Editor's Note: This is part of a new Screened Feature that will be recurring on the site.
When we talk about movies, the things we are most likely to talk about are the people who work on the major elements of the piece – the writers, directors and actors. While a director is involved with all of the decisions, every once in a while, someone outside of that role comes along and has the ability to truly effect the mood, feel and style of a film. When looking at the history of film, one of the most influential people to come along in this realm was Stan Winston. He was a master of special and makeup effects and he and his teams helped to create some of the most iconic characters in cinema throughout his career. He is probably best known for his work on The Terminator series, the Predators series, Jurassic Park and Iron Man, but worked on countless others. He was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won four. To say that he was a pioneer of character effects would be an understatement.
Luckily, for all lovers of film, although he passed away, members of his team continue his work. In fact, his son Matt runs the Stan Winston School of Character Arts. This is an online school that provides video training by the masters of character movie making. It’s a great website and because they have done so much work, they also have an incredible library of images and videos about the history of film. The Stan Winston School of Characters Arts has been kind enough to open up this resource to Screened. It will post photos, images and hopefully things such as interviews, etc. in the future that will exclusively be featured online here for the first time.
While it might have seemed obvious to choose one of the bigger films for the first post, I went a different route and chose Interview with the Vampire. First, I'm still not tired of Halloween movies, even if it is already November. Second of all, it is a movie that has not received as much attention when looking at how the characters were developed and created. Perhaps, more than anything, I am happy to take a look back at a vampire film that has nothing to do with Team Edward, Sookie Stackhouse or black latex. Recently the vampire genre has been commandeered by teenage girls, and boys if you count Underworld, but it has been a while since we have had a really quality dramatic vampire film (notice I'm not counting Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Stan Winston chose to work on the film because after working to create intense non-human aliens, robots and dinosaurs, he liked the idea of going back to his roots. For this reason, it is important to take a look at this film, because it shows how much work and artistry goes in to characters that are created with extensive makeup and puppetry, yet look completely realistic.
Interview with the Vampire is based on the novel by Anne Rice, and its literary beginnings can be seen throughout the film. Although the two main characters are vampires, the movie does not necessarily rest on the generic standards of a horror film. The fact that the main characters are vampires is a personality trait that inform the characters and how they develop, rather than causing them to go on a murdering blood sucking spree. In fact, much of the film is spent following Louis (Brad Pitt) who is struggling with the fact that he has been made a vampire and does not want to kill but wants to find a family. While Lestat (Tom Cruise) definitely has a taste for blood, it is demonstrated in a way that is more erotic than terrifying.
As there was such an emphasis on the characters having realistic as opposed to monster-like features, the makeup and effects that created them was very important to Winston and director Neil Jordan. If they had not conveyed the feeling of remaining somewhat human, it might have been harder to empathize with Louis, and get angry with the madman, excuse me, mad-vampire, Lestat. This is very apparent when looking at the initial character sketch drawings for the film. The pencil sketch drawings of both Louis and Lestat both have a human quality. It is their spiked teeth and pronounced veins that indicate they have an otherworldly quality, but if that were removed, they might not even look like vampires. Yet, there is just enough difference to make them look like distinguishable characters. In trying to keep with the description of Rice's characters, the team was very careful about what makeup they used on their faces to ensure they had the proper translucent skin. It was blue tattoo ink that painted the subtle veins all over the skin and created a slightly monster-like quality. Later in the film, after Lestat is transformed into a disfigured vampire, a different approach was taken as heavy prosthetics was used to create the more deformed vampire face.
Perhaps, the most interesting effect used in this film is the way in which Lestat's initial vampire death was executed after Claudia slits his throat. He begins the scene looking like a beautiful vampire and ends it as a decrepit skeleton after all of the blood drains out of his body. While these days we might expect this to have been accomplished with only digital and CG effects, Winston and his team brilliantly chose to use animatronic puppets to create the transformation. It was a technique Winston had used in the past, and chose to employ once again in Interview with the Vampire.
This once more provides the movie with a realism and emotional pull to the scene that might not have been there otherwise. Tom Cruise was initially taped acting the scene out, which was then used to build the mechanized head and body puppets seen here. The mechanical puppet was then controlled from underneath the table. In order to create the shriveling effect, air was released from an inflated airbag that was sewn around the skeletal form of the puppet. The animatronic heads were then mounted on the body and shot in fourteen separate motion control passes. The shot was then given to Digital Domain to create the seamless effect of the transformation of a decaying body. It is truly brilliant to see in action.
In fact, I recently watched the film again after looking at all of these photos and learning about the process used to create the characters, makeup and effects in the movie and was even more fascinated with the film. The character work is incredible, and I was especially impressed by the work in the scene of the transformation of Lestat. Even knowing this was a puppet, the metamorphosis of the character is so flawless I still cannot spot the effects or anything that makes the character look as if he is not entirely real. I invite you to take some time to watch the movie again through this new and different lens. It truly is a wonderful experience that once again reinvigorated my wonder and amazement at the magic of movie making and I hope it will do that same for you.
I thank Matt Winston and the team at the Stan Winston School of Character Arts for the images and the opportunity to write about this process. I also hope you will take a moment to check out and explore their website.