An Interview with Stan Winston

30 10 2008

Stan Winston is a self-described failed actor who began doing makeup effects and creature design 30 years ago as a way to pay the bills. After winning back-to-back Emmys for his first two productions, Winston decided that perhaps acting should take the back seat. Thirty years and four Academy Awards later, Winston is at the top of his game as the foremost creator of creatures in the world, a co-founder of Digital Domain, one of the leading companies in CGI special effects, and the go-to guy for a couple of filmmakers you may have heard of: Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. Unless you are a Luddite, or someone who doesn’t see films, or perhaps someone who sees only films with foreign titles, then you have seen Winston’s work.


Science Fiction Weekly 2002 (interviewer Hugo Perez)

You have worked extensively with “analog” visual effects, i.e., make-up, puppets. At the same time you are a founder of Digital Domain, which specializes in digital and computer effects. What do you think will be the relationship between “real” and “computer” effects as film becomes more digitally oriented? What is going to be the long-term impact of digital?


Winston: The long-term impact of digital is basically the long-term impact of any other great tool or device or technology that’s brought into the storytelling realm. Something to be embraced. It will continue to be used in storytelling to create certain realities or to create certain fantasies. It won’t replace anything. Technology is like that. You have to remember that the essence of filmmaking is storytelling, and the essence of art is communication, and stories and films will always be told in as many different ways as possible.

You asked me the importance of fantasy stories … basically to get your attention. The same stories will be told. The same stories continue to be told and people, audiences want to see them told in different ways, so you embrace the fact that we now have the ability to see a digitally animated film like Shrek or Toy Story. Ultimately, it was because it was a great movie with a great story that you enjoy it. It has great characters. The technology just allows us to see the movie in a different way.

You are not going to want to stop seeing movies that are actor-driven. An animated character is never going to replace Al Pacino. It will be another way of you looking at him. Digital animation will never replace cel animation. Cel animation will always be a form of storytelling that has its own life. Puppets have their own life. We do amazing animatronics and puppetry that are totally organic and real and we develop and create them with computers, we operate them with computers. The puppets that we’ve created, the animatronics characters that we have created at Stan Winston Studio, are superior to any animatronics that you have ever seen, but they are never going to replace the Muppets just because the technology is greater. There is an essence of character that you can get out of a sock puppet that you will get out of a sock puppet forever. In fact if you made the Muppets any more realistic, it would ruin the essence of what they are, and that won’t be replaced, and beautiful animation doesn’t mean that something like South Park which is the most crude animation of all time doesn’t have it’s place. It’s different methods of storytelling.

When movies came out, theatre actors thought that would be the end of theatre, because of the movies. There is more theatre today than there ever was. When television came out, moviemakers thought that was going to be the end of movies, because now no one would leave their house to go see a movie. There are more movies today than there have ever have been. Every time there is a new technology, there is this instant paranoia from an artistic community saying that I’m going to be replaced by this technology. It is totally absurd. When you can do it live, you will do it live. You will always want to go and see a play. There is something that is so visceral about storytelling when you are there, one-to-one live theatre that has it its own essence. No movie, no film, can ever replace that essence of live theatre. On the same line there is an essence of life on film, live actors that will never be replaced and can never be replaced by artificial actors or artificial life forms. You will want to see it, you will want to see the digital life form. You will want to see the digital animation, but you also want to be able to see a movie that is about life that you know is reality that you are touching.

One of the reasons that people love Jurassic Park, and these movies that have been created by filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg is that you do not know whether it is all digital or real. You would not enjoy the movie nearly as much if you thought, “Oh, the dinosaurs are animated.” One of the things that you love about it is that people know that those dinosaurs are there. They are full size and they could eat you, and they could kill you. They are machines that are dangerous. You as an audience, you don’t want us ever to stop improving the robotic and live aspect of it, because it entertains you. Just the fact that I can give you a dinosaur that really is there is something that you will not give up as an audience and you would rebel if it all became digital, but you still want to see as much as you can digitally, you will want to see as much as you can robotically. You will want to see as much animatronics as you can. You want to see stuff that you’ve never seen before. You don’t care how you see it as long as it’s something that’s new, and there is a story to be told, and the story is told well. It’s not about the technology. Embrace the technology. Use it when it is a good storytelling tool but don’t think for a second that that’s what it’s about.