Stan Winston and the tricky business of Legacy

Oct. 06, 2008 | 1:30 p.m.


(Note: There’s also a tidbit here about the "Green Lantern" film project, check after the jump.)

The creature creators at Stan Winston Studio specialize in Hollywood miracles — they brought dinosaurs to life for "Jurassic Park" and turned metal men into movie history with "Iron Man" and "The Terminator" — but their next trick will be their toughest. The illustrious special-effects shop will try to hold on to its history even as it sheds its late founder’s name and abandons his storied workshop.

Stan Winston, (at right) a four-time Oscar winner, died in June in Malibu at age 62 after a seven-year battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. He was universally eulogized as one of the true wizards of Hollywood. "The entertainment industry has lost a genius," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the time, "and I lost one of my best friends." Steven Spielberg and James Cameron spoke at the funeral, and across Hollywood there was reflection on what made Winston and his shop so special. "He came to special effects from a background of acting, which informed everything," director Jon Favreau said. "It was always about performance, not just puppetry."

Winston became a brand name in Hollywood decades ago (he won his first Emmy in 1973) and his namesake studio in Van Nuys became an industry landmark with its collection of aliens, robots and magical beasties. But now, just months after his death, neither Winston’s name nor his workshop will be part of the day-to-day life of the company he left behind. All the latex masks and robotic critters have been crated up or already moved to a new facility in San Fernando that is much more modern but also far less charming. 

Stanwinston_2Stan Winston Studio will also give up the ghost by changing its name to Legacy Effects, a somewhat ironic moniker for a company that seems to be pushing away so much of its history. I recently dropped by Winston’s maze-like old workshop, which sits on a gritty industrial stretch of Valjean Avenue in Van Nuys, and got a tour before most of its treasures were boxed up. Everywhere you looked there was movie history, both famous (there’s a mottled, undead version of Tom Cruise from "Interview With the Vampire" standing in one corner) and nearly forgotten (it took me a long minute to recognize one of the robots from the 1981 Andy Kaufman movie "Heartbeeps" — but that film did earn Winston his first Oscar nomination).

The real treasure of the company, though, is its talent, not its heirlooms. That’s the main reason behind the name change. John Rosengrant, who started working with Winston on the set of "The Terminator" (1984), said that he and the three other partners who will lead the company forward all value the studio’s towering tradition, but have decided it would be best to take a step out of its considerable shadow.

"This was not an easy decision," Rosengrant told me. "When Stan died we lost a friend, a mentor, a teacher, an inspiration — the whole gamut. Everything he did and everything he represented, it’s ingrained in us. It would be hard to do anything but ‘the Stan way.’ "

That’s why no one was surprised when, in the days after the company’s founder’s death, one of Rosengrant’s partners told Ain’t it Cool News, the popular fanboy website, that the business would be renamed the Winston Effects Group. It seemed fitting and natural. But that name didn’t stick for long. Instead, the partners informed the Winston family that they would rename the company. "We did receive the blessing of Stan’s widow, Karen, but I’m sure there was mixed emotions for the family. I know there was mixed emotions for us."   

Galaxy_quest_stan_winstonlarge_2It’s a delicate dance when a Hollywood company lives on after its namesake founder dies, especially if that founder happened to be an icon (and make no mistake, Winston was an icon in the specialized art-science of special effects). It’s common for companies to keep the leader’s prestigious name as an ongoing brand, hence the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Entertainment and (in an especially good parallel to the Winston case) the Jim Henson Co., which was founded by a master artisan of singular imagination.

All these things went through the minds of Rosengrant and the other three Legacy partners: Shane Mahan (who also began working with Winston on the first "Terminator" set), Lindsay MacGowan (the British-born partner who was hired while Winston’s team was working at Pinewood Studios on the 1986 film "Aliens") and Alan Scott (who came into the fold during the "Terminator 2" production and now leads the shop’s escalating pursuits in television commercials, of which there were more than 100 last year).

But they also considered the fact that they themselves contributed a great deal to the success of Winston Studio, especially since 2001, when the founder’s role in effects projects began to recede. Not only was Winston dealing with his health issues, he was also pursuing an ambition to produce movies.

Stanwinstonmodel"He was turning over the reins to us during ‘A.I.‘ and ‘Jurassic Park III,’ " Rosengrant said, referring to two 2001 films involving Winston’s close friend Spielberg. "Stan was on the set for ‘A.I.’ but he really turned over a lot of the duties at that point to the people here. He was passing the torch to us. He was very supportive of people finding their own successes here and, really, he will always be part of anything we do. When we get a new project, a new challenge, we all look at it through Stan’s eyes."

That led to great success on "Iron Man," by all accounts a triumphant meshing of practical and CGI effects, which is an approach that is gaining great traction in Hollywood as the best way to realize fantastic visions on screen but deliver them with a real-world weight and solidity that keeps their movies from slipping into complete cartoon physics. Winston was "in the room during key moments and for key decisions," according to director Favreau, but his team did most of the heavy lifting. Favreau has worked repeatedly with Winston, both the man and the namesake studio, and he said that the crew that is now moving forward as Legacy will absolutely continue to have his business. "I have no reservations at all. We know them and they know us and their work is top-notch."

