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Stan Winston: Smoke and Monsters

Wizard of Weird Stan Winston has created some of Hollywood's most dazzling special effects and terrifying screen monsters
Elizabeth Snead
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

Enter acclaimed special effects artist Stan Winston's dimly lit lair at your own risk.

An ominous, giant Queen Alien hangs from the ceiling, mouth agape, revealing rows of glistening, razor-sharp teeth. The Terminator's red laser eye pierces the room, his chest ripped open, revealing humming circuitry. The vampire Lestat stands still and satiated, his rictus moist with brown ooze. Lassie-sized raptors rear in full flare while a melancholy Edward Scissorhands beckons, arms outstretched, his knife-like fingers clicking.

Talk about your movie memories! This breathtaking gallery of Winston's iconic cinematic creatures resides in the conference room of his 40,000-square-foot production headquarters in Van Nuys, California. What blockbuster director Michael Bay calls "the coolest meeting room in Hollywood."

Winston is credited with changing the look of films for more than 30 years with an astonishing array of horrific characters and mind-boggling special effects, and he has consistently broken new ground with every film. Co-founder of Digital Domain, one of the premier CGI companies, Winston married puppetry with robotics, and merged them with high-tech computerized special effects. He's teamed with Hollywood's most influential filmmakers, including James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, and won four Oscars for Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), and three Emmys and several BAFTA (British Oscar) awards. He's also directed a few films and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Considering Winston's house of horrors, it's somewhat disconcerting to meet its decidedly benevolent creator, an exuberant man with a distinguished silver beard, gentle eyes and a nonstop grin. When you ask Winston, dressed in faded jeans and a black T-shirt, to describe what he does, he laughs and says self-effacingly, "I make monsters!" Told that his work induces terror in movie audiences, he grins like a 12-year-old praised for his high school science fair project.

"As a kid, I was the nerd, who was inside watching monster movies on TV," the Arlington, Virginia, native explains. "I was always drawing pictures and playing with clay. I had my toys and my puppets. I would do amateur magic shows and create my own little universe, and basically I'm still doing that today. I'm still a huge toy freak, they're just bigger. The fast cars are real, not remote-controlled. I love my new toys, my cigars, my wine and my cars. And I'm still playing with puppets. They just happen to be the size of dinosaurs!"

Although his creations are of epic proportions, Winston himself is a modest man. "I walk into this display room every day and I see all these historic characters and I say, ëWhoa, this is so cool! This is just awesome!'" Winston marvels, taking a puff on a Cohiba. "And I say it humbly because I don't do it alone. This comes from the minds of great directors, writers and the brilliant artists and technicians who've worked with me for years."

Another Winston passion is cigars, which he began smoking 25 years ago. "I love my cigars. I have more cigars than I could smoke the rest of my life. And I've become a collector to an absurd level. I mean, in this room, there are probably four humidors," he says, leaning back in a chair in the sleek chrome and black leather private office. The walls are filled with gleaming color photos of his creatures, while a remote control toy Humvee stands on a nearby shelf, along with countless dinosaur toys and a daunting display of bronze awards. "In my house, I have another four or five humidors and I have a locker at the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills. I'll never be able to smoke them all!"

This addict of the never-been-done-before special effects professes not to have a preferred smoke. "I love all the classics. I love the Ashton VSG, which is a very, very consistent cigar, the C.A.O.s, OpusX, Punch Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey and Montecristo No. 2. And I love Cohibas. But I also find that there is often an inconsistency in cigars, so I'm always looking for the one with the best taste, the fullest flavor and the best draw, and it changes constantly. I'm very open-minded to new cigars."

His cigar-smoking pal, Arnold Schwarzenegger, admires his longtime friend's insatiable quest for the new.

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