The Deaths of Ian: Stan Winston Studios

fxguide, in partnership with Stan Winston Productions, is proud to announce that we will now blog an entire visual effects film, from start to finish. In an unprecedented move, we have been given full access to cover The Death’s of Ian from inception to completion: from concept art to final print. If you think you’re having a bad day, consider Ian Stone, an all-American kid who is murdered by horrifying pursuers only to wake up in a slightly diffe

Scheduled for a summer shoot on the Isle of Man and London, The Deaths of Ian is being directed by Dario Piana, from a script by Brendon Hood, with the visual and special makeup effects provided by Stan Winston Studio – one of the most experienced and respected effects companies in the entertainment industry.


As a special bonus we have a high res panorama of the board room at Stan Winston Studios. If ever there was a cool board room this IS IT ! Download the 4000 by 1000 file via this link.

06Jun/sws/terminatorBorn in Milan, Italy, director Dario Piana has shot more than 350 commercials and worked all over the world. With a background in graphic arts, Piana will bring a strong visual style to this, his feature directorial debut. He has won numerous Italian and international advertising awards, including two Gold Lions, three Silver and four Bronze at The International Advertising Film Festival in Cannes, and was named “Advertising director of the year” an unprecedented three in Italy

The special makeup and creature effects, which will be a combination of real and digital, will be provided by Stan Winston Studio. Stan Winston himself is a producer on the project.

Stan Winston is one of the most prolific and respected effects artists, having consistently advanced the state of the art for over three decades. When discussing Winston’s credits, it is easier to talk in terms of entire film franchises. With such memorable projects as the Terminator films, The Predator films and all the Jurassic Park films, he has collaborated with directors such as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, creating some of the most iconic characters in film.

06Jun/sws/GQ_1Winston has also collaborated with Tim Burton on several films including Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns. Focusing on his own projects, Winston directed Pumpkinhead, among others, and produced a host of films including Wrong Turn, Skinwalkers, and The Deaths of Ian.

After forming Digital Domain with James Cameron, Winston opened a digital division of his own studio in 2002 called Stan Winston Digital (SWD). The idea being that the digital tool set is one that compliments his studio’s existing abilities on the practical side. Having collaborated with many digital studios throughout the years, it only made sense that the studio have that kind of capability under one roof. Since its inception, SW Digital has created digital effects for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Fantastic 4, Cat in the Hat, Garfield, Because of Wynn Dixie and, most recently, 8 Below.

06Jun/sws/b8-38 Below really exemplified the direction that the studio wants to go in, It was a mixture of digital and practical that created a seamless effect”. Says Mike Pryor, who recently joined the company as head of digital production. Winston wanted to re-focus the digital studio to concentrate on what he made his name in – characters and creatures- and realize them in this hybrid way.

Whereas the digital studio was previously open for any and all types of effects work, the new direction is to draw upon the strengths of the studio. With over a hundred years of creature experience in one place, it seems a logical direction to go in. That’s not to say that they don’t have capabilities in other areas of effects- the studio has an impressive depth in most aspects of visual effects, but where as some places are so huge they can cover every area SWD has an amazing specialist niche that is almost unparalleled.

For example, in the film 8-Below, the script called for a leopard seal. As there are no leopard seals in captivity and they are too dangerous to film in close proximity, the designers, fabricators, and digital artists, created both a practical (animatronic) and a digital leopard seal to solve the problem. Through creative collaboration, unlike the sharp divide that exists with most productions, the digital team was able to see exactly how the animatronic was built and how it would perform in front of the camera – ensuring that the digital version of the animal would match perfectly. The digital and practical teams were able to advise one another on the surface quality and movements of the seal. Because of this, the film could move easily between digital and practical – enjoying the benefits of both approaches.

06Jun/sws/b8-4 “As the old adage goes, acting is really re-acting and the director (Frank Marshall) wanted a real presence of the animal on set. In the sequence when the dogs fight off the seal, the reactions of the dogs are real. Getting that kind of performance from an actor (or dog in this case) can be difficult when there is just a tennis ball and a green screen on set” Says Shane Mahan, who was the creature supervisor for the film at the studio.

06Jun/sws/b8_2At various points in the story, the seal swims under the ice surface, which is something that was accomplished digitally. The studio created an entire underwater environment digitally for the sequences as well. Back above water, the digital seal was combined with the practical in an interesting way: Where the practical seal’s coat lacked the exact sheen that a wet and slippery seal gets, the surface of the digital version of the seal could be used to enhance the practical.

Such combinations are common at SWD. Digital eyes can be added to animatronics to give more accurate eye lines, – combination approaches deployed so that the result is more real on screen and yet as flexible as a fully digital solution. Yet another aspect is the cinematographer’s ability to compose shots with real characters: a combination live action and digital feature provides a much needed on-set presence, while still allowing for fantastic effects.

In the film Fantastic Four the team at SWD provided optical ghosting effects and digital cloth for the Jessica Alba character “Sue Storm”. Here the solution was fully digital and the team provided complex 3D and compositing solutions.

The original plate
Floating clothes -- shot in progress

The final composite

“While we are continuing to develop the business as a VFX and animation vendor to studios and filmmakers, SWS is gearing up for two Stan Winston productions that will begin shooting this summer” says Pryor. In addition to The Deaths of Ian, the company will also be shooting Desolate – later in the summer – most likely in New Mexico.

On the technical side- The main animation package for The Deaths of Ian will be XSI and the team at SWD have a fantastic relationship with Soft Image. “They continue to develop tools that we need, while we continually push their software to extremes. That said, we also have Maya in house and have developed in-house tools to enable us to smoothly go back and forth. We render primarily in Mental Ray but are continually evaluating other render solutions”, explains Pryor. ”

Mike Pryor - Head of Digital Production

We composite primarily in Shake, running on G5s; but, we also dip into Digital Fusion , Combustion and After Effects . As we like to say-horses for courses. While we want to be experts at what we do, we don’t want to be limited to the constraints of any particular software. We view the different packages simply as tools- ones that can be learned. This keeps us open to the widest possible selection of talent as well.”

Mike Pryor will be extensively involved in providing fxg with help and access over the coming months. Pryor, former head of digital production at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London joined SWD at the end of 2005.

Pryor oversaw Henson’s Creature Shop on productions ranging from “Around the World in 80 Days” to “Batman Begins” and produced the computer-animated Henson Co. production “Frances.”

fxguide is extremely proud to be associated with this production and we will be providing regular updates on the blog page, with interviews, podcasts, images and clips over coming months.