Makin’ Monkeys: The Evolution of Primate Special Effects

By  · Published on July 10th, 2014

Universal Pictures

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film that could only have been made in this moment. Think of it like Avatar or InAPPropriate Comedy; a film that owes its very existence to modern technology. You wouldn’t stage an all-out ape war without the assistance of lifelike computer apes any more than you’d try to film a Rob Schneider “comedy” about apps (is it really about apps? I’m not exactly sure) in a time before apps ever existed.

Yes, the road to this weekend’s monkey mayhem is a long one. Because primates have been waging bloody vengeance on each other (and us, mostly) for more than a century, but only now is photorealistic chimp warfare a legitimate thing we can pay ten dollars to see.

So let’s start back at the very beginning, and trace cinema’s primate special effects from their origins to the present day; from King Kong to King Kong to King Kong. Also a few other movies in between.

The Early Days: Human/Ape Hybrids and Stop Motion

Think of the first apes to grace early cinema, and somewhere in your mind’s eye, an old-timey film projector will begin playing the 1933 King Kong.

Sorry, brain-theater, but you’re mistaken. The real “first ape film” honors date back twenty years earlier, in the bafflingly unpronounceable French silent film, Balaoo. Based off a novel by Gaston Leroux (author of the slightly easier to pronounce “The Phantom of the Opera,”) the story follows a half-man, half-ape who is mistreated and goes on various rampages.

Balaoo director Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset was a trailblazer in the world of cinematic ape visuals. He had no competition, no peers and nothing to base his man-primate off. So not only was Balaoo the first of his kind, but he also didn’t look very good. At all.

This 1913 ape-man had to blend into the world of men-men for story reasons. Conveniently, that meant the monster could just be a guy in pants and a jacket, with a small amount of ape makeup on. It’s really not much to go on, but from what’s visible, Balaoo is just a lumpy man with severe back problems.

But it was a start, and filmic apes would progress through a remake of Balaoo in 1927 (American remakers wisely shaved off all those vowels and retitled the film The Wizard), and an adaption of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which also featured ape-man rather than ape. This one looked remarkably better – unlike Balaoo, the ’25 model had clearly visible ape features and a body covered in hair. But he was basically just Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man, only slouched over with a gorilla gait.

In the first two decades of apedom, actual apes, for whatever reason, were totally risque. No one would dare go near an actual chimp or bonobo; instead, filmmakers went with the extremely PC “ape-man” for nearly every release. I guess early 20th century audiences could handle the horrific mashing of ape and human genomes, but couldn’t handle a kosher all-gorilla with no fillers or byproducts.

That all changed in 1933, when King Kong broke down barriers everywhere; for ape characters and for ape effects that were more than just a small amount of makeup. Even though his features were given the 1930s equivalent of a magazine cover airbrushing (gorillas typically have protruding bellies and proud, firm buttocks, and Kong was given a washboard on both sides to make him seem less comical), the big guy was pure gorilla. Created by stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien (who also did effects work on The Lost World), Kong was a technical marvel; four scale models built on a one-inch-to-one-foot scale, plus huge models of his head, foot and two arms. Look for the humongous face model in the clip below.

As soon as Kong started making money, RKO greenlit another one, and O’Brien dusted off his old ape models for the kitschy and disappointing Son of Kong. But son made barely a quarter of what dad did, so the franchise was shelved.

Then, sixteen years later, O’Brien returned to the ape scene with Mighty Joe Young, another story of implied ape/woman romance. Joe was nowhere near the size of Kong, but he had a decade and a half of new technology on his side, and Joe was by far the better-looking gorilla. His movements were more lifelike and his emotions came through more clearly; as a plus, he had the plus-sized butt and belly that Kong so sorely lacked.

But after Mighty Joe Young, the stop-motion ape game more or less dried up.

The Stone Age: Men in Monkey Suits

King Kong triggered a boom in the giant ape industry. Less than a year after Kong’s ’33 release date came Son of Kong and Wasei Kingu Kongu (Japanese King Kong, in Japanese, because that’s how fast this was thrown together). The Japanese Kong and its sequel, King Kong Appears in Edo, both used traditional gorilla suits. Both, sadly, were lost to the ages. But when Godzilla kicked off the giant monster craze in the early 50s, filmmakers finally had an excuse to start churning out apes left and right again. Konga came first in 1961, followed just a year later by King Kong vs. Godzilla (there was no way to keep these two apart).

Stop-motion, of course, was old hat; now the big thing was ape suits. But the suits had none of the fine detail of stop-motion apes. They were hairy bodysuits with monkey masks, and sometimes the masks’ mouths would move. That was it, really. Try picturing an emotional “King Kong makes eye contact with Ann” series of close-ups, but with the dead-eyed Kong mask from King Kong vs. Godzilla:

Pay no attention to Kong’s balloon airlift.

This was the way things worked. Suits were cheaper and less time-intensive than making all those minute stop-motion ape changes. They were also emotively limited. Plus, people in the sixties wanted action!, and a monkey suit had mobility like nobody’s business. There’s no way the ’33 Kong could have held his own against Godzilla for an entire movie – not with those sluggish stop-motion fighting moves. So despite their tendency to age like a fine glass of 2%, monkey suits were the gold standard of fake apes for the next several decades.

