Why I'm Enrolling in Distance Special FX Courses via the Stan Winston School (Stan Winston School Diary #1)

Distance classes with the Stan Winston School were on my list for over a year, if not longer. I used to say, “I’m beginning these when I am done with my feature, and have ____ number of shorts out. I will have time.” When you do things like this, you create further excuses. Further procrastination. Further behind in my progress towards becoming who I want, and need, to be in my career goals. I decided this month, enough is enough. I need to begin my journey into taking classes.

Before I get into each of the classes themselves in my diary entries, this first entry will cover the why, how, and what drew me, pun alert(!), to taking distance classes here.

Stan Winston was a VIP gentleman in the FX industry, developing techniques now seen in every movie. You’re so used to seeing his work, you don’t think about how rare it used to be. The people teaching his courses share the ideals he began so you may continue in their footsteps with your filmmaking as a film director and/or special FX industry professional. The Stan Winston crew have worked on my fav films, like the Alien franchise!

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Everyone trustworthy told me to do it.

Self explanatory. People who work in the film industry recommended it heavily. After their first tip about keeping a diary, the number one piece of advice from every filmmaker and film industry professional at every level, I hear something like this. “You can have other people do it for you.” Or, “You could pay me when you’re ready. I’ll help you with it.” Followed by, “But!” Yes, with an exclamation mark. “You need to learn how to do it yourself.” And this, followed by a talk on the importance of communicating with FX crew team members on future sets and learning how to DIY my own very small budget projects. I trust their judgement because these are people who either do FX themselves, have been around it or used to at one time before they made it bigger.

The focus is on science fiction, fantasy, and horror, your general blockbuster filmmaking!

Look at most film studies university offerings. The class structures assume you want to make indie sweetheart comedies, mumblecore, documentaries, this, that. No problem if you do. I respect those genres and love the people who make them. Me? If you follow my life updates, you know I want to split between animation and anything classified as “Stan Winston genre stuff.” People like me don’t get the material readily available to them studying any genre(s) this deeply. To get that one class at film school programs, you sit through learning material you don’t care about to have a tiny taste of what may come. I’m not waiting another century to learn what I need.

The Stan Winston School offerings are great for those interested in bypassing unnecessary coursework hitting right to fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and yes, any skills you need for making a standard modern blockbuster film. As a pal of mine says, he loves dating older women because “they know what they want!” I’m older and wiser. You might be older and wiser, male or female. Or not. Don’t waste time studying what you don’t need or care about. I learned that lesson myself with 90 percent of my university education.

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No grades, no graduation, no pressure. And, straight to the point!

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. When you attend a school that known, as some nicknamed it “the Harvard of the Southwest,” you deal with things you didn’t think about. I’m not knocking the education but stating the reality. During college, most of my classes were graded by student teachers. Teachers never let us communicate with them. Everything was on a grading scale done by students. Half of my teachers were gone often, notably without penalties students might get for missing class, out of town giving speeches, making TV appearances, and who knows what else preoccupied with being “famous.” Some out of this world teachers do teach there. They were the minority. A huge university setting is not the place for individualized attention, and it lacked in courses I could take that would directly impact my future for my specific career needs. It works for many people. Big universities, no matter where, were never going to work for me, and I stress that “one size doesn’t fit all” mentality when I say, I’m not complaining. I am explaining the problem parents have, like mine, assuming a standard education is right for every child.

At school, I didn’t care about the “well rounded” education. I wanted to study journalism and specific things. No, you spend a bulk of time studying things you will never use that don’t interest you, or you can’t graduate.

My favorite classes were in the Spanish and Spanish literature programs, and science! In my other classes taught by people who wanted to have their names out there, I didn’t learn much. My teachers were sometimes present physically, though not mentally. I felt sad I had my hopes up going to a super famous university getting a mixed bag of results: either the dream classes I wanted, or a soggy, old airplane sandwich type of vibe feeling from a teacher who didn’t seem to want to be there. And those were the worst examples. I didn’t learn much in them, sure. What I learned: how to argue my way in a Supreme Court case practically, arguing my way in grades. Those teachers and their respective teaching assistants always tried to give me undeserving lower grades because I didn’t fit the bill of whatever it was they were looking for, whatever that might have been. I saw classmates like myself who were quiet and kept to ourselves. We bundled up together asking teachers, “Why were we given these grades when so-and-so next to us forgot more correct answers on the paper, and he/she got an A-? Why are you giving us C’s and D’s?”

My big regret is not studying science at UT Austin. I wasn’t going to use my degree anyway. Why not have it in a subject I liked? Science is a one answer fits all. Either it’s right or wrong. The first rule of science fight club is, “Never assume.” My UT Austin days were spent in very subjective, vague courses where the right answer is only right when the right person submits it with his/her homework. End of story.

