Oscar-winning special makeup effects pioneer Stan Winston, at left, works with his team during "Aliens." / Photo courtesy of Matt Winston.
Stan Winston’s work is still seen on TV everyday. The monsters, robots and dinosaurs that run amok on cable are part of his legacy of pioneering special makeup effects. Stan would have turned 75 in April, but he remains with film fans, and with his son, Matt.
Aliens, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, and many others bear the distinctive marks of his work. For it, Stan Winston won four Oscars, two Primetime Emmys, and three BAFTA Film Awards. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And he’s influenced two generations of special effects artists.
Matt is co-founder of the family-run company, Stan Winston School of Character Arts. The school was founded in 2009, launched to the public in 2012 and now run by the family. Matt is also an actor and has appeared in multiple movies and TV shows – including New Nightmare, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, and Star Trek: Enterprise.
Stan Winston died in 2008 at the age of 62. Halloween Every Night had a chat with Matt to celebrate Stan’s 75th birthday.
Halloween Every Night: And how well would you say the school represents your dad’s legacy?
Matt Winston: We hope, as Stan’s family, that the school does a very good job representing his legacy, or he’ll be very mad with us, and he’ll come back and haunt us as some animatronic creature, so we have to do a good job. That has been the big challenge of this. Stan left a stirling brand when he passed away. Just the pinnacle of quality and creativity and energy. We knew that if we were going to do anything to honor his name and his spirit, it had to be of high quality. So we think we’re doing a good job, but every day we ask ourselves ‘How can we do even better?’ – because that’s what Stan did with Stan Winston Studio.
HEN: What’s the first memory that you had of what your dad did for a living? And what did you think of it? Did you like it, did you not like it?
MW: I would say one of my earliest memories of understanding what my father did for a living was – he was working at Walt Disney Studios finishing up his apprenticeship there, and I was visiting and there was this Disney parade. I think it was around Halloween time, and he had transformed Donald Duck into like a Frankenstein head, and Goofy was a vampire – and so I was very young but Dad was so proud that he had done that. And that was my first memory, and I thought it was very cool. And I always felt that way about what he did. I was always totally fascinated by it, but that was the first memory. I might’ve been about two years old.
HEN: Did he talk about work often? Did he “bring his work home”, so to speak? Did he have a shop or an office at home?
MW: Stan Winston Studio was the garage of our home for the first five or six years of its history. It was in our little garage, so work was right there and I remember always being fascinated after school or before school – going over to the lab off the garage and seeing what Dad was sculpting, seeing what he was working on. Eventually, it got too big and he moved into a separate facility, and that became an enormous thing. But it started out at home. After he left the house, you wouldn’t see one bit of evidence of what Stan did for a living in our house after he started his studio. All that – all the creature stuff was there – we didn’t have creatures around the house or anything like that. But at night, after he would come home from work – me especially – I would always ask ‘So what’d you work on today?’. I needed to hear. ‘What was the cool thing you built today?’ – so we would ask him.
HEN: So putting yourself in your dad’s position, what do you think came easily for him and what do you think he had to work hard at or struggle to work at? What did he love most about his work and what did like about it the least?
MW: So I think what Stan loved the most about his work was the opportunity to play make-believe and to create art on a daily basis. He loved creating – he loved art. Even after the studio grew so big that he couldn’t do the art himself – he had to manage this army of people – he still would go back to his office and work on personal sculptures and drawings. I would say the biggest challenge, perhaps – the time that the industry required him to be away from home at times. Going on location for a few months at a time was always very challenging for him. So that would be it – the time requirement of working in Hollywood is extreme. It’s definitely a lot of work and the hours are very long.
HEN: Did your dad struggle to find his way at the beginning? I looked on Wikipedia, and it says he wanted to be an actor at first, right? And then he had that Walt Disney makeup apprenticeship. Did it take a while for him to make his decision about what he wanted to do, makeup and special effects? What helped him make that decision?
MW: So you’re right. Stan came out to Hollywood with the dreams of becoming a famous actor. Performance was always something he loved. At the same time, from a very young age, he also loved makeup and makeup effects and all of that. So he always had those two passions going on – and when he went to University of Virginia, he was a performer in their performing troop, The Virginia Players. But he also did the makeup for the troop, so those two passions were there from the time he was a child.
When he came out to Los Angeles with no connections in the entertainment industry and no clue about how to really do it, how to become an actor was kind of beyond his skillset, and he struggled to find his way. And a certain point, the requirements of supporting a young family forced him to go ‘Ok, I need to get a steady job. I can’t support my family pursuing acting right now, so what do I do, what do I do?’ – and it was in 1968 when he saw Planet of the Apes. The original Planet of the Apes. He saw it and he goes ‘Well, maybe right now I won’t be able to be a part of Hollywood in front of the camera, but this is really cool and I love makeup and maybe I could work as a makeup artist in film.’
And so it was the original Planet of the Apes in 1968 that inspired him to pursue his other passion, which was makeup effects, as a career.
