Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Yet Another Sad Day, This Time For Nerds And Film Buffs

The first bit of news I heard today was that Stan Winston, animatronics pioneer and monster/alien design genius, has sadly passed away. While yesterday's sad news about Esbjörn Svensson upset me as I had only just discovered his music, this hits me differently. There is no way I could accurately quantify the effect Winston's incomparable work has affected my psyche, as his golden period covered my adolescence, during which time my mind was boggled by Aliens, Predator, Terminator, and many others. My God, I even went to see George P. Cosmatos' risible Leviathan just because I knew he had worked on it.

Like many people, my bedroom wall was covered with posters and movie stills when I was younger, and my favourites were the ones showing his designs. The Predator, possibly his most imaginative creation, burned a hole into my head, though credit should be given to John McTiernan for leaving the final reveal of the alien's hideous visage until the end of the movie. Those tiny glimpses of the creature's real face, followed by a slow unveiling of the actual face, are hilariously retained in later Predator movies, even though we now all know what it looks like. Still, familiarity has not made that design any less impressive, a real classic fit to stand alongside H.R. Giger's nightmarish Alien design. Speaking of which, further kudos are due Winston, for managing to adapt that biomorphic image and create the Queen from James Cameron's Aliens. Not only is it a beautiful adaptation of the original design, but the animatronic realisation of it is even more impressive. The final fight with Ripley in the powerloader is utterly convincing. When I was a teenager, that scene fried my mind to a charred crisp. Look at the damn thing! BTW, the image on the right is of the evil Sarris from Galaxy Quest, a hugely complicated combination of costume and animatronics. Can you believe that underneath all of that is Robin Sachs, aka Ethan Rayne from Buffy?

In much the same way that the Universal monster movies inspired a generation of filmmakers, Winston's creations seemed to appear in almost every significant movie of my childhood, existing as an alternate universe supergroup of monsters, aliens, robots, undead serial killers, and demons. His monsters either enhanced good movies (Terminator, Predator), or were the best thing about bad movies (his bizarre brain creature and backwards walking Martians from Tobe Hooper's Invaders From Mars remake were way better than everything else in it). I always thought of those creatures (or should I say characters) existing in parallel in much the same way Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster did years before. Considering the proliferation of material written since then, with those characters facing off against each other, I know I'm not the only one. Of course, Winston also got a crack at paying homage to those Universal monsters with Fred Dekker and Shane Black's hugely entertaining Monster Squad, which was nicely circular. Check out the amazing Gillman design (on the left, with the Martian Intelligence from Invaders From Mars on the right). Just gorgeous.

While some of his work was dramatic and vivid, he could also be more subtle. He did animatronic animals that were utterly convincing (the lions in The Ghost and The Darkness, as well as the apes in Congo and Instinct) or playful (the mischievous mouse in Mousehunt). That of course led to his studio making the incredible dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies, which are often sadly overlooked when people discuss the admittedly impressive CGI FX in that trilogy. How cool would it have been to see his work on the long-rumoured Jurassic Park Meets The Dirty Dozen, with humans interacting with commando-saurs? He was also responsible for one of the most affecting non-monster images of recent times; poor Edward Scissorhands, the Emo King, with his bladey hands and scarred face. So basically, Stan Winston has made me laugh, cringe, hide behind my hands, put me on the edge of my seat, and also made me cry. That's good going. (Eddie Scissormitts is seen here with the nasty Pumpkinhead, who appeared in Winston's directorial debut.)

With CGI now almost ubiquitous and demand for animatronic creatures seemingly dropping, Winston Studios has had to branch out into producing, though he was still working on set even while suffering from myeloma. His recent Iron Man suit (designed, if I recall correctly, with Adi Granov) was so lovely I have lost probably hours of my life just staring at it. He has also done some work on James Cameron's Avatar, so we still have that to look forward to. I can imagine his team of FX experts (some of whom have been working with him for twenty five years now) will be able to carry on his legacy, as long as there is a call for real world effects or character designs, but that doesn't remove the sadness. Ain't It Cool News is receiving tributes from some of Winston's colleagues, including one from James Cameron that deeply upset me this morning. Forgive me for seemingly losing my sense of perspective, but as a film buff, and a nerd, and as someone who once was lifted out of himself by the incredible vision of the man, Winston's death is a hugely significant and upsetting event. He will truly be missed.

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