Creature Features: Looking Back on Stan Winston’s Attempts to Bring Original Monsters to Toy Shelves

The late Stan Winston is the master special effects artist responsible for a multitude of unforgettable creature designs for classic films. The ultra realistic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Alien Queen from Aliens, the titular character in Predator, both the T-800 and liquid metal T-1000 seen in Terminator 2, the iconic black leather suit and razor sharp hands in Edward Scissorhands, and many more build the resume of Stan Winston and his legendary special effects studio. For decades, Winston and his team’s painstaking attention to detail in the creation of the various creatures and characters in films earned several Oscars for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

While Winston is well known for his work in popular films, he also delved into the world of collectibles.

Over the years, Winston became disappointed in seeing the licensed characters his studio created transformed by toy manufacturers into mass produced action figures with cheap, unrecognizable details. All the intellectual properties Winston’s effect studio worked on, including Pumpkinhead (which Winston not only designed but wrote and directed), were licensed out for other companies to turn into toys, comics, and other forms of media. After the release of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, Winston had the idea to turn the characters he created for the film into collectibles himself. Winston wondered what it would be like if there were toys with the same quality as what was being shown on screen. Using actual molds from the ones used in the film, Winston created a line of figures matching the level of detail seen in the movie. The figures turned out fantastic, but due to high production costs they didn’t sell as well as expected.

This didn’t discourage Winston; it only got his creative juices flowing even more.

It was in the early 2000’s, when companies such as McFarlane began acquiring the rights to licenses such as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Pumpkinhead as a part of McFarlane’s Movie Maniacs line, as well as producing original takes on recognizable characters in their McFarlane’s Monsters line. With waves of figures such as these gaining popularity, Winston decided this was his time to take a stab at the highly detailed toy market that was aimed at adults and collectors, with a price range that would accommodate the level of detail required to pull off his visions. This time, Winston decided to shift his sights on original creatures. Rather than focus on licensing characters he helped create that were owned by outside entities, Stan decided it would be more interesting, and more cost effective, to create his own intellectual property. In the 1980’s, toy lines such as He-Man, Transformers, and TMNT exploded onto the scene. In the case of brands such as He-Man and Transformers, the original toy line paved the way for a franchise; cartoons, comics, shirts, lunchboxes, and original movies were produced. With licenses such as TMNT, which originated in an independent comic book, the toy line burst into the mainstream markets and spawned a multi-million dollar franchise that continues strong until this day. Whether or not Winston was directly inspired by these beloved franchises is unknown, but one thing was clear: Winston wanted his toy line to branch off into a multitude of media.

Winston saw this opportunity to explore uncharted grounds. He could create the aliens, gargoyles, and monsters that never had the opportunity to carry their own films. This was around the same time Winston was shifting to producing. “He was always looking for ways to develop his own intellectual properties. His efforts to do so date back to the 70’s, when he began developing concepts for an original fantasy world and the characters who inhabited it.” explains Matt Winston, who co-founded the Stan Winston School of Character Arts after his father’s passing.

“He was tired of creating characters he didn’t own.”

Let’s rewind a little bit, back to 1997. This is the year Stan Winston Productions was formed. HBO gave Winston the go ahead to create creatures for a series of films that he would also co-produce titled Creature Features. The company’s first project was a group of straight-to-video films for HBO. Each concept was inspired by 1950’s genre B-Movies, particularly that of American International Pictures and director Samuel Arkoff. Since the films featured characters Winston owned, he decided this would be the opportunity to create the detailed collectible figures he always wanted to see. The first line of toys would be dedicated to the films in this series. She-Creature, Earth vs the Spider, How to Make a Monster, The Day the World Ended, and Teenage Caveman featured creatures that would become figures in the first Stan Winston Creatures toy line.

Each film had a different key Stan Winston Studio artist who would be the artistic lead for the film’s creature effects. This key artist then created the figure sculpt of the creature they created for the film. In addition to a base accurate to each creature’s environment, a unique addition to the figures was a CD-ROM that took collectors behind the scenes with a look at the creation of the figures in Winston’s studio. This CD showed the artists working on their creatures and, pre-YouTube, was a great way for collectors and fans to get a glimpse of the sculpting process and made a unique addition to the toys. With Toys R Us as a distributor, everything was set: the HBO films would arrive and an exciting new toy line would be available to coincide with their release. Unfortunately, due to a timing issue, the release of the films and the toy line didn’t line up, and that led to less than stellar sales.

Winston followed Creature Features with Realm of the Claw. Based on a world of Cat Gods who defend the wild kingdom, Realm of the Claw was built on a concept Winston had been developing since the 70’s. Tswana, Tare, Nakuru, Sabyr, Kaela & Zynda were the figures featured in Wave 1. A comic was planned, with hopes of a film adaptation. Realm of the Claw was distributed by Toys “R” Us but, despite an end cap promise  – a choice spot on the end of the aisle – the figures didn’t sell as well as expected. Unfortunately, this led to the cancelation of subsequent lines that weren’t mass produced.

“This left a bad taste in his mouth concerning toys, being his second failure in the area and, at this point, he decided to set his sights on other things” explains Matt Winston. “He never let failure stop him and he kept on going and trying new things.” Among those new things was developing creature concepts for video games. Winston pitched many creature ideas for various video games, leading to his work on a 2004 first and third-person shooter survival horror video game entitled The Suffering, developed for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Winston provided creature designs for the game and its sequel.

Among the other toy lines Winston worked on were Blood Wolves, which featured four original takes on werewolves by four different special effects artists (Lycon, Medieval Trakk, Vereticus and Wolv), a line of gruesome gargoyles called Extreme Gargoyles (Elias, Raze, Zephyr, Lucian, and Vorak), and a line of killer robot figures that never made it past the conceptual stage. All these worlds, including Realm of the Claw, were tied together by a heavily armed intergalactic monster hunter named Trakk.

While we had the chance to see the monsters in the HBO Creature Features series, we unfortunately never had the chance to see any of these other unique beasts brought to life on screen. A werewolf film with multiple takes on werewolves? A film following various gargoyles? A universe all tied together by a single monster hunter? It’s sad these movies never came to fruition, but Winston’s wonderful monsters will always live on in beautifully rendered figures and in the limited-run Realm of the Claw and Trakk: Monster Hunter comic books distributed by Image Comics.

Stan Winston unfortunately passed away in 2008, but through his films, toys, and all of his other work, he stands tall until the end of time as a legend to fans of all ages.

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