The Monster Squad Behind the Scenes: Reimagining Hollywood's Most Iconic Creatures at Stan Winston Studio


The Monster Squad Behind the Scenes: Reimagining Hollywood's Most Iconic Creatures at Stan Winston Studio

Classic Creatures Reimagined: The Monster Squad

After returning from the Aliens shoot in England, Stan Winston Studio did work for episodes of Amazing Stories (1985 - 1987) — the television anthology series produced by Steven Spielberg — as well as creature effects for The Monster Squad (1987), director Fred Dekker’s campy film about legendary movie monsters uniting to rule the world. The Monster Squad had inspired enthusiasm among Stan Winston’s crewmembers, offering as it did the opportunity to re-create such legendary characters as the Mummy, Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and a Gill Man reminiscent of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Pictured above: Stan Winston's concept designs for the "Gillman, the Mummy, and Frankenstein's Monster. Due to licensing issues, the crew had to create characters that were suggestive — but not exact copies — of Universal's iconic monsters.

Re-designing the classic creatures

“The challenge was to suggest those classic creatures, without really copying them,” explained Shane Mahan, “because we didn’t have permission or the license to use those specific images. So we could do a ‘Gillman’, for example, but it couldn’t look too much like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was frustrating for us at first, because, of course, we wanted to do the original designs! But we couldn’t. We could only suggest those designs. So the Frankenstein monster looks a bit like the Karloff creature; but instead of bolts in the neck, he has bolts in the forehead. There was a certain percentage of changes we had to make to get away from any legal copyright infringement.”

Pictured above: The Mummy head made by Shane Mahan based on Stan Winston's design.

Stan Winston designed each of the characters for The Monster Squad, drawing sketches that were evocative of the original monsters, but within the legal restrictions.

Pictured above: Actor Michael Reid MacKay in a test fitting at Stan Winston Studio for his role as the Mummy.

Frankenstein's monster was brought to life by Winston's crew under the supervision of SWS supervisor Tom Woodruff, Jr., fellow SWS supervisors Shane Mahan and John Rosengrant led the Mummy and Wolfman builds, respectively. The Gillman suit was primarily overseen by Matt Rose and Steve Wang, while Count Dracula's makeup was applied on set by frequent Winston collaborator Zoltan Elek and SWS supervisor Alec Gillis took care of the bat-to-Dracula transformations.

Frankenstein's monster

“From Stan’s designs,” said Tom Woodruff, Jr., “a number of us started doing sculptures. Stan let me do the Frankenstein's monster prosthetic makeup. By then, he was very hands-on when it came to designing things, and he was also very involved in getting performances on the set, but it was unusual for him to actually sculpt or paint things."

Pictured above: Tom Woodruff, Jr. sculpts the Frankenstein's monster makeup over a life-cast of actor Tom Noonan.

"I remember working on my Frankenstein makeup one day, and Stan coming into the makeup room to check it out. I said to him, ‘I’d love it if you could paint a set of these and give me some ideas.’ And he seemed genuinely touched that I wanted him to be hands-on involved and lead the way for me. So, one afternoon, he sat down with me, and Stan and I painted appliances all afternoon, just talking about life and having a great time. I was so happy to be sitting there, painting makeup appliances with Stan Winston!”

Pictured above: Stan Winston goofs off with "Frankenstein's Monster" (Tom Noonan) on the set of The Monster Squad.

Gill Man

In addition to sculpting the Frankenstein’s monster makeup, Tom Woodruff Jr. played the role of the Gillman. It was his debut as a suit performer, a skill he has perfected in the twenty years since, performing in creature suits for dozens of films.

Pictured above: Stan Winston and crew members prepare for a shot of the Gillman creature, portrayed by Tom Woodruff, Jr., in his creature suit debut.

“On my own time,” Tom said, “I’d had the guys do a body cast of me because I’d planned on building my own personal gorilla suit, which was something I’d always wanted to do. So this body cast was just sitting there in the shop. And then The Monster Squad came up, and the part of the Gillman hadn’t been cast. I distinctly remember sitting in Stan’s shop, pointing to that body cast that was there and ready to go, and saying: ‘Stan, I can do this! Let me play the Gillman!’ I really pitched myself, which wasn’t, and still isn’t, something I’m comfortable doing. But he considered it, and let me do it. The other guys started building that Gillman creature suit over my lifecast, and I got to play that character in The Monster Squad.” 

Pictured above: To bring Stan Winston's Gillman design to life, Matt Rose first sculpted a maquette.

Pictured above: The life-size Gillman sculpture, in progress. The creature was sculpted over a lifecast of Tom Woodruff, Jr.

Pictured above: Matt Rose paints Gillman head at Stan Winston Studio.

Pictured above: Steve Wang airbushes the Gillman suit.

Pictured above: Close-up of a fully-painted Gillman head and shoulders.

Developing technology

One of the technological improvements devised for The Monster Squad was a cable controller that could be operated by fewer puppeteers.

Pictured above: One of the radio-controlled corpse/skeleton puppets created by Stan Winson Studio.

“Back in those early days,” commented SWS creature mechanic Richard Landon, “those of us in the mechanical department were exploring the whole new science of how to build this stuff, including cable controls. There’d been cable-controlled puppets going all the way back to the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But we were trying to come up with much more sophisticated controllers. When I first started working for Stan, he’d been testing some new controllers, including one with ten levers that made ten fingers move individually. But that meant that ten people were required to move two hands."

Pictured above: Wolfman sketch by Stan Winston.

"For Monster Squad, I built a skeleton hand with a controller that moved all ten fingers. So a single operator could control ten cables at once to make the fingers flex. Going from ten operators to one was the kind of stuff we were doing in those days to improve the technology. It usually came down to necessity. Something would come up where we had to do it — so we did."

Pictured above: One of the radio-controlled Wolfman transformation puppet heads.

Pictured above: The completed Wolfman suit behind the scenes at Stan Winston Studio.

Pictured above: SWS artist Lindsay MacGowan paints a vampire bat puppet.

Pictured above: Richard Landon tests a bat/human hybrid arm mechanism for Dracula's transformation sequence.

Pictured above: Stan Winston on set with actors Tom Noonan (Frankenstein's Monster), Duncan Regehr (Count Dracula), and Michael Reid MacKay (Mummy).

That fall of 1986 and early winter of 1987 was a particularly busy period for Stan Winston Studio, which was consumed with not only designing and building the creature effects and makeups for The Monster Squad but was also in early preproduction for Pumpkinhead, which would be Stan Winston’s directorial debut. The workload became even heavier when Stan took on an emergency project, largely as a favor to a friend. It started with a call from Joel Silver, the producer of a film that was then in production, called Predator (1987). But that's a story for another blog...

Check out Stan Winston School of Character Arts instructor Shannon Shea memories of The Monster Squad in his "First Person Monster Blog" here: We're the MONSTER SQUAD"

At Monsterpalooza 2013, director Fred Dekker, the actors and crew members reunited to talk about their favorite memories making The Monster Squad. Watch the full video HERE:

- By Balázs Földesi with selections from The Winston Effect: The Art and History of Stan Winston Studio by Jody Duncan

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