« Tap to Next Article »

A Brief History of Hollywood's Quest for a Photo-Realistic Ape

From King Kong to Caesar, the fake ape is a kind of visual effects holy grail.

'King Kong' (1933), '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968), 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014).
'King Kong' (1933), '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968), 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014).
RKO | Warner Bros. | 20th Century Fox

Apes are so much like us it's easy to tell a fake onscreen. But for years filmmakers have been trying to get them so close to the real thing we can't see the difference. Thanks to evolving technology and the brilliant motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets us closer than ever with the evolved chimpanzee we know as Caesar. Now take a quick look back at how we got here.

1927: Charles Gemora

Charles Gemora
Charles Gemora

All the way up until the '80s most gorilla roles were played by a handful of actors, all of whom got into the game simply by building or buying a gorilla suit. The first was Charles Gemora, a Filipino actor who got his big break in 1928 when he appeared in The Leopard Lady. He built his own suit for the film and found his 5-foot-4 frame was perfect for the job. After going out and actually studying gorillas and working on his suit, Gemora also appeared in The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1932 and worked with Laurel & Hardy in Swiss Miss in 1938. Rarely credited in his time (filmmakers wanted to preserve the illusion that this was a real ape onscreen), Gemora appeared as a gorilla in 42 movies between 1927 and 1958.

1933: 'King Kong'

Photo-Realistic Apes
RKO Pictures

Still the most famous onscreen ape, the original King Kong was brought to life using a mix of techniques. Special effects legend Willis O'Brien oversaw the stop-motion sequences, for which several 18-inch models of Kong were constructed. For Kong's appearances alongside human actors, a giant bust was built along with two versions of his right hand and arm, and one leg. The scale wasn't consistent between the stop-motion and life-size versions of Kong since the stop-motion models were built to represent an 18-foot Kong and the bust would have found him at closer to 40 feet tall. But audiences were still stunned at the groundbreaking effects.

1968: 'Planet of the Apes'

Photo-Realistic Apes
20th Century Fox

After years of ape costumes created with varying results, Planet of the Apes took a giant leap forward with makeup and effects artist John Chambers. If you've seen Argo, John Goodman plays Chambers, who also created Spock's pointy ears for Star Trek. In PotA, the ape masks had to leave the actors free to speak and show emotion, so Chambers created the film's famous facial applications. Then he trained 78 other makeup artists on how to apply them to the huge cast of apes. For his work, Chambers won an honorary Oscar years before they handed one out for Best Makeup.

1968: '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Photo-Realistic Apes
MGM

Released the same year as Planet of the Apes, 2001 wasn't recognized for its ape-men at the Oscars, which infuriated writer Arthur C. Clarke. "I wondered, as loudly as possible, whether the judges had passed over 2001 because they thought we used real apes," he later wrote. And actually he wasn't far off base since at the time many moviegoers really did think real apes appeared in the Dawn of Man sequence. But the ape-men were actually mimes lead and choreographed by Daniel Richter. (That's him up top as the ape-man referred to as "Moonwatcher.") The costumes were created by Stuart Freeborn, who also famously created Yoda for Frank Oz in the Star Wars movies.

1973: 'Schlock'

Photo-Realistic Apes
Anchor Bay

Schlock is not a great movie, but its making is a significant event in film history thanks to the first ever pairing of director John Landis with make-up artist Rick Baker. (The two would later work together on An American Werewolf in London, the Thriller video, and more.) After being hugely influenced by both Planet of the Apes and 2001, Baker went on to do his own ape-man costume for Schlock, which is a sort of parody of monster movies of the time. A few years later, Baker would win praise for his work on the '76 King Kong remake and in 2001 he was responsible for the best part of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes remake — the makeup.

Here's what Baker had to say about PotA and 2001 in an interview with Total Film in 2012:

"I think I was 17 or 18 at the time and they were two very different approaches for two very different films and I really studied that. I thought it was really cool that Stuart Freeborn’s apes could bare their teeth, their lips would pull back and you could see their teeth and the Planet apes didn’t do that. Their teeth were glued in their rubber muzzle and they would open and close, or if they smiled their teeth would kind of bend, but I think they both chose the right approach for the film that they were doing."

