Wednesday, June 18, 2008

GTAAM #2: Stan Winston Edition

A.I., The Wiz, The Relic, Predator 2, Congo, End of Days, Leviathan

What do these movies have in common? Answer: they're not good. Granted, Congo has Tim Curry and Bruce Campbell at their cheesy best, but other than that, they have at least one unifying, redeeming quality: Stan Winston worked on them. Winston died earlier this week at the age of 62, and I'm a little slow to blog about it, but this is sad news for a fanboy movie buff.

Winston was a special FX guru who was as versatile with make-up and goo as he was with metal and microchips. He was as much a designer as he was an engineer, and pretty darn close to being another Ray Harryhausen. Let's just run down a list of some of Stan's creations:

. The T-800
. Predator (granted, the mandibles were supposedly James Cameron's idea)
. The Alien Queen
. Edward Scissorhands
. Jurassic Park's dinosaurs
. Iron Man
And, as less iconic work, but personal favorites of mine, I'll add:

. The Thing (made the dog monster, rest of film was handled by Rob Bottin)
. Galaxy Quest (gave animatronic control to the actor's own face, rather than remote control)
But this blog is supposed to be an installment in the Great Things About Awful Movies series. So let's get back to the first list of duds. I won't go through one by one and discredit the movies I mentioned (or the many other crap-fests on which Winston worked in his long career). If you like Spielberg's Asimovian wank-fest or that Crichton-in-the-jungle mis-fire, good for you. I don't feel the need to pick a fight.

"Awful" may be a strong word for some of those flicks, but the point is that Winston's work on them stands out. It is the best of what special effects have the potential to be: technically proficient (often seamless), dramatically motivated, imaginatively fantastical, and yet grounded in a realm of believable physics. Winston's creations are often the reason for coming to the theater, and yet always subservient to a larger purpose. They are great form, to be sure, but they always serve a great function as well. And in the cases (like the duds above) in which there really is no greater narrative worth paying attention to (for my money), one can just sit back and watch the eerie beauty of his robots in A.I., cringe at the effectively frightening Relic, or even gasp in terror at the sheer horror that is Michael Jackson's presence in The Wiz.
Winston's monsters move unlike anything we've seen, yet they move in a way that seems utterly real. They look, at times, like the most preposterous concoctions of fantasy, and yet they look like things that could actually exist. And, working through the onslaught of digital FX in Hollywood, he most often favored puppets and models over computers. He believed movie magic could be made with one's hands. He made good movies better, and made awful movies at least a little fun. He made wonderful, wondrous things on film, and he will be missed. R.I.P. Stan Winston.
P.S. My friend SW asked that I mention Death Becomes Her, but I'm sorry dude, I don't think he worked on it.

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