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The University of Virginia hosts the first ever Stan Winston School hands on workshops to teach "The Art of the Moving Creature"

Dec 1, 2012


By Molly Joyce - University of Virginia - Class of 2013

Turns out, you don’t have to be an expert to build a creature!

Over the past semester, we found that college kids can do it too! Thanks to Matt Winston and the help of Stan Winston School of Character Arts professionals, Shane Mahan, Peter Weir Clarke, Shannon Shea, Ted Haines, and John Ales, students at the University of Virginia created full-scale moving creatures during the first two workshops of the Stan Winston Arts Festival of the Moving Creature!

WORKSHOP #1 - September 2012

When Matt, Shane, and Peter joined forces with us in September to conduct the first ever, hands-on, creature-building workshop to kickoff the Stan Winston Arts Festival of the Moving Creature we made monster magic happen.


Matt, Shane, and Peter began their creature building crash course by presenting the students with the task of designing any kind of creature that was nonhuman in form but had at least one human inside. “Just start sketching something, whatever kind of weird creature you can think of,” Shane instructed. Not long after, each student was asked to mold a clay armature of his or her best sketch. Matt, Peter, and Shane, then judged the clay models and selected the 6 most promising. Once those 6 were selected, students were separated into groups of 4-5 and assigned a specific creature to build.


The creature builders used wood, PVC pipes, backpacks, chicken wire, foam, trash bags and really anything else they could get their hands on, to build their creatures.

To build one of the creatures, the “Silvermouthed Clam”, 2 students created “trashbag pants.” They started molding those “trashbag pants” midmorning on the day of the Creature Bash and stayed in them all day leading up to the event! Now that is dedication!

They weren’t the only dedicated students throughout the process though. All of the students and faculty worked around the clock to go from 6 sketches to 6 full-scale creatures in just three days.


At the end of the three day workshop, the students at U.Va. had created some impressive beasts and they were ready to show them off.   Matt gave a quick presentation featuring a reel of Stan’s most impressive projects. Shane discussed this work and gave the audience some insight into the workshops held throughout the week. Finally, Peter, with the help of Shane, showed off an electronic creature head he helped create back in LA, for an upcoming Zicam commercial. The room was packed and this was a real crowd pleaser!


During the presentation a crowd of people started to assemble outside in anticipation of the “Creature Bash.” Once everyone else filed out onto the terrace of the Arts Grounds, Matt masterfully MC-ed the event. Each creature had a bio including its name, special characteristics, history, and mating practices. The creatures moved around the terrace putting on a show for the 150+ students, faculty, kids, and community members in attendance. The crowd was in hysterics over some of the creatures. One group created a creature and named him “Elephino,” pronounced “hell-if-I-know,” which the crowded enjoyed. They also got a kick out of the creature, “Quincy,” who was president of his charity that taught disadvantaged young moving creatures important life skills like searching for truffles, tying a bow tie, and pouring stiff gin & tonics.


While the students anxiously awaited the November workshop they continued to take class twice a week. The students love coming to the creature class because it is engaging and hands-on and I guarantee they never get bored! Jake Fox, a graduate student in Landscape Architecture said: “Melissa, Steve, and Eric have an ambitious goal for this class, and it’s been really fun to work across disciplines and geographic distances to achieve it. In the Landscape Architecture program, we are taught to learn and investigate the world through making and drawing, and its really quite fun to apply those tactics to the creation of a moving creature.”


While in-class curriculum includes everything from practicing sketching, to lectures about the creatures involved in productions like Cirque du Soleil, to building large-scale inflatable creatures, the second half of the semester focused mainly on individual creature design. Each student sketched and made models of their own idea for the creature. Matt, Shannon, and Ted reviewed the designed and selected the best one for the November workshop.

WORKSHOP #2 - November 2012

Going into the second workshop, everyone knew they were going to have to step up their game if we were going to top the previous workshop. The goal for the second workshop was to fully construct one massive and incredibly elaborate moving creature and film a documentary of the week, including a short clip of the creature moving around Grounds. I think some people had their doubts about whether or not we were going to be able to pull it off but you better believe we did!


There was no time for chitchat once the workshop began on Tuesday morning; it was straight to business. The class split into groups to work on different pieces of the creature. Some people worked on legs while others focused on head and body parts. They started with a small-scale prototype and then moved straight into large-scale foam fabrication. The students printed off enlarged sketches of different creature parts and used them as guidelines for their foam carving. The entire creature was made entirely out of foam, PVC pipe, and paint!

After just the first day, 6 legs, 3 body parts, and the head were already beginning to take shape. Students worked non-stop all three days one their specific area so that by day three, installing the eyes, painting the body and mechanical leg movement logistics were the final objectives.


At the start of day three, Shannon arrived at the studio wearing a jacket and tie. Everyone was a bit confused by his more formal attire until he addressed the class. He said, “Guys… don’t make me take this tie off. If I have to take this tie off, that means I’m having to get in there and do work and I don’t want to have to be doing any work today. I want you guys to finish this yourselves.”  Needless to say, 6 o’clock rolled around, students were scrambling with the final touches and the tie never came off. Success!!


While the final adjustments were being made, someone noticed the band practicing on the field below the work studio and it became immediately apparent that we were going to film the creature terrorizing the band. One student, Thell, snuck into the drama costume shop and dressed himself up with a hat and a whip and became the creature tamer.  We managed to squeeze our creature, later named, Winston, out the garage style doors of the drama studio and set him up to wander around grounds.


Some of us carried spotlights, Steve Warner, Technical Director of the Drama Department and co-professor of the creature course, carried around a bull horn and a boom box to make weird creature noises, and Stan Winston School's John Ales filmed Winston as he attacked buses, marched with the band, stopped traffic crossing the street and chased a group of U.Va. students & faculty members up the lawn to the Rotunda. We made quite a scene on Grounds and gained a following of interested onlookers as we paraded around.


Everyone in the class has had such an incredible time working with the artists from the Stan Winston School of Character Arts during the past semester. Not only do they provide us with a level of expertise that we never would have experienced otherwise, they also bring an element of enthusiasm and energy to the project that makes the whole class even more invested and excited about building creatures for the Festival in the spring!

When Steven Warner, Melissa Goldman, and Eric Schmidt embarked on the Art of the Moving Creature project last summer, they envisioned U.Va. students from across arts disciplines, collaborating in a year-long class, to create movie-like creatures, culminating in a spring arts festival to display the student’s work. Not surprisingly, the project is proving to be just what they envisioned, and so much more!

As Stan Winston was a U.Va. alum, collaborating with the Stan Winston School of Character Arts seemed a natural partnership for the project. We are all so thrilled that the Winston Family accepted our offer to be involved and we are so thankful to them for helping us make this project possible! Can’t wait for the next artist visit in February!!

-Molly Joyce

University of Virginia - Class of 2013

To follow the workshops on Facebook, just click here THE STAN WINSTON ARTS FESTIVAL OF THE MOVING CREATURE