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A wizard's legacy, minus his name

Successors of the late Stan Winston step out of his long shadow.

October 06, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

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 onto its history even as it sheds its late founder's name and abandons his storied workshop.

Stan Winston, the four-time Oscar winner, died in June in Malibu at age 62 after a seven-year battle with cancer. 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 that 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 more modern but also far less charming.

Stan Winston Studio will also give up the ghost; the company name is changing to Legacy Effects, which is somewhat ironic for a company 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, and got a tour before most of its treasures were boxed up. Everywhere you looked there was movie history, both famous (a mottled, undead version of Tom Cruise from "Interview With the Vampire") and nearly forgotten (a robot 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 would lead the company forward all valued the studio's towering tradition but they had decided it would be best to take a step out of its considerable shadow.

"This was not an easy decision," Rosengrant said. "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.' "

In the days after Winston's death, the announced intention was to rename the company the Winston Effects Group. But after weighing that idea, the partners informed the Winston family that they would go in a different direction. "We did receive the blessing of his widow, Karen, but I'm sure there was mixed emotions for the family. I know there was mixed emotions for us."

It'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, hence the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Entertainment and -- in an especially good parallel -- the Jim Henson Co., founded by a master artisan of singular imagination.

All of this 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 (a Brit who was hired while Winston was working in England on the 1986 film "Aliens") and Alan Scott (who came in during the "Terminator 2" production and now leads the shop's escalating effort in TV commercials, of which it made more than 100 last year). But weighing against that was they themselves contributing a great deal to the Winston Studio's success, especially since 2001, when the founder's role began to recede. Not only was Winston dealing with his health issues, he was also pursing an ambition to produce movies.

"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."

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