It’s a horror criticism cliché to say that “whatever a filmmaker presents you with on-screen, it won’t match what already exists within your own head’’. The overused platitude is trotted out on a regular basis to lambast directors for supposedly ‘’showing too much’’ – with the insinuation being that an antagonist is often more frightening if they remain unseen. That true horror is best left to our imaginations.
But here’s the thing: a lot of very talented individuals are employed by the movie industry and have frankly demented imaginations that exceed those of your average theatregoer. After all, my impression of what a werewolf or zombie might look like isn’t going to hold a candle to whatever Rob Bottin, Tom Savini, or Greg Nicotero cook up for their respective projects. It turns out that some people just have a preternatural gift for visualizing these types of characters.
Such is the case with Stan Winston, a legendary effects maestro whose contributions to genre cinema are rivalled only by those of his forebear, Jack Pierce. Indeed, Winston’s fingerprints can be felt all over acclaimed classics like Predator, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands and even in some uncredited work he did for The Thing. As both a character creator and a technical guru, he was absolutely untouchable and is oft regarded as the pre-eminent master of his discipline.
Although Winston sadly passed away in 2008, he left behind an esteemed filmography that has never been surpassed and a prolific workshop that is still going strong today. So, to celebrate the man’s insane visions – as well as the innovative techniques that were used to conjure them up – we’ve compiled this list. Although it is by no means exhaustive, these are just some of our personal highlights from Winston’s illustrious career.
She Creature – The Queen of the Layer
In 1997, Winston founded his own studio enterprise that focused primarily on making cheap, no-frills B-Movies, wherein his trademark effects would get to bask in the limelight. The production company’s inaugural venture was a series of straight-to-Cinemax ‘’reimaginings’’ of ‘60s pictures – including Earth Vs. the Spider, Teenage Caveman and How to Make a Monsters. Prioritizing an efficient turnaround, Winston applied a generic business model to each outing that came under this ‘’Creature Features’’ banner, with them all being filmed on a shared soundstage, with low budgets and a crew that would frequently cross-pollinate between sets.
As a result of this thrifty approach, they’re all a bit naff. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a few cool monsters up their sleeves. Take She Creature for instance, a nautical-themed horror that puts a terrifying spin on the siren mythos, courtesy of its ‘’Queen of the Layer’’ antagonist. Taking inspiration from deep-sea nightmare fuel, this grotesque perversion of a mermaid has an eel-like body, a thorny seashell crown, webbed talons, a sting ray’s tail and, to cap it all off, razor-sharp piranha teeth. Such a fearsome villain is deserving of a far better film, but at least it got a worthy action figure, one that was sculpted by the same guy responsible for the movie’s puppet.
Jurassic Park 3 – Pteranodons
These winged reptiles were supposed to have a major role in the first Jurassic Park sequel but were eventually axed from The Lost World’s crowded roster in pre-production (aside from a brief cameo). Luckily, they got to make a belated appearance four years later in JP3 and they were certainly worth the wait.
When flying, the Pteranodons are inevitably computer generated but for the ground-level shots, it’s often just a dude hobbling around on a pair of stilts. The astonishing illusion required the performer to slot his head into a fiberglass helmet, whilst the rest of his body was garbed in tailored prosthetic appliances. Meanwhile, stretches of cloth substituted for the creature’s wings and the beak mechanism was operated via radio controls, tying everything together.
Tremendously lifelike and intimidating, it is because of these phenomenal practical effects that the aviary sequence is such a bright spot in JP3, bubbling with the signature intensity that made the original film such a massive hit.
Predator – Yautja
It’s tough to judge if Predator would be quite so fondly remembered without the invaluable contributions of Winston. Granted, you wouldn’t lose any of the snappy dialogue, over the top machismo, or pulse-pounding action that audiences hold dear. But at the same time, its climax would suffer immensely if the titular hunter didn’t measure up to expectations. The film hooks you in by steadily revealing its ‘’Yautja’’ in dribs and drabs until its ugly visage is ready to be uncovered in the final reel. So, if all that build up amounted to nothing more than a dorky Halloween getup, the ‘80s treasure wouldn’t have the same staying power.
You may therefore be surprised to learn that we narrowly dodged a bullet here, as the original costume was notoriously lame. Resembling a digitigrade brontosaurus with gangly arms, it was a comical design that provoked unintentional chuckles, as opposed to shrieks of pure terror. Besides being conceptually awkward, the cumbersome outfit wasn’t particularly suited to the rainforest location either – causing the stuntman to frequently stumble on rough terrain. Production was forced into hiatus, whilst the filmmakers contemplated multiple solutions to their problem and, in the end, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger who called in the emergency favour from Winston. The rest is of course movie history.