(In another Winston-related note, Favreau also said that he will be directing "Me and My Monster" for Sony. The movie, about a boy’s life-changing friendship with a strange creature, was one that was near and dear to the heart of Winston. It was circled the flagship project for Winston Productions, another venture by the late special-effects guru. "It was something he reached out to me about and wanted me to do and I’m excited to be doing it.")

The last two major American movies that will have Winston Studio listed in the credits will be "Terminator Salvation" and then the Cameron-directed 3-D film "Avatar," which is fitting considering the importance of the killer-robot franchise and its original director in the career of the late wizard. "That," Rosengrant said, "will be a bittersweet thing for a lot of people."

"Terminator Salvation," in theaters next summer, is being directed by McG who, earlier this year, told me that he considered it essential to have the Winston name on his film. "It comes down to credibility," the filmmaker said. "I wanted to carry on this tradition and show people that we were going to make this movie the right way. That meant bringing in Stan and his people. You have to do things the right way."

The Winston name will also appear on a German film called "Pandorum." After that, the Legacy era officially begins (as far as movies) with the Bollywood production called "Robot" and then, if things go as all parties expect, with "Iron Man 2" in 2010.

Legacy also has been talking with the production team behind a film adaptation of Green Lantern, the DC Comics character that dates back to 1940. "We’ve done some early design work, so that’s just preliminary, it’s not green-lit yet," Rosengrant said. "And green-lit has a whole different meaning with that project, doesn’t it?"

The shop is also making a new foray into television. While Winston labored on major television events as far back as the 1970s (he worked on "Roots," for instance, and won an Emmy for the creepy 1972 tele-film "Gargoyles"), now his team is looking for weekly work.  "We’ve done some work with ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ that’s a new thing for us, working on a television series. We’d love to see where that leads."

Depending on the workload, the Winston/Legacy group has upward of 120 employees and, no matter what the name is on its shingle, the top talent on that roster will bring in plenty of business in the seasons to come. And, to be frank, they want their names to be attached to future glories, not the name of their beloved but departed mentor. That’s not unreasonable, but Hollywood is a tightly wired community with an emphasis on "reputation and relationships," as Rosengrant put it, and doing things "the right way," as McG phrased it. That’s why the Legacy leaders are still fretting.

"Shane Mahan, one of the partners here, was talking to James Cameron and he told him about the name change. Jim thought about it and then he said that it was the right thing to do, you know, that it was fine. You got to understand, he and Stan were very, very good friends, so that meant a lot to us. Really, we were all breathing a sigh of relief…"

— Geoff Boucher


Photo gallery of Stan Winston creatures and creations

An Appreciation: Tom Russo writes on the magic of Stan Winston

Hero Complex exclusive: Arnold Schwarzenegger underwhelmed by "Terminator" reboot

Stan Winston’s 2003 essay on Halloween for the Los Angeles Times

Photo of Stan Winston with dinosaur in background courtesy of Stan Winston Studio

Photo of Stan Winston with some of his studio’s creations from the Los Angeles Times archives

Photo of Stan Winston and his team on the set of the 1999 film "Galaxy Quest" is from David Strick’s Hollywood Backlot collection, an archive of filmmakers at work.

Photo of Winston on set of "Small Soldiers" by Bruce Talamon    


15 Responses to Stan Winston and the tricky business of Legacy

  1. Carlos says:

    It makes me wonder why they want to change the company's name. It seems silly to change the name of a well known and established brand into something generic like Legacy Effects. Does anybody know anything about marketing over there? Or about how long it takes to get name recognition for a brand?… Their competitors must be ecstatic.

  2. Mike Lancaster says:

    What a horrible mistake to rename the studio.
    There's a reason why 42 years after the death of Walt Disney his company is still called Walt Disney Pictures. And decades after Jim Henson's death, Muppet projects still originate from The Jim Henson Company. It's called branding.
    The brainiacs at the generically named "Legacy Effects" sure don't get it. Stan Winston is a household name for film buffs and within the industry that he transformed. He must surely be rolling in his grave over the indignation.

  3. Brad F. says:

    I don't even know what to say. If I could boycott every movie they are involved with from now on for this disgusting and selfish decision, I would. Be ashamed.

