Nicholas Winstead is a special effects artist who has worked on projects like “American Horror Story,” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and “Bill and Ted Face the Music.” A native of Madison, he currently lives in Burbank, Calif.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Madison and went to high school at St. Andrew’s.
At what moment did you discover an interest in working in Film/ TV?
It was always there. When I was younger, I always loved movies and horror movies. And I always loved art, my mom has a doctorate in art history. Special effects was kind of the best intersection between those two. It involves sculpting and painting and design and storytelling. It’s kind of a great culmination of all that. So it kind of just grew from there.
I started probably messing around when I was like 8 or 9, wanting to make myself look like Freddy Kruger. So I used Elmer’s glue and cotton balls and my mother’s foundation and grape jelly, you know, and now I’m just really kind of doing a similar variation of that. (laughs) It’s just been about experimenting with different materials and growing more and learning more until I landed where I’m at now.
What type of training have you had and where?
Well, I didn’t go to college. When I was about 15 or 16, I went to this arts boarding school up in Michigan called Interlochen. Essentially it was an arts conservatory. So half the day was academic classes and the other half was artistic classes. I went there for visual arts. When I knew I wasn’t going to college by my senior year, I pretty much only took art classes. So it was a great opportunity to really focus on what I wanted to do. And it was great to get the freedom there because I was able to essentially make a portfolio of special effects work for my visual arts academic credentials. That was about as much schooling as I got, but they didn’t teach special effects. They had like painting classes and ceramics classes, and they had really great facilities for me to work in and great people to get feedback from.
I also have great memories of going to the Canton Young Filmmakers Workshop. I went several years in a row starting from when I was 13. It was a wonderful resource to bring together young people with a similar interest in film. I actually just worked with someone on ‘The Vampire Project’ who was in my group at film camp. We bonded over the ‘Evil Dead’ franchise then and speak about films with the same enthusiasm now!
And I’ve learned so much through working. That really has been my schooling. Just in like the first couple of years, I learned so, so much so quickly. I already knew a fair amount just from self-exploration. Especially from watching videos or reading books and stuff. That’s been hugely helpful, there’s some great resources out there. But yeah, I kind of just did a lot of self-exploration until I got out to L.A. And then I was kind of doing a lot of intro junior work, like cleaning up molds and doing all the grunt work. And I went up from there. But in doing all of that, I got to learn so many different aspects of the field.
What was your first Film/TV job?
Between my junior and senior year of high school, I went out to Los Angeles and did a couple of internships with special effects houses. I got to work with AFX Studio (“American Horror Story,” “Men in Black,” “Dawn of the Dead (2004)”) and a place called studioADI (“Alien vs. Predator,” “Spider-Man,” “It”)—that was mostly working on my personal stuff and helping out with sweeping the floors and stuff. (laughs)
AFX Studio was really cool. I got to work on “American Horror Story” for the Roanoke season. They’re kind of a smaller shop so they were able to give me a lot more opportunity and really let me try things out and handle smaller aspects of the build. I would say probably that was my first job I got paid for.
Are you working on any current/recent projects?
I don’t know if I can talk about them, actually. (laughs) Of the ones that have come out, I got to work on “Thunder Force,” the Melissa McCarthy movie that’s on Netflix, And I got to work on “Next of Kin,” the new “Paranormal Activity” movie. More recently I’ve worked on some projects that are pretty exciting. They’re big, like Disney and Marvel properties.
And right now I’m back in Mississippi working on “The Vampire Project.” It’s been great to be back home. My mom and my grandmother still live here, so it’s been really nice to see them. I haven’t been able to come back for a huge amount of time before. It’s kind of a trip because I’m having this sort of homecoming experience where I’m coming back as a professional and I’m building stuff in the garage that I was building stuff in when I was in middle school. The table is in the exact same place.
What has been the most surprising thing about working in the film industry?
I’m surprised on a daily basis, honestly. I feel like I had this idea of what it was going to be like. And I think that’s kind of where a lot of my surprises come from. Definitely, at the beginning, I had an idea that it would have these hours, or would be like this, or you’d have certain kinds of people you work with. I think more and more, it was just kind of realizing the way the game works and kind of the workloads of things. I know that’s a very broad answer, but I feel like entering any new field that’s kind of always the case.
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
So many people working in this field have had an influence on me. There’s special effects makeup artist people like Howard Berger and Arjen Tuiten—he was nominated for Oscars for “Wonder” and “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” which I also got to work on in the molds department. There are big names in the special effects world like Greg Nicotero and some of the bosses I’m working for right now like Lindsay McGowan, Alan Scott and Shane Mahan. I mean, there’s all these people that have been working in the special effects industry since the ‘80s, and they’ve all had kind of a similar story to mine, being from a small town and loving monsters and loving movies and just really being hungry for opportunity and making the jump out to Los Angeles without really knowing anybody, and just having that passion lead them until they figure it out and become successful and get more opportunities.
