Interview: Matt Winston

Matt Winston is the son of legendary special effects creator, Stan Winston. Matt got the opportunity to work on Jurassic Park as a puppeteer. Matt is currently carrying on his father’s legacy by heading the Stan Winston School. The school teaches character creation to the next generation of special effects creators.

I spoke to Matt Winston about his experience working on Jurassic Park and how he views the groundbreaking effects in the film today.

Can you talk a little bit about your role with the Stan Winston School?

It is my life. Other than family, my life is devoted to the school. We founded it about a year and a half after my dad’s passing. Education was dad’s unfinished business. He climbed to the peak of practical effects, but he didn’t get to share. He talked about sharing a lot before he passed away. This has been our way of fulfilling that dream for him. It has taken over my life. It has demanded all my attention and it makes us all feel that we are doing our part to preserve the art of practical effects and character creation. If we don’t talk about it, who is going to?

What are your thoughts on CGI? How do you, and the other practical effects artists at the school, feel about computer generated special effects?

We love CGI. We absolutely think it has broken the barriers in terms of what you can do on film. But, we do believe it works best when it’s mixed with practical effects. It is another tool in the tool kit. However, it doesn’t mean that 100 years of filmmaking knowledge should go out the window.

Stan Winston on the set of Jurassic Park

You are credited as working as a puppeteer on Jurassic Park. Can you talk about what being a puppeteer on Jurassic Park entailed?

One of the things you must know about creature effects and special effects artists is that one of the big payoffs of doing that difficult work is you can take the creature to the set and bring it to life. The reason why is that you are really the only one who knows how to do it. You can’t hand it off to some random crew member and say, ‘Here is a very complicated puppet, good luck!’ You have to bring the people who built it because they know how to use it. Also, they know how to repair it if anything goes wrong on set. It is the big payoff for everyone.

Being Stan’s son, I got to shortcut a lot of stuff. I graduated college and he was like, ‘Come work on Jurassic Park.’ I didn’t put a year of work into it to build these things. But, I did get to go to set and be on every dinosaur crew.

Having grown up around Hollywood, you can become jaded about projects. All of us knew this was something very special. This was Hollywood’s first attempt at convincing audiences that dinosaurs were real for a long time. Before this it was Ray Harryhausen and stop motion. Nobody had ever attempted anything on this scale with live action. It was a dream come true. Being on set of a dinosaur movie was only made better by the fact that it was directed by Steven Spielberg…the greatest film director of all time. Everything lined up and it was just amazing.

Did you get the chance to work on every dinosaur in the film as a puppeteer?

 I worked on every dino team except the Triceratops. That was shot in Hawaii and only people that built the Triceratops went out to work on it. Being Stan’s kid, I got the really sweet job of being some part of every other dinosaur sequence. In the Raptor sequences whenever it was a puppet that has arms…I was the left arm. It took sometimes 14 of us to puppet a Raptor. It was a big complicated thing. On team T-Rex I got a couple of opportunities to operate, but mostly I was there for support. On the Spitter I got to be known as the ‘Arm Guy.’ I was again the left arm for the Spitter.

Each of the dinosaurs were executed using multiple puppets…depending on what the shots required. There would be a full body puppet that required lots of puppeteers for wide shots. Then we would often swap in an insert puppet for closeup shots that were only the head, neck and chest area. That would need a much smaller group of puppeteers. If we weren’t puppeteeringwe were support. We would be wrangling cables or repairing foam that tore during a take. It was different every day. It was never just one thing.

When you look at photos of the animatronic dinosaurs on the set, it is pretty amazing. Was it more awe-inspiring on the set with all the full-scale dinosaurs, or when you saw the final product on the movie screen?

Being on set. Nothing compares to the feeling I had when we were on the set at Warner Bros. for the T-Rex paddock escape scene. It’s raining…it’s dark…and you have a 40-foot long…20-foot-tall…animatronic T-Rex right in front of you. Nothing has come close to that feeling. Even on screen it can’t top that. Even rehearsing it…when that T-Rex was turned on it was being puppeteered in real time…it was truly alive. It would follow you, it would look at you, it would regard you. It maybe considered eating you. It was spine chilling awesomeness. Nothing tops that.

It was decided late in the preproduction process that CGI would be used rather than stop motion effects. This was of course the first time CGI was used in such a major way. How did the use of this brand new technology impact what you guys were doing practically?

 Before we started shooting it was decided we would go with CGI dinosaurs rather than stop motion dinosaurs. That decision was made before anyone was on set. It didn’t really change much. What they did was…the shots that were going to be stop motion…they just made CGI. It wasn’t like they took a bunch of shots from live action and made them CGI. They just switched what was going to be stop motion to CGI. It didn’t really have a huge impact.

CGI was still very new in 1993, and one of the few other projects that used the technology was Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Your father worked on T2 and provided practical effects for the film. Is it fair to say that your father was maybe the only person in 1993 that would have been prepared for the CGI of Jurassic Park and how it would mix with practical effects?

Absolutely. CGI in film started with Young Sherlock Holmes and The Abyss. But,T2 really blew it up. Dad had experience working with ILM and blending his practical work with digital work. It wasn’t something he feared. He never feared CGI, unlike a lot of practical effects artists. Dad was like, ‘Great a new tool. It will only make our work look better, and our work will make their work look better.’

With Jurassic Park…when dad saw the test…which was the T-Rex coming through the trees…that made him go…’This could work.’ He realized it would elevate the overall quality of the film. He also immediately invested heavily in the future of CGI after working on Jurassic Park.

Steven Spielberg & Kathleen Kennedy, with the Triceratops, on the set of Jurassic Park.

The special effects of Jurassic Park still hold up amazingly well 25 years later. In a lot of cases the CGI looks better than it does in films that are released today. Why do you think the special effects in Jurassic Park have held up so well?

 It’s the mix of digital and practical. The mix is what makes Jurassic Park hold up so well. It’s really there. Three quarters of the dinosaur shots in the film are practical effects. When you cut away from a CGI shot to a practical shot you are being tricked as an audience member to believe that it is really there. A lot of the shots are really there. So, when you are in a wide shot that’s CGI…your mind is going…’It’s really there.’ You buy the CGI even more. That blend is what makes audiences truly believe that something is really there.

When you look back at Jurassic Park, what is your biggest take away from your time working on the film?

I look back on Jurassic Park and it stands alone in terms of how epic of an achievement it was. It was a benchmark in the digital revolution. It was also a benchmark in the development of mechanical and animatronic characters for film. In every way Jurassic Park stands as a towering achievement. It shows no signs of losing that because it was the first. As much as we love the subsequent Jurassic Park films, there is something about being the first. It holds up better than any of the other films. The first is still the best.

You can learn more about the Stan Winston School here.