HEN: Did he like working with young artists? In particular, what was his groundbreaking work with Rob Bottin in The Thing that made that special? How important was it to him to pass knowledge on to young special effects artists?
MW: So Stan was always a major mentor to young artists. This was something that he saw Dick Smith do. The godfather of makeup, Dick Smith was one of the first to really pass along his techniques. Stan always thanked his own mentor, Bob Schiffer – the head of the Disney’s studio’s makeup department – for the mentoring he gave to Stan. And Stan did that with everyone who came into his shop. He was a father figure to many people and shared his wisdom about how to thrive in a creative industry.
And you asked a question about Rob Bottin. Well, Rob, I think, was just a little bit younger than Stan when that film was made and I want to make it very clear to anyone reading this that The Thing was Rob Bottin’s show. Stan came in to help on one effect, which was the dog thing in the kennel when that transforms. Rob was overwhelmed with all the other effects he was working on for the show, and he needed Stan’s help with just that one effect. But Rob was to Dad one of the most exciting young talents in the industry, and he really admired his work. And he always looked to inspiration for his own artists – even though he might be mentoring them – they might have a talent that was so incredible to him it might inspire him. So he always believed that we all inspire each other.
HEN: Let’s talk a little bit about Tim Burton, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg. What was your dad’s relationship with them, and what are your recollections of your dad working with those guys?
MW: Stan was absolutely inspired by all three of them, in a different way. Each one had something very unique that Stan admired. And Stan had the great honor to collaborate with all three of them multiple times because he had formed excellent relationships with them. They knew Stan would make it fun, and they knew they would get a great result and he would help them bring their film’s fantasy characters to life.
With James Cameron, he was the full package in terms of not only being a great visionary as a storyteller but also having an incredible encyclopedic knowledge of how to make a film. James Cameron knows every job on set. He can pick up the camera and film, and he can adjust the lights, and he can write it. And he would bring with the projects he collaborated with Dad on – Aliens and Terminator 2 and Avatar – Jim would bring incredible artistic ideas to the table.
Steven Spielberg – Stan always thought of him as the greatest director of all time, in terms of the scope and variety of his work. Steven Spielberg could do a big action thing, a small character piece, he could do anything. And with Steven, it was a different situation where Steven wasn’t going to be bringing sketches to Stan that he’d written but he was a great storyteller, and he could give Stan an idea of what he was looking for – give him references. But Steven always trusted all of his collaborators to do their thing. He knew they would bring something great.
Tim Burton – Stan also admired because he’s an artist. He knew what he wanted visually, and Tim’s art is very suggestive – it’s very cartoonish. So he couldn’t draw a finished Edward Scissorhands, but he did walk into the studio with a little simple cartoon of Edward Scissorhands and he was able to clearly communicate what he wanted in that way.
HEN: What do you think makes your dad’s work stand out from other special effects artists in Hollywood?
MW: I think one thing that is undeniable is the sheer audacity of the things Stan took on. No other special effects artists took on building a 14-foot-tall alien queen. Or a 40-foot-long T-rex. No one has matched it to this day. Just the audacity, the ambition of the projects he would take on. Many people did not have the guts to do that. In fact, when Steven Spielberg said ‘Ok Stan, it’s official, you’re gonna do Jurassic Park, so how you gonna build the dinosaurs?’, Stan said ‘I have no idea, but we’ll figure it out.’
The second thing that makes the work of Stan Winston Studio stand apart is the attention to detail and realism. The work that came out of that studio – whether it was based on a real animal like the Jurassic Park dinosaurs or based on a fantasy character, the level of realism and attention to detail were the same. His goal was always to convince the audience what they were seeing was absolutely real. They were looking at nature for reference.
And I would say the third thing would be that his characters, unlike most other effects studios, went on to become iconic stars. Very few special effects artists have created characters that have starred in multiple films in a franchise. Predator became the star of films, comic books, video games. The Terminator – they became a star of a franchise, video games, all of it. The Jurassic Park dinosaurs went on to star in their own franchise.
HEN: So let’s talk about you for a bit. Are you more into special effects or makeup?
MW: I am into whatever techniques come together to create an incredible illusion. Maybe that’ll be makeup, maybe that’ll be animatronic effects or puppetry with some digital augmentation. I need to believe something is real. When I watch a film and it’s supposed to be real but I know it’s not real, it takes me out of the film. I will say that if you asked me do I prefer digital effects versus practical effects, I’ll say practical effects all the time. I admire digital effects, but I love knowing something is actually on set and there. I love that feeling it gives me. Seeing the puppet Yoda in The Last Jedi, I was so excited – like they built a puppet Yoda again. Yes! So yeah, practical effects are my favorite.
HEN: Is it safe to say your dad also prefers practical effects?