1981: 'Trading Places'

Don McLeod as the gorilla in 'Trading Places.'
Don McLeod as the gorilla in 'Trading Places.'
Paramount

The gorilla in Trading Places wasn't by any means a breakthrough in visual effects, but it was brought to life by one of the '80s foremost gorilla actors, Don McLeod. McLeod, a mime and actor, had his own suit built and appeared in many movies (he was also in The Man with Two Brains), TV shows, and commercials. These days he runs an agency that provides living statues, mimes and creatures for live events in the Hollywood area.

1986: 'Max Mon Amour'

A Brief History of Hollywood's Quest for a Photo-Realistic Ape
Toho

This is a weird movie. Max, Mon Amour is kind of an art-house satire that finds Charlotte Rampling playing a bored diplomat's wife who takes a chimpanzee named Max as her lover. Directed by acclaimed Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima, the movie failed to win over critics with its strange plot, but the ape costume, created by French makeup artist Jacques Clement, is one of the best chimp outfits of the '80s. 

1988: 'Gorillas in the Mist'

A Brief History of Hollywood's Quest for a Photo-Realistic Ape
Universal Pictures

Fifteen years after creating his first ape suit for Schlock, Rick Baker was widely acknowledged as the leader in effects makeup and creature creation by the time he did Gorillas in the Mist. In 1988 he won an Oscar for his work on Harry and the Hendersons (his Sasquatch creature is still held in high regard in the industry) and saw the release of Gorillas in the Mist. His challenge in Mist was to create gorilla costumes that literally couldn't be told apart from real gorillas. The Dian Fossey biopic needed the costumed actors to look convincing while appearing in the same shots as real gorillas. At first Baker didn't think it could be done, but his Digit costume, with its hand-woven hairs, animatronics, and arm extensions, would be impressive even if it appeared on the big screen today.

1995: 'Congo'

A Brief History of Hollywood's Quest for a Photo-Realistic Ape
Paramount

Congo came at an awkward time for visual effects. Director Frank Marshall had worked with Steven Spielberg on several movies, and thought he could get CG apes for Congo that would look just as convincing as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, released two years earlier. Unfortunately the technology hadn't progressed to the point that animal hair could be believably reproduced, so he had to go with costumes. Both movies were Michael Crichton adaptations, and Stan Winston's effects house worked on both movies, but Congo does not hold up nearly as well. At the time, fans complained about being able to see seams and gaps in the ape costumes, and these days Amy the talking gorilla is more a joke than a milestone. Interestingly, Jumanji opened the same year and was seen as revolutionary for building CG animals covered in fur, but even the movie's best-realized creature, the lion, couldn't help but look cartoonish.

2005: 'King Kong'

A Brief History of Hollywood's Quest for a Photo-Realistic Ape
Universal Pictures

In the 10 years between Congo and King Kong, technology had come a long way, and Peter Jackson had a hand in getting it there. As a filmmaker who got his start sculpting alien creatures in his parents' oven, Jackson was heavily influenced by the original King Kong, and had been lobbying for years to direct a remake. He got his chance in 2005 and his secret weapon was Andy Serkis, who had amazed audiences as Gollum in Jackson's just-completed Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thanks to the LotR movies, Jackson and cutting-edge special effects house Weta were able to perfect the motion capture technique Serkis would go on to use in the Planet of the Apes movies.

2011: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

A Brief History of Hollywood's Quest for a Photo-Realistic Ape
Twentieth Century Fox

It's telling that the first footage released from Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a 5-second clip of Caesar looking thoughtful while stuck in a cage. Director Rupert Wyatt and the visual effects team at Weta were confident the footage looked so good, so realistic, that audiences wouldn't be able to resist. Weta used a slew of new techniques to get Caesar and the other apes to look real, including new cameras that made motion capture possible while shooting on location in daylight. Andy Serkis, now Hollywood's foremost motion-capture actor, was brought in to play Caesar and garnered enough praise that some insiders pushed his performance for an Oscar nomination.

2014: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

A Brief History of Hollywood's Quest for a Photo-Realistic Ape
Twentieth Century Fox

Thanks to the success of Rise, motion capture techniques and CG animal creation advanced even further in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This time directed by Matt Reeves, Dawn upped the ante by focusing on supporting ape characters such as Koba (pictured above and played by Toby Kebbell), Blue Eyes (Caesar's son), and Maurice (an orangutan teacher). Not surprisingly they're the most photo-realistic computer generated apes we've ever seen, and Koba especially is amazing to look at onscreen. Here's a video that shows how the motion-capture performances were filmed.

PREV NEXT