When I was younger, I would listen to these interviews all the time of them talking about how they wanted to break into this field so badly, but they didn’t have a connection, so they figured it out. I’ve always had that in the back of my head, that other people had done this before. That it wasn’t like a crazy, new thing to be from Mississippi and want to break into this. But it is kind of unique being from Mississippi. I think there’s only one other person I’ve met in the special effects industry that was from Mississippi and I’m the only one that he’s met, and he’s been working for like 30 years.
What movie or effects sequence did you see when you said, “Man, that’s what I want to do”?
I think so much of the work that came out of the ‘80s, the FX work was so great, and it’s great that more practical effects work like that is really coming back now. The transformation sequence in “An American Werewolf in London” is something people always talk about, and it was hugely impactful for me. It won the Oscar the first year they had one for Best Makeup. And the transformation scene in Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” those two are probably what initially attracted me to FX. And the Elephant Man makeup that Chris Tucker did for David Lynch’s movie was also really affecting. I thought it was so real. And then also like watching “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” and seeing the alien twins. It was eye-opening to see practical effects be able to do all of those things. It was really life changing. It was super cool.
How does being a Mississippian help you stand out in our industry?
People comment on it a lot actually, because I don’t think I have much of an accent. They’re surprised and like, “You’re from Mississippi?” Mostly from that, but I mean, a handful of people are from smaller towns and kind of make their way out to Los Angeles, and when they hear I’m from Mississippi they think it’s weird and want to know “How did you end up here?” But once they get talking to me they realize it’s pretty much the same path they took.
If you could create a scene built around one location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
Storytelling is such a huge part of Southern culture, I remember from my childhood all the folk stories and all the myths that you hear growing up here. I mean, there’s so much to pull from. I think there’s some amazing locations here. I remember one of the coolest parts about growing up here was the element of exploration. Being able to just hang out with friends and go around on our bikes and explore and we’d make up our own stories like the hag witch and the shack out by the arboretum and stuff like that. So I think there’s a lot of really great locations. We were shooting this movie I’m working on now at the castle in Raymond, where it’s like this kind of weird ‘90s version of what a medieval castle would look like in Mississippi, but it’s all abandoned now and overgrown and creepy.
Every location we’ve visited, we all would joke like, “Oh! The art department did such a good job on this!” But so much of it was already there. Between locations like that and like the forest and the swamps, there’s just a lot to pull from.
Favorite moment on set or with a project?
There’s a handful of just “needing to get the job done” type situations, like pulling all-nighters in the studio to get a character done and driving it to set and something goes wrong but you figure it out and it ends up working great, and everyone loves it. There are several variations of those type of stories.
But I have a pinch myself moment every single day, honestly. To just go to work and look around and see kind of like, oh, my desk is right under a massive robot or next to all these cool creatures and stuff. Or I look around and see, hey, there’s Christopher Swift sitting right behind me, the person who was the lead art director on the velociraptors from “Jurassic Park.” And there’s Glen Hanz, who sculpted the bat demon from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” I’m such a nerd for this stuff that I walk around and I’m like, “This is amazing.”
But there have been handful of memorable moments. There is this one situation where I made these big skulls as an art piece, and a special effects artist named Vincent Van Dyke that I really admire bought a few of them and put them in his office. And it’s so funny because he did a makeup that I love, and when I was 14 I sculpted my own version of it. To see my skulls next to that makeup in a video that was shot in his office was so cool. One of my favorite makeups growing up that I had recreated and then one of my pieces, right there next to each other. It was really moving.
What do you do when you’re not working on a film set (other jobs, hobbies, etc.)?
I skateboard every day and I love watching movies and reading about them. I mean, if there’s a book or TV show or a movie I haven’t really seen I really want to devour it at once, you know?
But typically I go home and keep working. (laughs) I have sculpture commissions or personal pieces that I work on. So, yeah, I go to work and make monsters all day. And then I come home and make my monsters too, essentially.
What are your hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?
It would be very cool to see enough work coming through the area that people feel like they have a good opportunity to live and work in this state. Growing up here, my goal was always to make it out to California, cause that’s where it’s at, but it would have been great to see there’s all this work going on in town. I did visit a couple of sets when I lived here that had some special effects aspects to them, but they were fairly minimal. But now on “The Vampire Project” I’ve worked with some folks that have worked on some of the horror movies made here recently like “Jakob’s Wife” and “Glorious” and I think it’s so cool that more things like that are happening now in Mississippi. To have had opportunities like that when I was growing up, to like be a production assistant on a horror film starring an icon like Barbara Crampton or something like that would have been super cool.
What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the film business?
My opportunities have come from just being so hungry for opportunity that I just kept going after it. It’s kind of like that notorious saying that so much of success is constant failure or rejection, you know? I think that’s largely true. For every opportunity that I have had so many have just gone by the wayside, didn’t work out or haven’t happened at all. I think you just need to have the drive to keep going and keep pursuing, even when people don’t call you back or you’re not getting the work that you want. I’ve felt so lucky to get what I have so far in my career. But I think so much of it was just going after opportunities so much that one would eventually work out. You will eventually get to the right place at the right time with the right people.
How can people find/reach you?
You can contact me on Instagram, I’m @nicholaswinstead.