Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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U.Va Students and Hollywood Artists Bring Creatures To Life

Last week, monsters were born at the University of Virginia.

Over the course of three days, 26 graduate and undergraduate students constructed six life-sized moving creatures with the help of Hollywood artists from the Stan Winston School of Character Arts. The creature workshop was the first of four that will be held throughout the academic year as part of the yearlong interdisciplinary course, “The Art of the Moving Creature I and II.”

The course grew from an “Arts in Action“ grant proposal last spring and is cross-listed in the School of Architecture and the College of Arts & SciencesDrama and Studio Art departments.

“This is a class of thinking through making,” said Melissa Goldman, the Architecture School’s fabrication facilities manager, who leads and organizes the class along with Steven Warner, technical director of the Department of Drama, and Eric Schmidt, the studio and gallery technician of the McIntire Department of Art. “We cover the whole gamut, from theory to practice.”

“Creature I” will focus on the research, design and engineering of moving creatures through material studies, fabrication tests and full-scale prototypes. The second half of the course will further the prototype designs and culminate in April with the Festival of the Moving Creature, which will showcase the students’ final projects – full-scale, 20- to 30-foot-tall creatures.

“It’s all about structure,” Goldman said. Each department offers different approaches and tools for thinking about structure, she said – one of the benefits of having an interdisciplinary class. The class lectures are wide-ranging, from kinetics to anatomy, and the reading list ranges from “Where the Wild Things Are” to excerpts from animal physiology textbooks.

For these first workshop sessions, groups of four to five students made life-size prototypes in only three days with easily accessible materials such as PVC pipe, trash bags and mattress foam. “We said, ‘Let’s go from beginning to end in three days and then we can build on this for the rest of the course,’” Goldman said.

To inspire and guide the students, the course leaders invited the Stan Winston School of Character Art to consult on the project. The online school, which offers virtual classes on creature construction, was founded in 2011 by Matt Winston, a well-known Hollywood actor and the son of Stan Winston, the Academy Award-winning special-effects master and U.Va. alumnus best known for his creation of the monsters in “Alien” and the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.”

Matt Winston began the Stan Winston School to carry on his father’s legacy after he passed away in 2008. Holding the online school’s first in-person workshop at U.Va. carries great emotional significance, Winston said, as the University is where his father’s love for creating creatures flourished as he studied painting and sculpture.

“His four years here really formed the foundation for what would follow when he went out to Hollywood,” Matt Winston said.

At the first workshop, Matt Winston was accompanied by two other Hollywood artists: Shane Mahan, an Academy Award-nominated animatronic and special-effects makeup character creator and co-founder of Legacy Effects, and Peter Weir Clarke, a creature-effects mechanic, sculptor and instructor at The Art Institute of California. He plans to return for the other three workshops with new artists, to expose the students to as many types of creature construction as possible.

“It's not the type of stuff you usually do in school,” graduate drama student Mark Gartzman said. “It kind of takes you back to your childhood, coming up with these crazy things. But then you get to learn how to actually build them.”

The workshop began Sept. 11 with each student sketching and then molding a small clay model of their creature design, 26 in all. The visiting artists then selected the six designs with the most potential for dynamic movement to be developed into larger-scale prototypes, Clarke said. The finished creature was to be large enough to have at least one person concealed inside to operate it while others in the group perform the accessory limb movements outside.

“The students had to consider volumes and forms that would hide the human body but still have dynamic movements,” Clarke said. “You always take from anatomy you know,” he added, pointing out one group’s crab-elephant hybrid creature and another group’s creature with butterfly-like wings.

After three busy days of construction, the students showed off their finished creatures Thursday evening at the Architecture School, following a presentation by the visiting artists on the Hollywood creature industry and Stan Winston’s monster-making career.

“We were really impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and stamina,” Winston said. “They have bright futures ahead in Hollywood if that’s the path they choose.”

The next workshops with the Stan Winston School will be held in early November and will include an event with the Virginia Film Festival, Goldman said.   

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