Monday, June 16, 2008

RIP Stan Winston

Some loves you never outgrow. With me, it's dinosaurs. And if you love dinosaurs, you have to love dinosaurs. By 1993, I'd seen plenty of fossilized dinosaurs, and just about every dinosaur movie, good, bad, and indifferent. But I hadn't seen a real dinosaur, a fully functioning, living animal, till the great Stan Winston and a team of Hollywood's best special effects experts crafted a menagerie for that summer's blockbuster, Jurassic Park. When the T-rex makes its appearance, in a stunningly crafted sequence that is Steven Spielberg firing on all cylinders, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. I had tears in my eyes. This went beyond movie magic--it was as if the creature itself, terrifying and magnificent, had been reconstituted whole. I still can't get over it.

And I will have a hard time getting over the death of one of its distinguished parents. Winston's passing, at age 62 after a long illness, is a great blow to fantastic cinema. Iron Man was just the latest in a long list of dazzling credits, which bridged the gap between makeup and digital effects. As a devout watcher of TV movies from that medium's golden age I loved his work on 1972's Gargoyles, with its memorable mythic creatures; he did more subtle, but no less remarkable, work on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, aging Cicely Tyson. Both won the 20-something designer Emmy Awards. The believably deceased and revivified corpses of 1981's Dead and Buried were another early highlight. For that same year's Heartbeeps, he received his first Oscar nomination, turning Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters into comic robots.

The Terminator (1984) was a key credit, that remarkable fusion of man and machine for James Cameron. Oscar nominations followed for the toothsome terrors of Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987)--no one did drooling, fanged jaws and mouths quite like Winston, and he won his first Oscar, in part, for the terrible Alien Queen. The 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a watershed, fused his work and CGI and earned him two Oscars, for makeup and for visual effects. Jurassic Park, a study in naturalism ("not monsters, animals," we are reminded of its saurian stars), was the next great leap forward, and his fourth Oscar. Two more nominations followed, for Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and the heartbreakingly discarded robots of AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Winston was Oscar-nominated twice for his work with Tim Burton, for Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Batman Returns (1992). His poignant grotesques, iconically incarnated, are among his finest creations. His credits as director included the 1988 chiller Pumpkinhead and the T2-3D film, a highlight of the Universal Studios theme parks.

He made the incredible real, no small accomplishment.

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