Given a little under 6 weeks to devise a brand new creature from scratch (not to mention getting it fully operational) it’s safe to say that the team had their work cut out for them on this one. Yet they miraculously overcame the constraints and in the process devised one of the most enduring characters of the 20th century. A bonafide icon of pop culture, the Yautja sports a unique aesthetic – defined by his infamous dreadlocks, slick gear and otherworldly mandibles – and should be recognizable to anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction. Not bad for an eleventh-hour makeover!
Darkness Falls – The Tooth Fairy
Darkness Falls was essentially another rescue mission for Stan Winston Studios (SWS). As with Predator, the gang had been parachuted in to salvage a troubled production, after the filmmakers conceded that their original villain wasn’t up to snuff. The 2003 ghost flick isn’t remembered too fondly nowadays, so in case you’ve never even heard of it, here’s the gist.
Back in the 1800s, an innocent woman from the settlement of Darkness Falls was wrongfully accused of witchcraft and lynched by an angry mob. Over the next 150 years, her spirit began enacting vengeance upon the town’s 21st-century lineage, by adopting the persona of a murderous tooth fairy that kills any children who dare sneak a glimpse at her disfigured face.
It’s hardly the greatest horror film in the world, but the revenant’s nocturnal visits are suitably creepy and the Winston puppet is characteristically top notch – depicting the nastiest burn injuries you can imagine. Incidentally, the rejected design (which is far more evocative of a conventional tooth fairy) was featured as part of MacFarlane’s ‘’Movie Maniacs’’ toy line, if you wanted to compare and contrast.
The Terminator – T-800
The debut collaboration between Winston and burgeoning Hollywood heavyweight, James Cameron: The Terminator is what put our effects virtuoso on the map. For the sci-fi noir, Winston and his cohorts were tasked with fashioning a metal endoskeleton that would serve as the cyborg infiltrator’s true form, once all its organic material had peeled away.
Using ‘’Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln’’ as a benchmark, they aimed to outstrip Disneyland’s then-revolutionary show, by building a robot capable of withstanding the scrutiny of extreme close-ups. To accomplish this goal, they limited their use of stop-motion (given that they’d be incapable to carve enough nuances into the little figurines), reserving it mainly for wider shots in which the T-800 could be seen clanking around.
Elsewhere, for ‘’non-ambulatory’’ close-ups, practical animatronics were the default method of choice. This enabled them to realize minute details that would otherwise be far too complex: like shifting pistons; mechanized fingers; and optics that could move around independently of each other. By taking this approach, Winston was able to cement the T-800 as a striking adversary, one whose rictus grin and piercing red eyes still haunt our nightmares to this very day.
The Relic – Kothoga
Blending various members of the animal kingdom into one ghastly gene pool, The Relic’s Kothoga is a positively bizarre mishmash of ideas. The mutant aberration has been cursed with a spider-like head, a horse’s torso, elephant tusks, crocodilian hindquarters, tufts of lion hair, and a splash of human DNA for good measure. Owing to the abstract nature of this concept, visualizing what the Kothoga ought to look like was an especially difficult task for Winston’s artisans.
Then, once they had agreed upon the peculiar design, they still had to figure out how it could be plausibly executed on camera. The creature’s non-anthropomorphic proportions (further complicated by its quadrupedal movement style) made it a dubious candidate for a costume job. Yet that’s precisely the route that the filmmakers decided to take and, to their credit, they did a phenomenal job of disguising the human anatomy beneath that suit. This was achieved by relying on a mixture of stilts, leg extensions and a flexible performer who had an aptitude for contorting his body in just the right way. Were it not for the helpful ‘’behind the scenes’’ photos, they could honestly fool you into thinking this was some kind of unusually limber animatronic.
Doom – Hell Knight
Enticed by the prospect of returning to their wheelhouse and tackling an unabashed creature feature again (after years of working on more family-friendly fare, like Mouse Hunt, Big Fish and Zathura), the Winston old-guard was understandably pumped for Doom. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak was committed to shooting practically wherever possible, the script echoed Predator in many respects, and the monsters had numerous permutations for the designers to sink their teeth into. By any measure, it should have been a dream project.
