When I first started working on the Stan Winston Week series, the only real hopes I had were that I would be able to get a few cool interviews with some hugely talented folks for our readers to enjoy and put together a series that was worthy of Winston and his legendary talent and vision. What I didn’t expect was that, throughout the interview process, I’d be privy to so many incredibly touching and personal stories about Winston and how even the littlest things that he did in his career ended up having a huge impact on the special effects industry.
For award-winning special effects artist Howard Berger, the influence Stan would have over his life and career, began at a very early age. “I first met Stan when I was 12-years-old. I was living up in Northridge at the time and I was only about three miles from where his shop was located. One day I packed up my drawing book and my sculptures, and walked all three miles over to Stan’s shop to show him my work. I remember knocking on the door and Stan opened it up. I said, “Hello Mr. Winston, my name is Howard and I’m an aspiring effects artist. Can I come in and have you look at my work?” Stan let me in, sat down with me, and went over everything that I brought to show him. He was rightfully critical of my work, which was very helpful for me and kind of mind-blowing for me as a kid- here’s Stan Winston looking at things I created.”
“After that, he let me take a look around the shop and they were working on The Exterminator around that time. I can remember everything about the shop from that visit still- the way it looked, the way it smelled. It was the first shop I had ever visited and it hit me so hard. Stan told me that day that I could keep visiting him and the shop, but that I had to keep my grades up and get all A’s and B’s on my report card. Every time I wanted to go and visit, he’d ask me if I had my report card to show him and, boy, I always made sure I was always getting A’s and B’s because I wanted to be there so badly and because I didn’t want to disappoint Stan either.”
“He always told me that I had to stay focused on school, but it got harder as I got older because all I really wanted to do was special effects. Stan told me that my education was the most important thing, but that he’d put me to work after I graduated. So as soon as I finished high school, I applied for a job with Stan and that’s when my career began,” added Berger.
Filmmaker Steve Miner first encountered Winston when he moved to Los Angeles, which just happened to be shortly after Stan moved out to the area as well. The two had no involvement in the filmmaking industry at the time that they met, demonstrating how far they both came along in their respective careers in just a short period of time.
“I’m not really sure of the date or year that I met Stan, but I had just moved to LA with my rock band and Stan had just gotten married and so he and his wife lived in the same apartment building as I did over in West LA,” said Miner. “And so we became friends immediately. Stan just had that kind of personality where you know you like him after just a few minutes of speaking with him. So about six months later, he was accepted into Disney’s program and I was just looking to be an ‘artist’ (laughs) right around then, so I left LA to go be a ski bum in Colorado for a while. When I came back to LA, Stan had just finished up at Disney and I remember he was so proud of this fake mustache he had created (laughs). After that, I went out to Connecticut and started working out there and that’s when I found out Stan was a successful artist and he was working on The Wiz, which was a big show. I remember being so impressed that Stan had finally made it- little did I know, right (laughs)? And Stan was a guy who just kept getting better and better at his craft the more he worked. He was very creative and very friendly and such a great friend to me for so many years,” added Miner.
To say that Winston was only a professional mentor to every artist who came up working in his studio would be a vast understatement, according to those who worked with him closely over the years. In fact, Berger discussed how Stan became so much more to him over time. “The last night I had worked for Stan, my father had been really sick and I was afraid he was going to pass. I was also afraid of letting Stan down too, but I knew I needed to go so I left early and my father did pass away later that night. I remember the next morning Stan called me and told me he wanted to come over and sit Shiva with me, which he really didn’t have to do but he did anyway.”
“Stan was great that way- he was always a great boss, but he was also kind of a father-figure too. He took care of all of us. Stan was a great educator too and that’s a big reason why the crew that has come out of his shop have all gone on to become amazing artists and I think that’s because most of us aspired to be just like Stan, so we always want to do our very best.”
“When I won the Oscar, one thing that I absolutely had to do was thank Stan in my speech. I wouldn’t have been up there on stage had it not been for everything he had done for me. He called me right after and congratulated me and I said, “Stan, I just cannot thank you enough for everything” and he said, “You just did- in front of millions of people in fact (laughs),” added Berger.
Tom Woodruff Jr., whose first project as part of Stan Winston’s Studio was James Cameron’s The Terminator, reflected on some of the professional lessons he took away from his time working for the legendary effects pioneer.
“Stan was all about having a balance between us as artists and who we are as people when we’re not working,” explained Woodruff Jr. “Stan always believed that we should see ourselves as more than just what we do for a living and he also thought that it was important to have a balance, so he wasn’t a guy who’d be pushing you to work tons of overnighters to get a job done. He always supported us in a way where it never really got that bad no matter how under the gun we were. We had to put in long hours, but he’d always have us go home around 6:30 so that we could do things we needed to do with our families or whatever and then we’d be fresh when we’d go back to the shop. That was important to him; he never wanted to see any of us get burned out.”
“Alec (Gillis) and I left Stan’s right about the time he started directing more, so I think it was a good time for us to get out there and start making a name for ourselves. But nothing could have been more positive and we still carry so much of what Stan taught us while we worked for him,” added Woodruff Jr.
