg's Jurassic Park. A.I.'s wasn't a stylized fantasy world like the ones in Burton's films. Instead, the idea was that, some years in the future, robots had become a normal and unquestioned part of our world. They looked like us and talked like us, mostly; they just occasionally opened up to reveal moving metal parts. And that they did, seamlessly. We believed absolutely that Jude Law, Haley Joel Osment, and countless others, were flesh over metal. This is another of my favorite movies in the world; there's so much to treasure in it that I rarely even think of Winston's work when I watch. And that's the way he would have wanted it.
5. The Terminator(s)
The only thing I have to say to make this appropriately impressive is that James Cameron's original Terminator was made in 1984. I mean, holy crap. That inhuman metal thing crawling after Linda Hamilton at the end still haunts my dreams. No amount of CGI, etc. Seven years later, in Judgment Day, Winston's practical effects would combine with some groundbreaking digital work by ILM to make something even scarier, but that damn Schwarzenegger robot from '84 holds his own against the T-1000. (I think that screenshot in the collage may be from Terminator 2, but I had trouble finding a good one from the original.)
6. The Alien Queen, from Aliens
Hey, it's James Cameron again, with one of the scariest, most unrelentingly intense movies of all time. It owes its horrifying finale to Winston's alien queen protecting her egg chamber, an all-practical creation that took an elaborate set-up of hydraulics, cables, and sixteen puppeteers to operate. Dear god that thing was huge, and tangible, and real. Today it would be fluid and perfect, but it would never occupy the same space as the actors.
Yes, yes, Predator starred two future governors. But it also had one scary-ass alien and, uncommonly, an alien that actually made a weird kind of sense from an evolutionary perspective. Unlike much of the rest of this list, Predator isn't among the greatest of films, but the Predator himself is an indelible part of pop culture.
Stan Winston, 1946-2008