6 Filmmaking Tips from Stan Winston

By  · Published on June 10th, 2015

Warner Bros.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the leftovers of special effects production created a cottage industry in of themselves. Theme park events, studio tours, and behind-the-scenes TV programs regularly shuffled out the puppets, animatronics, costumes, and make-up extensions that altogether created cinematic illusions, producing for pop culture consumers a sort-of second spectacle in which one could encounter the raw material that created convincing cinematic illusions. In an era devoted to CGI, motion capture, and post-production-as-production perhaps best summed up by Rick Baker’s recent retirement, such an encounter is nearly impossible ‐ seeing the thing itself in front of your eyes is contradictory to the DNA of contemporary event filmmaking.

But during the heyday of practical, indexical special effects, Stan Winston proved to be one of Hollywood’s most consequential talents, with many of his creations ‐ the T-1000, the Queen Alien, the T-Rex ‐ producing some of the most iconic characters of late-20th century blockbuster movie-making.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the architect of Jurassic Park.

Puppeteering is Performance

As this clip from Discovery’s 1990s show Movie Magic demonstrates (part of the aforementioned cottage industry), Winston treats puppets not as simply technically accomplished spectacle ‐ something shiny for the audience to look at while they down popcorn ‐ but as characters within the film on the same plane as their human counterparts. Winston is not only concerned with the action that his creations can realize, but also their ability to interact with and react to other characters and their surroundings.

Puppetry is, simply put, a performance ‐ one in which a single character is produced through collective collaboration, not unlike filmmaking itself.

Designs Come From Imagination Grounded in Reality

“I’ve seen things that we’ve done in movies, everywhere. There is nothing that has ever been created on film, that you can’t find a bit and a piece of from somewhere else. It’s all about what your life experience is, and what was very cool. You couldn’t design it if something like that hadn’t been done, you wouldn’t want to design it. Designs don’t come from just purely imagination. Designs come from imagination grounded in reality.

“So, you put those together, and once you’re grounded in reality, you go, ‘Well, I’ve seen that before.’ We did dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that people had never seen before … Aren’t these just like the other dinosaurs you’ve seen before? Well, yeah they are, but they’re not. Because they’re more advanced, because we had the tools, the artistic skills and the tools to make them the most paleontologically correct you’ve ever seen on film. But they look like other dinosaurs you’ve seen, yes. Does she [Terminator 3’s T-X] look like other robots you’ve seen? Yeah. But not like any other robots you’ve ever seen. No other robot looks exactly like her. No other robot has that kind of power, no other robot has everything that she has going on, and more importantly has her character. It’s not about just stuff. It’s not just about effects, it’s about character.”

Know When to Use Practical Effects and When to Use CGI

Winston was not an exclusive adherent to practical effects, but he used digital imagery with restraint, often in connection with a practical onscreen effect. The impetus for going such a route, for Winston, is to apply a consistent logic to which certain types of action are produced through corresponding effects. Such an approach made Jurassic Park’s T-Rex both agile (in longer shots via CGI) and detailed (in animatronic puppetry for close-ups).

Audiences know when they’re seeing special effects. What they don’t necessarily need to know is what kind at any given moment. And having something that both filmmakers and cast can see in front of the camera assists performances as well…

Let Different Approaches to Effects Exist in Harmony, for the Actors and the Audience

The Shiznit: Do you think practical effects such as stop-motion can exist in harmony with digital effects?

Winston: Absolutely! When you talk about live stories that involve real human beings, I think that in many ways you don’t use physical effects along with digital effects because it’s a disservice to the actors…[A]ny great actor will tell you that 50% of acting is reacting, and actors will let you know that 50% of their performance is based on the actor they’re reacting to. You can’t expect an actor to give you their best performance if there’s nothing to react to. So when you’re involving a live performer in the story, I think that it’s a disservice to that actor not to have something live there to react to.

It increases their performance, it increases the reality and the visceral feeling of it to the audience, and I think the audience can tell…

I remember when Laura Dern walked on the set and saw the sick Triceratops, how she really truly felt what she felt and it allowed her to have that feeling. When that Tyrannosaurus Rex, which weighed 25,000 lbs, 12 tons of dangerous machine, was smashing into a car, I guarantee those kids ‐ they didn’t have to act afraid. The audience can feel that, the audience can tell the difference when something is completely animated, so that’s the magic of mixing animation and live action. I think that should never go away.

Characterization is the Secret to Suspending Disbelief

“Once you buy into and accept that character’s performance and how that character is telling the story, then the icing on the cake is how neat that character looks too!”

What We’ve Learned: Treat Your Creations as Actors in the Film

Where even relatively recent CGI often appears to age quickly and badly as time progresses, special effects that actually appeared in front of the camera in the form of puppets, animatronics, costumes, and make-up effects maintain a resonance unequivalent to digital means of effects production: regardless of how well practical effects are executed, one knows that the objects in the frame actually appeared before the camera, that this thing that one sees in front of them actually existed, to some degree, in reality.

While not a prohibitionist of CGI, Stan Winston understood the unique presence that such effects could achieve both in front of and behind the camera. If his creations convincingly interacted with human actors and were fully fleshed out as characters, and as long as his technicians looked at their unique practice as a type of performance, such objects could feel real and live and affecting in ways that enriched the film.

Look, for example, at the below test for Jurassic Park’s T-Rex. We know and can see its means of production, but it’s a remarkable and uncanny sight to behold on its own, even when completely outside the context of the film. No wonder Winston’s contributions to filmmaking led to an entire school of special effects artistry.

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