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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
| By Elizabeth Snead | From 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.

"Stan is an amazing artist, extremely smart and he has never lost his boyish enthusiasm," Schwarzenegger says. "He's still a big kid. He loves making his monsters and, like me, he loves all the toys. We go motorcycle riding together, play chess, and smoke cigars together. He's great to travel with because he is so interested in everything and so inquisitive."

Winston is also open to new trends in wine, several of which he's been introduced to at his monthly wine-tasting group. "It's a group of Hollywood studio execs, directors, writers and one monster maker," Winston says. "It's really hard for me to think of myself as a wine collector. I'm really a hick when it comes to wine. I'm just a guy who likes to drink good red wines."

Yeah, just a guy who keeps, oh, around 4,000 bottles of fine red wines -- "50 percent French, 30 percent California and 20 percent Italian and Australian" -- in the wine cellar of his cliff-top Malibu, California, home.

"I favor first-growth Bordeaux, but one of my favorite wines is the Syrah-based French Rhônes," Winston says. "But there are some great California reds, too many to name, and a whole new group of wonderful Australian reds, the most well-known of which is probably the Penfolds Grange, which is a huge fruit bomb. But it's like a very rich piece of fudge and can get overwhelming. I'm also a lover of Burgundies because they have a finesse and balance that you never get tired of."

Winston never tires of topping himself. While others in the business rest on their laurels, Winston is still going full throttle. Last year the more than 150 artists and technicians in Stan Winston Studio worked the Winston magic on Spielberg's eagerly awaited A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Joe Johnston's Jurassic Park III, Bay's Pearl Harbor, and the latest rendering of H. G. Wells's classic The Time Machine, due out this spring. They are currently working on Terminator 3, the highly anticipated third installment of the franchise now in design. Winston's new Cinemax TV series, "Creature Features," has a toy tie-in with a line of "Stan Winston Creatures," the first fantasy figurines with CD-ROMs that profile the artists behind the beasts.

"In the days of Michelangelo, all the great Renaissance artists worked for the churches," Winston says. "In our time, the artists work for Hollywood studios. My guys are the finest drawers, sculptors and painters in the world. Now they're doing this toy line and it's important for kids to see the artist behind the character."

He should know. When Winston first came to Hollywood in 1969, he wanted to be an actor and apprenticed at Disney to learn the art of character makeup. When his first makeup job on the TV movie Gargoyles won an Emmy in 1972, the struggling young actor's sideline became a lucrative career. But it was a sci-fi film about a robot from the post-apocalyptic future, starring a muscle-bound actor with an unpronounceable last name, directed by a neophyte filmmaker named James Cameron, that would dramatically alter Winston's life.

"Terminator was a huge turning point in my career," Winston recalls. "It really was a movie that set my work aside from every other makeup effects person out there. No one had ever seen anything like it and it was, from an artistic and technical standpoint, a watershed of what we were capable of doing that people hadn't seen before."

The film showcased Winston's masterful mix of live action, animatronics, makeup design, digital imagery and creature effects, and the result was nothing short of terrifying. But for Winston, it was even more important on a personal level.

"On Terminator I met and became very close with two people who have been pivotal in my career and my social life, James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Combining professional success with tight relationships and friendships is everything that I'm about."

Winston is also about enjoying life with unbridled enthusiasm. When he's not creating astonishing screen characters, he spends time with his family: his wife, Karen; their son, Matt, and daughter-in-law, Amy, both of whom are actors, and their infant grandson, Rowan; and their daughter, Debbie, and her husband, Erich Litoff, the co-owner of the West Hollywood, California, restaurant Cyrano.

Other than the family affair, Winston likes to hang out with his friends and play with his cool toys, including a pair of Harleys (he rides on weekends with fellow Harley Davidson Club member Schwarzenegger), an '85 AC Cobra, an '86 Porsche Turbo, a '96 Turbo and the 2001 Turbo. Did we mention the black Hummer, just like Arnold's? And let's not forget the Ferrari 360 F1 Spider being built for Winston.

"I can't help it! I'm just a guy," Winston says. "I enjoy the best of everything. I mean, it's just toys!"

Winston also enjoys speaking to students around the country, including those at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. "There are a lot of kids out there inspired by work that comes out of my studio the same way I was inspired when I was young," he says. "I often question why I'm still doing this, but when someone comes up and says, 'You're Stan Winston! I love your work!' it's so amazing that there are people out there touched by stuff I'm doing."

Despite all the robotic bells and CGI whistles, Winston's genius lies in his human touch. "All I'm about is creating memorable characters for motion picture history. It's not about technology. It's about writers writing wonderful stories with fantastic characters and me being able to create a visual image that's beyond what you would expect."

After seeing his characters in Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, even the scientific community is taking his film fantasies seriously. Winston recently became a Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsor, and his studio is collaborating with the Digital Life consortium of MIT's Media Lab.

"They've realized that artificial intelligence requires human interactivity," Winston explains. "A robot learns by interacting with a human and there's a better chance for that with an appealing organic character rather than something that looks like a machine. So we're sharing our technology of building robots with organic character and movement."

"There's a lot of enthusiasm here about what Stan Winston can do to advance what we do," says Alexandra Kahn, MIT's press liaison. "The merger entails sharing our artificial-intelligence technology with his studio and benefiting from their ability to create lifelike creatures."

Imagine Teddy, the talking bear-bot in A.I., come to life. According to Winston, it's not only possible, it's inevitable. "Historically, anything that we can imagine, we make. The creative mind imagines it and it's the human condition to make it real. That is the essence of humanity. When Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there were no such things as submarines. When he wrote From the Earth to the Moon, there were no rocket ships. Steven Spielberg just made A.I. about artificial intelligence and now we're helping create it."

"Isn't that just the coolest?" he asks, savoring another puff and grinning like a 12-year-old movie-monster fan.

Elizabeth Snead is a Hollywood-based entertainment writer for TV Guide, The Washington Post and Ladies Home Journal.