  4. Eric says:

    How offensive to the memory of a legendary Hollywood artist.
    As others have mentioned, The Walt Disney Company kept Walt's name. The Jim Henson Company kept Jim's name. Warner Brothers Studios kept the Warner's name. Stan Winston Studios should remain Stan Winston Studios. Period. It should not be renamed "Legacy Effects" – what a pathetic name! When George Lucas dies, you think they'll change "Lucasfilm" to "Legacy Films"? Of course not. That would be moronic. The name stays.
    I don't care what the current owners claim about how much they "respected" Stan. Lying scumbags. Actions speak louder than words. The truth is, removing his name from the studio is totally disrespectful to his memory. That's a deliberate and cruel slap-in-the-face to Stan and completely idiotic in terms of branding. It saddends me to think that the legend of Stan Winston has been left in the hands of people who are clueless about marketing a business and totally uncaring about preserving the memory of their founder by erasing his name.
    Stan, whereever you are, you will always be an inspiration to me and many others around the world – even if your own pupils and partners don't give a damn about you and your achievements.

  5. Oh! This is really sad! A big mistake!
    It is very offensive to memory of StanWinston.. and to complete, Legacy FX? What a stupid name.
    Who is the ignorant that suggest this name change?

  6. E. Kupprios says:

    What can I say? Young people want their own things, not caring about the founders who laid the road for them to travel. Is it too much to ask to acknowledge this? Let the company stay Stan Winston, in loving memory of a pioneer, in recognition of the one that took you by the hand and helped make you into what you are today. If the need to have self recognizance is too strong, name it Winston/Legacy Effects or Studio… but do not forget who was there first.
    Remember, he was there first, you came later.

  7. Ben says:

    Does anybody know the legal complications of using someone's name after they die? Maybe it just isn't that simple. And I know these guys. They are honoring his memory by calling it Legacy.

  8. Jene says:

    I think people are missing a very important fact regarding the transition from Stan Winston Studio to Legacy Effects. Stan put this ball into play several years ago. He wanted his top guys to form their own company and he was to be a minority or silent partner. Stan placed his "charming' stuido for sale prior to his death. Stan's passing and the sale of the building which were days apart from each other forced the issue which the guys had been dragging their feet about for years; none wanted to reduce Stan to being a silent partner, that would be cruel. If Stan were here today I can almost see him puffing on a cigar with a twinkle in his eye and mischief in his heart saying: "C'mon guys show me what you got!"

  9. matt says:

    I have to say coming from a VFX background, that I find it sad that the studio name Stan Winston will no longer live on. While it could be said that if everyone would have parted ways and started anew, we then would have arrived at the same place. The fact remains that they rebranded the existing studio, and I find it does nothing to honor the memory of a great pioneer in this industry.
    To use the above examples; people know who Jim Henson and Walt Disney are, because the studios bear their legacy. In five to ten years a new generation of fans will watch a movie and go 'wow, great effects by studio X'. But how would they ever link that back to Stan and the pioneering work that made a lot of that 'wow' possible. I can't fathom not putting the word Muppet and Henson together, or Disney Animation. I am now at a loss to see how Stan's name beyond our memory will continue to live on.

  10. David Capps says:

    Dear Folks at "Legacy,"
    I can appreciate your wanting to establish your own identity, but would you even be there
    now if it were not for the great Stan Winston? You really should reconsider……

  11. IGPNicki says:

    I have to echo what everybody else has said. Don't take Stan Winston's name off the studio. These people are claiming that they did the majority of the work since 2001, which i'm sure, is true. However, who brought them in in the first place? Stan Winston. And you can sure as hell bet that it was Stan Winston's name and connections that brought them all these post-2001 projects. To take his name off the studio would be both tragic and disrespectful. Go ahead and start anew if you like, but don't take away his legacy.

  12. Clayton says:

    this´s a horrible name.

  13. Stan`s Greatest Fan says:

    Hi people.
    The idea of changing the name, well…. Somebody says:" It`s just a name". I say it`s the name of a man who did everithing what you could ever imagine. The name of a man/god that showed me the direction of my own life. Thanks to him I`ve started to make true ART and found the reason of life for me. I even made my own "Stan Winston`s display room" and learned everything needed. When he died it was like something inside of me died too. He was the best of the best, doing his very best from the deepest parts of his heart.
    In 2005, the film Doom was shoot in Prague where i live. Stan Winston wasn`t there (unfortunately), but spent a couple of minutes with John Rosengrant talking about this industry. I thougt" Wow, he really respects that and understands".
    But what happened? They`ve changed the name of the studio?! Did somebody rename the Mona Lisa painting because Leonardo Da Vinci died? No. This is wrong. Stan Winston got everyone of them in the business, he teached them everything they know. In my eyes it`s a violation. Without remorse. I respect their abilities, But this stupid decission? Has all he`s done been good for nothing? This is not just about his name, it`s the legacy of worlds and characters he created. What would the movie industry mean if there will be no Stan Winston? Allmost nothing. So, you there, who are responsible for that mess you did, get down on your knees and be ashamed.
    I am sorry for some gramatic mistakes, my english is not so perfect as yours.
    Goodbye Stan and thank you for everything.

  14. AC adapter says:

    Stan Winston – my votary, not only for Jurassic Park, Iron Man and Terminator.
    His drive is so sublime with 7 years to his sick. With his leave, I must say it is a huge wastage not only for entertainer, but for human.

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