Matt Winston and Erich Grey Litoff have been on a mission to advance monsterkind. And in the process, they’ve brought the legendary Stan Winston back to life.
Along with the entire Winston family and many protégés of the late master, the two have established the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, a cutting-edge online school devoted to teaching the practical and digital techniques that breathe life into fantasy characters. The school’s instructors represent the top Creature Effects artists and technicians working in Hollywood. For the first time, these artists, engineers, animatronics specialists, digital experts and more have united to share their secrets, in a passionate pursuit to immortalize and advance the art of monster-making.
The Monstrous Magic of Stan Winston
The road to this one-of-a-kind school traces its way back to a kitchen table in 1972.
Stan Winston originally moved to Los Angeles in1968 to become an actor. But with a young family to support, he decided to pursue his second love, monster-making, as a “day job” that would pay the bills while he waited for his acting break. Stan’s “Plan B” would evolve into a career that ultimately generated many of the world’s most iconic creatures, four Academy Awards, and legions of creature effects artists and fans all over the world.
“In 1972, after completing a three-year apprenticeship under the head of the Walt Disney Studios Makeup department, Bob Schiffer, Stan struck out on his own,” Matt says. “He founded Stan Winston Studio in our tiny 2 bedroom house in Encino, CA. He’d work with the really messy stuff in the garage and do his sculpting at the kitchen table.”
Stan quickly found professional success, winning an Emmy in 1972 at the age of 26, for his work on Gargoyles. In 1973, the Winston family, which now included Stan, wife Karen, Matt and daughter Debbie, moved to a house with a larger garage and a little guest room that Stan converted into the “new” Stan Winston Studio. “My sister and I were so lucky growing up,” says Matt, “Dad was always working on something extraordinary in our little garage. Sometimes he’d bring us to movie sets and we’d watch him transform people into creatures and fantasy characters. Dad was Santa Claus and Willy Wonka all wrapped up into one.”
In the late 70’s, Stan finally left the family garage and opened his first state-of-the-art facility. In so doing, he helped to turn the Creature FX business into a respectable industry. Over the next three decades, Stan Winston Studio attained worldwide acclaim, contributing iconic characters to one blockbuster film after another, including Predator, Stan’s Academy Award winning work on Aliens, the Terminator films, the Jurassic Park series, and culminating recently with his contributions to Iron Man and Avatar. Matt, meanwhile, went to college and became a professional actor, “I guess I was kind of picking up where Dad left off with his acting dreams.” Stan’s son-in-law and school co-founder Erich Litoff, grew up in New York City in a family that owned jazz clubs. Now a producer in Hollywood, he’s married to Matt’s sister Debbie.
Stan Winston passed away in 2008, leaving his family, friends and the industry at a loss. “We were devastated. He was our pied piper and we all felt directionless for a long while after his passing,” Matt says, describing their grief.
“After about a year and a half, we said, ‘Enough is enough. We know we’re going to think about him every day, but let’s stop doing it with mourning. Let’s do it with celebration.’”
Erich remembers the exact moment when Matt called him.
“I was actually out on a run. I remember him calling and talking about a school. It was at a time where we were trying to figure out ways to keep Stan alive, to keep him out there. Was it print, was it toys? We were just kind of grasping at things, but we couldn’t identify the perfect way to do it.” Matt concurs. “We were thinking about what we could put his name on that he would be proud of. And education just seemed like the perfect thing to do. He always talked about teaching once his career slowed down. The school finally gives him the chance to do it, even though he’s no longer here with us.”
“We were sort of like, ‘How could we not have thought of it before?’ It makes perfect sense.” Erich says. “It’s about goodwill, giving back, and showing people who Stan was, who his team was, and sharing their techniques and artistry with future generations.”
“What we have seen is that the school has become a way for everyone to do what we as a family needed to do. Which was to take that energy of missing someone who is so important to them and turn it into a celebration of that person,” Matt says. “So in the same way it’s been healing and great for us, it’s been the same for this community who were like a second family to Stan.”
“We just knew we needed him back,” Matt says. “And this school is how we achieved it.”
Aliens, Creatures and Robots101
The Stan Winston School of Character Arts is an online educational experience open to anyone with an internet connection and a passion for Creature FX. The school’s online curriculum will evolve as techniques evolve, changing and mutating not unlike the very monsters it will generate. “Our streaming tutorials and DVD lessons will take students inside the world’s premiere workshops, offering an unprecedented and intimate look at the creative processes used by Hollywood top FX wizards,” Matt says. “The Creature FX industry has never banded together to share its secrets with a global audience like this before. The internet has finally made it possible. Stan would have loved it!”
Initially, students will have access to a library of streaming and DVD content that covers many specialties of character creation. “From digital design, to sculpture, to animatronics, to puppetry and performance, our video tutorials range from one to three hours long,” Matt says, “Students will be able to watch a lesson, work on the techniques, and then interact with the teacher via a blog dedicated to the lesson.”
“What really makes this online school special is that every single one of our teachers is a working artist. If we were a brick and mortar school, none of them would be available to us – they’re too busy making monsters at their day jobs. This unique online approach has given these artists a way to finally share their wisdom without impacting their professional commitments.”
“What is most impressive, anytime you are around this work, is the level of talent, the level of genius in every size, shape and form. It’s utterly awe inspiring. You have former-aerospace engineers working on innovative mechanical prototypes. You have the world’s finest artists working on cutting-edge tools to create designs that would make Michelangelo proud. You have sculptors, fabricators, mold makers, foam runners, and puppeteers … all under one roof! That’s the magic of it.” The chance to inspire new generations has been incredibly motivating to the instructors. “The artists are loving it. They’re very excited,” says Erich.
Matt agrees. “Everyone involved is eager to mentor the next generation of Creature FX artists so that these remarkable crafts survive. It’s really in everyone’s best interest to share knowledge. The more information is exchanged, the more techniques will improve, industry-wide. That was Stan’s philosophy, that’s our philosophy, and it’s the philosophy of all of the artists who’ve come on board.”
In addition to their one-of-a-kind school, Matt and Erich are embarking on one-of-a-kind banking as new members at First Entertainment Credit Union. “While I had heard of the credit union before, and knew that Dad’s company had been affiliated with it, I only recently learned how much they help their members. It’s a pretty amazing organization,” Matt says.
Erich agrees, and recalls hearing about the favorable rates and convenient locations years ago, “First Entertainment is THE Hollywood credit union and they have branches in the heart of the studio world. We’re proud to be members. It’s a great way to support the Industry.”
Congratulations on the launch of the school, Matt and Erich, and thank you for joining First Entertainment. Stan would be proud … on both accounts.
The Iron Man suit featured on the cover is called Iron Monger (aka Crimson Dynamo) and was worn by Jeff Bridges in his battle with Robert Downey, Jr. at the end of the first Iron Man film. All the suits in Iron Man were created by Stan Winston Studio. First Entertainment gives a BIG thanks to Legacy Effects for hosting the photo shoot for this issue of the Show.