So long, Stan.

Stan Winston died yesterday, after a seven-year battle with cancer. He was 62. There are few folks in the entertainment business who I truly, madly, deep-geek over. Stan Winston is one of them. He was the genius who brought Aliens and Terminators out of James Cameron's mind and into the real world, on movie soundstages. He resurrected long-extinct full-size Tyrannosaurus Rexes for Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" films. His Predator did more than kick Schwarzenegger's ass -- it scared me out of my mind. I still weep when I watch "Edward Scissorhands" ... and while much of that can be credited to Johnny Depp's performance (and Danny Elfman's swirling score), that performance was informed by the Scissorhands costume, which Winston helped create.

Stan Winston was a collaborator -- he made that clear in nearly every interview I've watched -- and he wasn't a one-man band: hundreds of brilliant creature creators and puppeteers worked at (or for) his Stan Winston Studio. I had the good fortune to interview one such employee back when Spielberg's "A.I." was in theaters. We spoke at length about the robotic teddy bear Winston's team designed for that film, and we chatted briefly about Stan himself. In the end, this fellow told me Winston's mission was to make the creatures look, act and feel as real as possible. Part of that hailed from performance and puppetry; the rest came from the design of the creatures, at which Stan Winston excelled.

Even long after preposterous computer-generated fakery stole the spotlight from practical creations such as Winston's, he continued to be a player in the business. Most say the best in the business, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

And why? Because Winston's monsters (and sentient robots and dinosaurs and aliens) were real, real, tangible things that actors (and audiences) could see. We could sense these things actually occupied space, and had weight and depth. I'll take a man in a rubber suit over a mess of animated pixels any day, because I can appreciate the craft, the sensibility, the reality inside the fantasy I'm witnessing. That's something Stan Winston probably knew in his heart of hearts. Even in the great creative con that is storytelling and moviemaking, nothing beats the real.

It was this ultra-commitment to detail and a zealous drive for reality that always impressed me most about Winston's work. Stan Winston convinced me that metal skeletons were terrifying, that hand-puppet-powered chestbursters were the ultimate in terror, and that, were I ever pitted against a velociraptor, I would lose. Badly.

Stan Winston made me believe -- and that means he did his job. He was goddamned good at his job.

I wish you were still with us, Stan. I wish you could still wow us with new work for another decade, or two decades. But I've got a shelf of DVDs that will remind me of what you gave us -- what you gave me -- while you were here. It was all an illusion, as all filmmaking is, but you were one of the best illusionists in the world.

--J.C.

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