Legend's legacy sets bar high for CG guys

Siggraph is a computer graphics event, yet tomorrow night it will devote an entire evening to celebrating the work of a man who tried to make computer graphics unnecessary.

Sony Pictures Imageworks will host a tribute to the late Stan Winston at 8 p.m., with James Cameron introducing a screening of “Terminator 2,” which combines seminal digital effects with masterful makeup and animatronic work by the master craftsman.

Winston, who died June 15 after a seven-year struggle with multiple myeloma, favored live puppetry over digital imagery, and as a result there was sometimes a friendly rivalry between Winston and CG vfx artists when they had to work together on a picture. Yet it’s clear now that Winston’s legacy will have a lingering influence on digital artists and effects, not just on practical work.

Winston’s sheer artistry raised the bar for everyone, says visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, who most recently worked with the Winston Studio on Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Shutter Island.”

“Stan’s ability to create an object was superior to most people’s ability create an object,” Legato says. “He had the ability to conjure it up so it becomes a viable thing in a movie.” Winston’s creature designs remain memorable whether the creatures are shown as puppets or rendered digitally.

Coming from a performing background himself, Winston appreciated that actors work better opposite something active and tangible rather than the ping-pong balls on sticks they were often faced with on the set of vfx-heavy movies.

Shane Mahan, now one of the co-owners of Stan Winston Studio, says that was always Winston’s goal.

“Stan always used to say half of great acting was reacting,” Mahan notes. “To this day, we consider what we create just another actor on the set. It might have four or five guys tethered to it, hiding in the background someplace, but the robot from ‘Zathura’ is just another cast member and should come off that way.”

Winston Studio alum Glenn Derry, now virtual production supervisor on Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar,” says he came away from his work there with a deep appreciation of how important it is not to have to wait for post-production to see what something is supposed to look like.

“My world is about the now,” Derry says. “That’s the biggest thing I brought from Stan and my background as a puppeteer: There has to be an element of the now. There has to be an element of not waiting to see it later.”

Derry is working on real-time visualization tools so the director can see the composition and performance of the digital creatures, even if they’re not on the set.

“I feel it’s absolutely imperative to have that, not only as a narrative element but as a compositional element for your camera operator. It leads you into camera moves and into handoffs and into storytelling you really can’t do any other way, because you can actually see it as you’re working with it.”

Derry says it’s vital that aspiring young digital artists actually try their hands with the camera and the real world.

“The dying art as far as I’m concerned, is the hands-on. Actually getting your hands dirty. Running around, even if it’s just in your backyard with a camera, looking at something, looking at how light interacts. People get enamored with the technology. And the technology plays a big part of it. But it’s really about telling a story visually.

“You have to take the time to understand what looks good. You can’t put that in a bottle. You can only get there by doing it.”

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