That sense of balance and teamwork was something that Berger also encountered during his time working with Winston as well. “I learned about how to run a real shop and how to work with a team when I was working at Stan’s. He would open the shop every day at 8 AM and would tell everyone of us that meant that work started right at 8, not at 8:01 or 8:02, so every day I would show up at 7 AM and just wait for Stan to get there and open everything up. I never wanted to be the guy who was going to be late to work, so I did whatever it took to get myself there early (laughs).”
“And Stan also taught me how to be a really good boss because he worked just as hard as any of us did. He was the first guy at the shop every day and the last guy to leave and if we had to work weekends, Stan was there working weekends with us too. I remember it was my first week officially working for Stan and there had been a mix-up with payroll, so my check wasn’t included. I told Stan I could wait until the next week, but he wanted to write me a personal check right then and there because he felt so bad. That’s the kind of guy Stan was,” added Berger.
Winston’s influences weren’t only on the special effects world either. As Woodruff Jr. mentioned, Winston also branched out and directed several films throughout his decades-spanning career, including his stunning debut Pumpkinhead, starring Lance Henriksen as a bereaved father who calls upon a demon in order to exact revenge for those responsible for the death of his son. Miner discussed how much Winston cherished his experiences behind the camera.
“I know that Stan was really proud of the films that he directed. He had always wanted to direct and I think a little of that is when you work in the business for a certain amount of time with other directors, you eventually want to be the guy in control,” said Miner. “Stan wanted to have that control- as a director and as someone with a creative vision and a passion for telling good stories. And I know Pumpkinhead was very special to him. He worked so hard to create the perfect creature and put everything into that story. I know Stan was proud of everything he did in his career, but I think the films that he directed meant just a little more to him on a personal level.”
In addition to being a special effects master and a genre filmmaker, Winston was also one of the first guys in the industry to take a stand for the work that he and his peers were doing on feature films, demanding more resources and respect for the level of craftsmanship they were putting in on the movies they were working on.
Berger discussed Winston’s overall influence, saying, “To me, Dick Smith is the Godfather of our business, Rick Baker is the Artist- quite possibly the greatest artist ever, in fact, and Stan was the King of the Business because he made the special effects industry into a respectable business. Before Stan fought for us, we were working out of garages for pennies and no one treated us like artists. Stan fought back against that, and made it possible so special effects departments would get the resources they needed and would be treated fairly on productions too. He knew we all deserved that and I don’t think this industry would be as well-respected as it is now had Stan not pushed so hard.”
But even though Winston was known to many as a great businessman, at the end of the day, he was also just a great human being to know, making his passing in June 2008, a hugely heartbreaking moment to all of those who loved him and knew him best.
“It’s really difficult for me to put it all into words because I still miss him so much as a friend,” said Miner. “I know he has this incredible professional legacy and his work touched so many different movies over the years, but he was always bigger than that to me. Think of all the people who worked with Stan over the years, who learned from him and had the chance to pursue their dreams because of him. I was one of those guys too. Stan was one of the greatest people I have ever known, a wonderful friend, and I just miss him so much.”
Berger added, “I can still remember that feeling when I found out Stan had passed away. I was working in Boston, so I had to fly home rather quickly because I just couldn’t miss being there. There were thousands of people at his service. It was incredible, but such a difficult thing for me to get through personally. It still is- there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Stan. And it’s the same for a lot of us guys who came up in this world during the Eighties- Shannon (Shea), Alec (Gillis), Tom (Woodruff Jr.), John (Rosengrant), Shane (Mahan), Grant (Arndt) and even Kevin Yagher worked with Stan for a while. We all just want to live up to that standard he set for us, which is why we all continue to strive to do the very best work we can.”
Without a doubt, Winston’s influence on the film industry as a whole is much larger than any T-800, any Alien Queen or even the T-Rex’s he designed and, although he may have left us far too early, it’s safe to say that Winston’s legacy continues to live on in Hollywood through everyone he worked alongside with during his impressive 30+ year career.
Below is a special gallery of behind-the-scene images featuring Stan as part of our Stan Winston Week celebration. I wanted to take a moment and thank the Stan Winston School of Character Arts for their generosity in allowing Daily Dead to share these special photos with all our readers and give us the opportunity to celebrate one of the genre’s true creative visionaries.
Be sure to head back here tomorrow for the final day of Stan Winston Week as we take a look at the school which still keeps his passion for special effects alive and hear from a very special final guest in our series. In case you missed it, don’t forget to check out the earlier installments of our Stan Winston Week celebration:
To learn more about the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, visit:
Stan Winston Photo Gallery:
“Stan Winston and Tim Burton collaborate and share ideas about the Big Fish sculpture.”
“Winston, Mahan, and Rosengrant dress the alien with slime between takes. To relieve the weight on the performer inside, a stunt man holds up one of the queen’s arms.”
“Stan Winston and Lance Henriksen on the set of Pumpkinhead. This was Stan’s directorial debut. ”
“Stan Winston takes a picture with Frankenstein (Tom Noonan) while on set for The Monster Squad.”
“Stan Winston poses with the range of robotic characters created for Terminator 3.”