MW: He would say that he loves to be fooled. He loves great magic tricks. He’s known certainly primarily for his practical work even though he co-founded one of the world’s biggest digital companies, Digital Domain. He loved digital effects and what they were capable of. He became famous for and known for his work in practical effects because he was more of a hands-on creator guy who liked to get his fingers dirty. Yes, practical effects were certainly Stan’s preference as well.
HEN: Did you ever have feelings of pressure from being Stan Winston’s son?
MW: Oh sure, being Stan Winston’s son brings plenty of pressure. When anyone’s parent has achieved great things in life, there’s pressure to live up to that. How I look at it is I’m just thankful I was raised by such an inspiring man, and my journey is my journey. I’ll never be Stan. I’ll never be what he was. I’ll be Matt, and I’ll be the best version of me I can be. But certainly, there’s pluses and minuses. But the pluses far outweigh the minuses.
HEN: So I looked it up and you were a puppeteer on Jurassic Park, right?
MW: Yes, I was.
HEN: What was that experience like for you? Was it surreal working with your dad on such a huge project?
MW: I worked for three months on that movie. He put me on every dinosaur crew, so I was at Universal puppeteering dinosaurs on set with Steven Spielberg and my dad for months and it was incredible. And every member of his team felt the same way. It was like ‘Oh my gosh. We get to bring dinosaurs to life for the first time in Hollywood history. This is unbelievable.’ And it was an absolute joy to work on that film, and everyone on it had that same energy of ‘Wow, we’re making something big and groundbreaking here, and will it work? Will it really work?’ And I remember the relief all of us puppeteers felt when we saw it when it opened, and we went ‘Ok we did it’ – and that was just dream come true experience, for sure.
HEN: Are there any moments in the film where the dinosaur is moving and you’re like “That’s me! I moved that!”?
MW: I worked on all the raptor scenes and there’s a scene when they first come into the kitchen and they’re there, and I was always the left arm. So whenever you see a raptor’s left arm doing something, that’s me! And Mitch Coughlin – another artist – he did the right arm. And then on the spitter, I was also the spitter’s left arm.
HEN: So it sounds like you and your dad were close. What is the most meaningful thing that your dad gave you?
MW: I would say the most meaningful thing he gave me were a couple things. Number one – love of family. As hard he worked, he was a family man and family meant everything to him, and we felt that from him.
Number two would be the advice he gave my sister, Debbie, and I all the time – which was “Do what you love, and success will come” – and I thank him for that.
HEN: Has your dad ever talked to you about what some of his favorite creations were? And what are some of your favorite creations that he’s made?
MW: I know he absolutely loved what he and his team did for Jurassic Park, but the T-rex especially – he was so proud of what they achieved on a technical level at such a scale to create a living, breathing actor that size. He also was incredibly proud of what he and the team pulled off with the alien queen. That puppet was really special and he was so proud of how that worked and he gives so much credit to James Cameron for working with him to devise how they would do that. And I know he also loved his own baby, Pumpkinhead. That was his directorial debut – and while Pumpkinhead is not nearly as large as the T-rex or Predator franchises or any of that, he did co-write that story and directed it and Pumpkinhead always had a special place in his heart and that creature came off really well on film. But he loved all of his creatures for different reasons.
What’s my favorite? T-rex from the first Jurassic Park. Hands down, that was it.
HEN: That’s my favorite, too.
MW: Hard to beat it.
HEN: So for everyone wanting to go into makeup, filmmaking, wanting to do special effects. They’re gonna want to know more about Stan Winston School. So what other special effects schools would you consider similar and what makes this school stand out among all those other schools?
MW: In terms of the breadth of what we offer and the fact that we are online, there’s no school that compares to us, online. There are effects schools out there – physical schools and I’m not gonna play favorites right now. But we’re big believers that art school education is extremely expensive, an in-person art school education. And in a lot of cases, you can save some money and learn online and spend all that money on materials and tools and learn by doing, by making your own stuff, and in fact, I would say 95% of Hollywood artists didn’t go to college. Stan went to college, and he’s very thankful he did, and we encourage everyone to go to college. An art school degree is not required to work in Hollywood. What’s required is talent and passion.
So Stan Winston School offers the opportunity at a tiny fraction of what it would cost to go to physical art school. With us, you have the opportunity to learn from the top working professionals in Hollywood for very little money, on your own time, at your own pace. You can stop. You can rewind. And then you spend all that money you saved on setting up a little home workshop and start building stuff. And for anyone interested in creating characters of any kind, we have something for you. It’s not just makeup. It’s not just puppets. It’s anything that’s a character all the way from the beginnings – illustration, design, through to sculpture in both digital and traditional modes, moving through the process of molding and casting and fabrication and lab work and painting and finishing and performance and all of it. So that’s what we offer to a global classroom at a very reasonable cost and we know that anyone reading this interview will find something to inspire their creative side, if they checked it out.
HEN: If you could say anything to your dad if he could be here for his 75th, what would you say?
MW: I would say thank you, Stan, for the inspiration you gave us all. We hope the work we’re doing to keep your legacy alive makes you proud. We love you.