However, against all odds, the video-game adaptation ended up being an excruciating snoozefest, with little in the way of action or suspense. Due to infuriatingly dim lighting, you could barely make out the star attractions as well, which is a real shame because the monster suits are pretty impressive. The ‘’Hell Knight’’ is an especially faithful recreation of its pixelated predecessor, boasting the same featureless face, congealed musculature, and deadly jaws that defined its appearance in Doom 3. It’s bloody terrific, although to properly appreciate the effects you’ll have to go rooting through production stills, given that the film itself does such a poor job of showcasing them.
Jurassic Park – Velociraptors
I tend to think that likening special effects work to magic is a bit reductive, as it downplays the sheer amount of man-hours and the considerable talents that go into making these things happen. At the same time, I have to admit that what SWS did with Jurassic Park’s Velociraptors seems to be nothing less than sorcery. I’ve seen that movie approximately 900 times and I still refuse to believe that those dinosaurs are just men hunched over in suits. But they are, at least for some of the shots.
Not only does it blow my mind from a technical perspective, but it’s also crazy to think that the concept artists were essentially responsible for the iconic look that we now associate with these extinct animals. When most people envision a Velociraptor in their head, they don’t flashback to some hazy memory of a museum exhibit or a textbook diagram. Instead, they picture the Dino that Winston’s troupe came up with back in 1993, complete with the same rounded snout, scaly texture, tall bodies and brownish color pattern. While palaeontologists theorize that the species will have looked quite different in reality, we’ll never be able to see them any other way. Talk about an artistic legacy!
The Monster Squad – The Mummy
Winston was a little preoccupied with Predator – as well as his upcoming directorial duties on Pumpkinhead – when Fred Dekker’s insanely enjoyable The Monster Squad began rolling, so he ended up having to delegate a lot of the work to another unit. By all accounts, those who were sent to the Predator ‘’B-team’’ were kind of bitter and unenthusiastic about the assignment, secretly yearning for a transfer. I mean, who in their position wouldn’t envy the opportunity to put their own stamp on Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Wolfman?
You’d be hard pressed to find a more intoxicating project – for those who specialize explicitly in creating movie monsters – than one that unites some of cinema’s quintessential boogeymen and has them running amok in the modern day. Indeed, Monster Squad was right up everyone’s street and they all wanted to have input. For his part, Winston did get to outline what he wanted for each of the creatures at least, seeing as copyright infringement laws necessitated that a few changes be made to their familiar designs anyway.
You see, the crew was unable to simply replicate Jack Pierce’s vintage makeup. Rather, they had to find inventive ways of ‘’suggesting’’ the classic appearances to make them legally distinct, whilst still retaining what made them so popular in the first place. A good example of this is the Mummy, which many now consider to be the definitive version of the shambling corpse archetype. Playing up the aspect of decrepitude, it is far scarier than Karloff’s iteration: thanks to its misshapen lip; rotting flesh; sunken eyes; and withered features. Yet despite this heightened gross-out factor, it still feels like an authentic, traditional Mummy at its heart – akin to one that you’d see in a 1930s flick.
The Monster Squad – Gillman
Of course, the real MVP of Monster Squad has to be the peerless Gillman suit. Accomplished via a combination of foam latex appliances (for the body) and cable-actuated mechanics (for a more expressive head), it represents the very best of both worlds. With joins that are utterly seamless.
The film’s equivalent to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, its amphibian elements have been heightened in a few places to give it a more ferocious presence than its cheesy ‘50s counterpart. With an algae-green paint job, lifelike oval eyes, an elongated face, pointed fangs and scaly fins: this is one of my personal favorites from Winston’s oeuvre. What’s more, until we finally get a remake of the original Universal picture, its claim to fame as the apex Gillman will remain firmly uncontested.
Aliens – Xenomorph Queen
When penning his 1986 follow up to Alien, James Cameron was conscious of the need to up the ante. Viewers had already been exposed to the Facehugger, the Chestburster and the adult Xenomorph in the previous film, and so a fresh addition would be expected for the sequel. Naturally, his initial impulse was to beef up the swarm’s ranks, by chucking in hundreds of the intergalactic bugs. Still, he felt like there was an onus on him to expand upon their lifecycle in a meaningful way.
Enter the Alien Queen: a colossal, wasp-like titan that would go on to push the boundaries of contemporary special effects. It was a real leap of faith for Cameron to entrust such an ambitious character to SWS’ puppeteers – especially when the more obvious route would have been to lean on stop-motion instead. Nevertheless, his trust was ultimately rewarded when he got to see the finished article walking around on his set, as though it was – and always had been – a living, breathing organism.