The Stan Winston School coursework is not driven by standard university expectations. No grades. No teachers deciding someone is “boring” or “too nerdy to fit in here” and doesn’t deserve an A like the future activist type student beside you who didn’t have the right answers, indeed getting some facts wrong, but “wrote passionately on the test!” People take the classes, live and pre-recorded, to learn with open minds and develop their skills. Your teacher, often an Oscar nominee or winner, or one who has worked with award-winning FX houses, is accessible. You want a question answered? You can ask it in a live course, or you can send it through to the school for the instructor to answer you. This appealed to me so much after being burned out by some of my other university classes.

The cost, and DIY pace, beats a university.

Studying special FX at a university has its perks at a cost. I looked up one degree this morning that I found interesting where you can go in person, online, or both. The cost: about $60,000 USD to graduate! In the words of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, “Yikes!” The university degree is probably more in depth, but if you start with Stan Winston classes and learn on your own, anything can be done. As I often joke, “Peter Jackson doesn’t wear makeup!” whenever my mom tells me to dress things up, haha, I’ll repeat here in a serious tone, “Peter Jackson doesn’t have a special effects degree. Look where he is as one of the world’s best filmmaker-businessmen hybrids!” A will to learn on your own never substitutes a university setting to me. I didn’t learn 2D animation for my own filmmaking in a classroom. I learned because I so badly wanted to learn it, it happened.

Realistically, I am working on my own filmmaking, releasing my films both short and soon feature, out on Amazon Prime, yes, as I pursue high profile film journalism opportunities that don’t always come easily when magazines have existing staffs. I have to convince them why hiring a freelancer like me is a unique opportunity! And, I having studied music in and out of school before college, compose my own film music! A film podcast! A busy bee. By the time I’m done worrying about all this, I mostly tune into watching shows and movies at night. OK! No problem. I can fit in the 4 classes per month guideline at $20 per month. Simple and on a realistic timeframe for learning. School is about cramming; this is a learning experience at your own pace and budget.

The instructors have day jobs!

For real, when I went to UT Austin, people teaching there were sometimes people who weren’t active in their fields. They quit for whatever personal reasons and taught us. As someone who always had a lifelong goal of on the side doing high profile freelance journalism assignments, my younger self always hoped my journalism teachers would be people who freelanced or worked part time for the places I wanted to work. They weren’t. One of all of them at the time was active in the field. That’s it! Likewise at other universities around.

Now, I understand people’s personal reasons, and I’m not knocking anyone. Teachers don’t have to be active in high profile journalism to be good teachers, absolutely correct. But, to each his own! My learning experience never feels complete unless I am around people active in their crafts. An inactive status to me feels like you no longer love what you do. I love learning from the amazing editors I work with when I get hired as a freelancer for magazines. With Stan Winston School classes, I have an extra faith in someone like the instructors here who keep up their employment statuses working on films. These are the same people who worked on sets of films you loved in your youth, or love now. They tell you exactly what goes on now and went on that day. You aren’t learning from people who hate their jobs. They love what they do and love sharing it.


I’m terrified.

A good sign in my life is I fear something. I am a huge risk taker in all I do. Learning something I have never done before really, honestly, truly, absolutely, undoubtedly frightens me. Every good decision in my life gives me this feeling. Learning animation. The world hearing my film music for the first time.

As an analogy, way back when, roller skating. My gym teacher then was a veteran who had served in war. He yelled at me, “Who said that?!” in first grade when I said, “I can’t do this. I’m scared!” to a girl beside me who too was afraid. i raised my hand. He was a super cool teacher and one scary guy when he wasn’t cool. He insisted I would never do anything in life if I didn’t face my fears. I hated sports! Why would I like roller skating?! Until…

I tried it. Roller skating made me fall in love with ice skating. I begged and begged whenever I was in Urbana, Illinois over at my great aunt/great uncle’s to go ice skating. Today, ice skating is my favorite activity. If it’s cold, or I’m in a city with an ice rink, I will rent skates, start slowly, and be skating past you like a squirrel on skates by the end of the public skating session.

I feared 2D animation so much. What if they laughed at me!? Now, I show people how I animate in behind the scenes videos that get published on my Amazon Prime page, YouTube, and Facebook.

Fear is an excellent thing. Trust it. Do what scares you most. If I don’t feel fear towards something, I don’t feel anything, and that represents I shouldn’t be doing it. My first DIY hands on course is going to be building the cornbread muffin puppet. The instructor on there, BJ Guyer, tells people in the pre-recorded video from the live class, he wants everyone to show him stuff they’re doing with the muffin puppet out in reality. I hope to have something fun to send over! Take my muffin shopping for muffins! Something super cute. See what the finished product is, hopefully, going to look like below.

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