The Day the Creatures Cried

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.

On Monday, June 16, the Terminator, Jurassic Park's T-Rex and Edward Scissorhands all shed a tear at news that their spiritual father had died. Effects master Stan Winston, the genius behind 30 years of iconic movie make-up, creatures and effects, was 62.

It's a great loss for Hollywood, not only because Stan was a creative genius, but because he was a strong proponent of effects as an organic part of filmmaking – as a tool for creating characters and telling stories – and not an end unto themselves. He believed that overuse of digital effects is rendering movies more spectacular, but stealing their souls.

I had the pleasure of talking to him at the Stan Winston Studios in an industrial part of Van Nuys early last year. Their building is remarkably unremarkable, but the conference room where we did the interview is hollowed ground for a film geek like me. It's kind of a museum slash showroom filled three decades of dramatically lit life-size movie nightmares. Predator and pumpkinhead and the penguin and a hundred of their twisted kin all seem to be hovering protectively over their domain and Stan Winston.

I remember thinking that the man himself was an unimpressive figure, and more serious than i imagined. I didn't know then that his body was filled with the cancerous plasma cells that would kill him 15 months later.

Nevertheless, in our hour-long talk, Stan made an eloquent case for what are know as practical effects.

Now, basically there are two ways to make move magic. One is practically, or in-camera, with real physical things. The other is with increasingly sophisticated digital technology.

Stan's forte, of course, was the former. We saw a great example in the workshop of his studio the day we were there: a mechanical Wilbur the pig they made for the 2006 movie Charlotte's Web. from the front, it looked like, well, it looked like a pig. It even felt like a pig – it was soft and fleshy and it's hair was slightly coarse like the real thing. I'm telling you it made you want to break out the lettuce and tomato. But the back was open to reveal the extraordinarily complex inner-workings that allowed a puppeteer to bring this inanimate object to life.

If you think that this is an old-fashioned or outmoded way to make movies, think about the work Stan Winston's studio did where practical effects were combined with digital enhancement to create some of the most terrifying moments in the history of movies: the T. Rex in Jurassic Park bending down to look in the window of a truck filled with kids, his breath fogging the window or the alien pinning a quivering Sigourney Weaver against the wall with goop dripping from its jaws.

Remember: they say acting is reacting, and these scenes are also made more powerful because there was something physical there for the actors to respond to. If you don't think that's important, go back and watch Liam Neeson's painful scene with the all-digital Jar Jar Binks in the Phantom Menace.

Stan Winston insisted the audience should not know what technology was being used to fool them and he made the case that relying too heavily on digital effects is to leave a powerful set of tools in the toolbox.

Now, let me assure you that Stan Winston was anything but some sort of Luddite or stuck in the past. His studios use the most advanced computer technology available. They just use it in a different way: to design, create and control real objects. Real objects that let is really connect with what we see on the big screen because they, like us and unlike object in the digital realm, are perfect in their imperfection.

For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman and that's The Business Brief.



Matt Holzman