Working towards the director’s preliminary sketches, Winston conceived of a radical approach whereby a pair of drivers were stationed inside a hollowed out cavity beneath the Queen’s ribcage, to operate its four arms and tail mechanism. Meanwhile, everything else was controlled through a series of external rods, hydraulics and an overhead crane rig. In total, it required eight separate technicians – coordinating with a synchronized hive mind – to convincingly translate the Xenomorph matriarch to the silver screen. The ground-breaking result surely merited all that hassle though, nabbing Winston his first Oscar win, as well as high praise from H.R Giger himself.
Jurassic Park – T-Rex
Building upon the foundations laid by the Alien Queen, Jurassic Park’s T-Rex is a triumphant feat of mechanical engineering. The animatronic pioneered several new techniques that would later become industry norms for pulling off characters of this scale. Weighing in at over 18,000 pounds and boasting 57 moving parts, the towering behemoth called for equally grand innovations to be brought up and running. A complex network of hydraulics was used to facilitate the basic gestures, whilst flight simulator equipment drove the larger, ‘’gross’’ movements.
However, to actually program all these sophisticated devices, yet another huge advancement was in order. Catering for this need, Winston built a miniaturized telemetry model of the dinosaur, through which a crew member would be able to simulate the desired actions that the full-sized version needed to perform on set. These movements then corresponded over to the hero animatronic, as though it was being steered around under the influence of a voodoo doll.
Armed with this cutting-edge setup, Steven Spielberg was given free rein to improvisationally direct the T-Rex around like it was any other actor. On a whim, he’d get it to conduct pitches, yaws and banking maneuvers – with a degree of flexibility that would have otherwise been impossible for such a cumbersome rig. Oh, and I guess the dinosaur itself looks pretty magnificent too, as it electrified the imaginations of young kids across the globe. Mine included.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day – Splash Head
Though it is now attributed with ushering in the modern era of CGI supremacy, Terminator 2 actually contains very little in the way of digital wizardry. Difficult as it may be to believe; only 42 of the effects shots here were achieved using ILM’s virtual tools because James Cameron was so insistent that physical props be used wherever feasible.
Reflecting on the project’s demands, supervisor John Rosengrant said: ‘’By far, the most challenging things we did [involved] the T-1000 character. Splitting open bodies, finger blades, bullet-hit wounds. Every day, there was something new and challenging to do.’’ Any of these glorious illusions would justifiably earn a spot on this list but, for my money, the most jaw-dropping example has to be the ‘’Splash Head’’ puppet. Depicting the liquid metal Terminator after its head has been splayed open with buckshot, this freakish image is superbly executed. One small detail that I really like is how the two eyes dart around on either side of the gash, lending the animatronic an extra sense of credibility.
That being said, what makes this one such a knockout is the outstanding healing effect that occurs when the T-1000 initiates its self-repair function. CGI was obviously used to add the finishing touches here and there, but on set they employed a taut cable that literally pulled the head back together. It’s a cunning yet deceptively simple magic trick that will fool even the savviest of movie fans.
Pumpkinhead – Pumpkinhead
A recurring point made by Stan Winston – across his many interviews and profile pieces – was that he never wanted to be pigeonholed as ‘’the monster guy’’. A significant portion of his career may have been dedicated to extraterrestrial assassins and overgrown lizards, but he always treated those fantastical roles as if they were no different from their human castmates. He took care to ensure that each of them had idiosyncratic personalities and exclusive traits, so that they weren’t merely lifeless puppets that audiences couldn’t connect with.
Like Ray Harryhausen, Jim Henson or Jack Pierce, Winston saw himself as a character creator first and foremost. And thanks to this ethos, you can pick out any Winston maquette at random and will be able to glean everything you need to know about the character it represents. What are their goals? How do they behave? Do they mean harm? The answers to all these questions are baked into their fundamental designs.
Pumpkinhead is emblematic of this quality, because just a cursory glance at the fiend is all you need to understand exactly what his deal is. Earning his alternative moniker, “Vengeance the Demon”, this is one seriously pissed-off-looking hellspawn and you know within an instant that he’s not messing around. The malevolent scowl conveys an insatiable desire to punish, the soulless, rolled-over-white eyes betray a lack of remorse, and the angular head signals that he possesses intelligent malice beyond that of a mindless beast. All these visual clues tell us who Pumpkinhead is without any expository dialogue or backstory. We understand right away that he is evil down to his core and that he will stop at nothing to get violent retribution. In short, he’s a testament to Winston’s incredible knack for crafting vivid, fleshed-out roles for his puppeteers to inhabit.