UVA students team up with Hollywood designers for first ever ‘creature’ course

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Students and instructors piece together sections of “Leggy-breed,” the ant-like monster they built from scratch in a three-day workshop for UVA’s first Art of the Moving Creature course. Photo: John Robinson Students and instructors piece together sections of “Leggy-breed,” the ant-like monster they built from scratch in a three-day workshop for UVA’s first Art of the Moving Creature course. Photo: John Robinson

While most UVA students were finishing up homework at 8:30 last Wednesday night, 25 architecture, art, and drama majors were covered head to toe in sawdust and coming up on their 13th consecutive hour in the drama studio on Culbreth Road. Last week, as part of a new course offering called Art of the Moving Creature, students and teachers spent three straight days in an intensive workshop, sawing, sculpting, welding, gluing, and painting with the team that made Jurassic Park come to life. Hollywood crew Matt Winston, Shannon Shea, Ted Haines, and John Ales flew out from Los Angeles to help the class build a 12′ tall, 25′ long creature that made its debut on Grounds last Thursday.

The year-long course is funded by a University grant called Arts in Action, and focuses on the design and creation of large moving creatures through lectures, material studies, and hands-on projects. The class also includes workshops with visiting artists from L.A., and the final products will be on display at the Stan Winston Arts Festival of the Moving Creature April 20 on Grounds.

With glue under their nails and pure joy on their faces, the students worked tirelessly on “Leggy-breed,” an ant-like figure with four body segments and six legs. As one undergraduate with gold paint in her hair engaged in deep discussion with an instructor about color and texture of leg joints, a group on the other side of the room held body segments over their heads as a classmate shouted, “Looks like we’re definitely going to need a dedicated head puppeteer!”

“College can be ridiculously fun,” said Winston, son of the late special effects artist Stan Winston—famous for dozens of films including Batman Returns and the Terminator series—as he watched the students collaborate and begin crafting sockets for the creature’s legs.

Winston grew up on his father’s Hollywood movie sets, and in 2011 he founded the Stan Winston School of Character Art, an online resource for monster creation. When UVA Drama Technical Director Steve Warner—who has used his Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Brothers background to expose students to different entertainment avenues—approached him in the spring, Winston jumped at the opportunity to visit his dad’s alma mater and run a creature-building workshop.

Jake Fox, a third-year landscape architecture graduate student, said he’s spent dozens of hours in the studio, and loved every minute of it. It’s a nice diversion from his everyday routine, he said, and he has learned to think more creatively and critically about materials and techniques.

Fox said he’d never before considered a career in drama, but after this class, he’d welcome the opportunity to work in the monster building industry.

“It’s so much fun, it doesn’t even feel like work,” he said.

Shannon Shea, who worked alongside Stan Winston on sets from Aliens to Jurassic Park, met the younger Winston when he was “just a punk 14-year-old kid.” He’s been in the business since the 1980s, but saw something at UVA he doesn’t see while making monsters in Hollywood.

“It’s not part of everyday life here,” he said. “They’re fascinated. It didn’t occur to me how special and unique it would be to these people.”

As a leader of the workshops, Shea loved witnessing students’ “ah-ha” moments, and hopes they take something from it.

“Even if they all become accountants tomorrow, I’m hoping that one Halloween, they’ll build another monster,” Shea said.

  • Steve

    Awesome story, thank you so much.

  • Steve

    Great article!

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