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Expanding Horizons for Digital Domain and Stan Winston

Dariush Derakhshani looks at the expanding presence of Digital Domain and Stan Winston Studios in the production and digital effects arenas.


Kevin Cooper, vp of feature film development, was brought into D2 to shepherd the company into producing its own features.

You dont have to go too far back to recall the great Hollywood studio days, when major studio players such as MGM and Paramount Pictures, among others, ran a tight reign on movies of the early to mid-1900s by keeping all their development and production needs from writers to actors to directors under exclusive contracts. Entire projects were kept within tight studio control, with every aspect of the production under their purview.

Even today, theres no denying the simple efficiency of such a scheme: For a single entity to have creative and production control over a project from start to finish. This decidedly positive aspect of the old Hollywood studio system comes to mind with the expansion of two established vfx houses: Digital Domain and Stan Winston Studios.

Digital Domain (D2), with the production and subsequent release of Secondhand Lions earlier this year, showed its hand in the realm of feature film development, adding to its existing role as one of the dominant forces in visual effects. Originally started in 1999, D2 began its feature film development division to take on such projects as a long-lived goal of D2s helmsman Scott Ross.

Kevin Cooper, vp of feature film development, came to D2 with a singular focus to serve the picture a whole. Seeing the great potential for solid collaboration with a highly skilled team already under the Digital Domain banner, moving into feature films seemed a logical role for D2 to take on. We create an environment where storytellers have some security, Cooper enthused.


Studios [are sometimes] fighting each other, which can marginalize the story, Cooper offered. By having the story develop and progress through the care of one facility, helps keep the intentions intact, and the story true to itself.

With all this coming from a vfx house that creates the glitz and bang of action-packed films, one wonders if we will see D2 features developing just more of the same visual effects-dependent, shallow films? Well, judging from D2s first offering, Secondhand Lions, a warm-hearted character drama starring Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and Haley Joel Osment, the answer is not really.

With Secondhand Lions, D2 saw a wonderful opportunity to tell a solid story and make a point: that good films are based on character and story. And although the profitable film received somewhat lukewarm reaction from journalists and critics, it did offer a light CG touch that didnt get in the way of telling its story. There were no massive explosions or shiny robots to be found.

And with the tremendous force of D2s visual effects facility to bring methodology and tremendous access to talent, as Cooper puts it, practically any story can be served from beginning to end with integrity. D2s current development includes Instant Karma, a movie about a man (to be played by The Rock) who has to go through his previous lifes karma by living the lives of animals, from the bottom of the food chain to the top. This film, still in development, should make great use of D2s ability to create stunning visual effects as well as their new ability to foster and grow a story to fruition.

Cooper is confident that D2s ability to cultivate a story is made that much more efficient by the fact that D2 can handle almost all aspects of its development, including its art and animation/visual effects work, as well as the ability to pre-visualize the entire film digitally, a concept that is taking hold on large-scale productions though this task is frequently farmed out to previs and visual effects houses independent of the development studio. By having this ability on hand as the film progresses in the proverbial womb, D2 believes it can foster the best kind of fidelity for the film, and be able to remain fiscally responsible in an age where some movie budgets can easily balloon out-of-control.

While some may wonder why a visual effects house has decided to stretch its legs into the world of feature development, it actually makes perfect sense. By having a project develop within the purview of a central facility, you greatly increase the efficiency of the project and increase its chances of success.


Already a legend in mechanical vfx, Stan Winston started a digital arm to keep projects in house.

In a similar vein, Stan Winston Studios has branched out with a new division as well: Stan Winston Digital. Stan Winston, one of the truly great names in practical creature and make-up effects, has been behind some of the most impressive and legendary film creations over the past 30 years (most recently with Big Fish and Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines).

Frequently these films have incorporated Winstons creatures with digital versions and digital effects, so it seems quite natural for Stan Winston Studios to branch out into a digital division that would take over those responsibilities and enjoy a higher integrity in the final shot.

Since these practical and mechanical effects need to be joined together with digital effects in an ever-increasing industry relying on digital production, Stan Winston Studios decided to step in and cut out the chance for misinterpretation in the conversion from mechanical creature to a digital one. No matter how good and agile an outside digital studio is, the chances for infidelity between mechanical and digital effects is readily apparent.

And with that notion in mind, visual effects supervisor André Bustanoby and animation director Randall Rosa approached Stan Winston Studios a couple of years ago to set up an in-house division that would handle all the digital creature effects, and, as Rosa puts it, bring a really balanced approach to solving an issue, in order to keep the original vision alive.

Rosa adds that their new digital division will integrate tightly with the existing studio structure, and will be able to have the physical complement the digital, since a great amount of design work is already done digitally for mechanical creatures.

Having met up with Bustanoby while at Digital Domain a number of years ago, the two came to realize that building a digital division for Stan Winston Studios would serve as an extension of [Winstons] existing work. the perfect one-stop shop to create greater studio efficiency and a higher value for productions.

SW Digital has already begun planning for a number of upcoming projects, including Because of Win-Dixie (directed by Wayne Wang) and The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam about the Persian mathematician (directed by Kayvan Mashayekh). With these films, SW Digital will create a broad range of vfx from matte paintings and set extensions to various 3D effects to support the diverse visual requirements of the films.

But SW Digitals coming-out party plans to be Winstons own development of My Monster and Me, to be directed by Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire). Rosa and Bustanoby are confident that My Monster and Me will truly showcase their facilitys digital ability to create spectacular digital creature and character effects in addition to supporting other visual effects.

By keeping a small, strong core staff and relying on dependable freelance artists and keeping the ability to remain flexible and agile, SW Digital should become a strong player in the digital and visual effects industry. And with the efficiency and talent pool at their fingertips with this expansion, they stand a wonderful chance of doing just that, especially with creature work.


D2s offices boast a Frank Gehry-designed conference room (left) known as The Whale. The open floor plan includes ceo Scott Ross office.

With some vfx and even entire films slipping through the cracks and losing focus so easily, no wonder D2 and SW Studios have decided to expand their reach to gain greater quality control.

Dariush Derakhshani is a shaky 32 and makes for an interesting Googlism. Nicely bald and slowly going insane, he has a fear of commitment and having to cook. He has written a slew of articles littered throughout the Web, wrote the book Introducing Maya: 3D for Beginners and contributed to Maya: Secrets of the Pros, Maya 5 Savvy and Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People. He is currently working on more Maya books due out later next year. A senior animator at commercial effects house Sight Effects in Venice, California, he can be found at or you can send him viruses at He's got flat feet and misses NYC.