And when Dino de Laurentiis’ 1976 King Kong released, another flood of great ape knockoffs hit cinemas; all of them bearing at least one guy in a cheap suit. Queen Kong. A*P*E* (also known as Attack of the Giant Horny Gorilla). The Mighty Peking Man. All would all run their course, and all would be completely forgotten by 1967, just a year after Laurentiis’ Kong hit theaters. Mighty Peking Man, at least, will live on in the hearts of a chosen few, for a sequence where its half-naked stars toss around the ol’ live jaguar in a game of catch (NSFW: nipple, jungle cat tossing):

Also, for those who grind their teeth every time the word “monkey” appears in this article while referring to something that should really be called a great ape, the official Chinese title of Peking Man is Orangutan King: The Mighty Peking Man.

The animal in question is none of those things.

The Silverback Age: Touchy Feely Apes

Ape suits are great for when Hong Kong needs a quick death by crushing, but for those intimate close-ups, something else would have to do. The ’76 Kong tried to pull this off, mounting a mechanical mask onto the suit that special effects artist Rick Baker wore. The effects team also built a massive animatronic ape, albeit one that performed so poorly it was can only be seen in a few seconds of Kong.

Baker, naturally, was not satisfied with the end results, referring to it after the fact with copious use of the words “stupid,” “idiot,” and “pissed off.” But in hindsight, it’s not so bad. At least not when compared to a Giant Horny Gorilla. Mostly, it’s the obvious human/ape sexual tension that throws things off.

But while the suit craze was booming in the 60s and 70s, a film came along that gave fake movie primates the emotion they’d been so sorely lacking. The film was Planet of the Apes, and the process of getting those emoting apes onto a movie screen was a long and labored slog through studio hell.

No one wanted to make a movie populated almost exclusively by talking chimps. Not the studios. Not Pierre Boulle, who wrote the original “Planet of the Apes” novel. Finally, Charlton Heston was able to strong-arm a Fox exec into ordering a makeup test, featuring James Brolin in place of Roddy McDowall, who had yet to be cast.

Even in such an early test, the difference between Planet of the Apes and any kind of giant-Manhattan-stomping-ape is striking. These apes are emoting, and while the actors portraying them might be suffocating under a small mountain of foam rubber, they’re given far more room to maneuver than if each actor were wearing a plastic Halloween mask.

The film was eventually greenlit, makeup artists had to be trained in the fine art of apecraft and all the primate actors had to sit in a makeup chair for a minimum of three hours, but the end result was totally worth it. Planet of the Apes can count itself among the few “people wearing gorilla costumes” movies that not only stand the test the time, but attempt something artistic with their monkeyshines. Other members of this esteemed club: 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Max, Mon Amour, where a woman has a passionate tryst with a chimpanzee.

Industrial Revolution: Rise of the Mechanized Monkeys

The status quo was in place. If you wanted an ape (and couldn’t, for whatever reason, get a real one), you got a suit or you slapped some gorilla foundation and eyeliner on a few willing actors. But eventually, in the 90s, filmmakers realized there was another form of movie magic that could provide top-notch aping. Thus, the era of ape animatronics was born.

The era of ape animatronics did not last very long.

Animatronics, like stop-motion, were the polar opposite of the guy-in-a-suit craze. While they were typically implemented alongside costumes and puppets (the norm was an ape suit with an animatronic face), building robotic monkey parts still cost untold amounts of money, time and artistic finesse (for those who created the mechanisms and those who operate them). The results, meanwhile, are often not that much better than some stuntman wearing fake fur and doing a halfhearted orangutan impression.

So there aren’t too many choices in the realm of animatronic ape cinema. The highlights: Ed, Mighty Joe Young, Congo, Buddy, and John Cleese’s gorilla from the live-action George of the Jungle. Stop-motion has King Kong, makeup has Planet of the Apes and the suit has 2001, but there is no classic that can be forever tied this technological marvel. Our choices are this:

Or this:

I’ll let you make your own decision.

The Digital Ape: Chimp, Meet Computer

The period when animatronic chimps and gorillas rose to prominence was the same time when computer generated imagery was starting to surge. Yet during this time, CGI primates were almost nonexistent. Other than Jumanji and its CGI monkeys, no one seemed particularly interested in rendering their apes with processors. And why would you? Real monkeys and apes were always around for a quick shoot, and if not, just raid the set of Attack of the Giant Horny Gorilla and you’re good to go.

But about ten years ago, CGI went from the worst-case scenario to the absolute best. That’s when the latest in a series of King Kongs was released, and while no one really remembers Peter Jackson’s take on the classic ape today, they probably should. Not for the film itself, which was about an hour and a half too long and stuffed to the the breaking point with “character looks pensively off the bow of a ship” scenes.

No, what’s worth remembering is Kong. Because Jackson’s King Kong is ten years old, and that means (thanks to the power of basic math), that it contains ten-year-old CGI. Yet it hasn’t really aged. At all.

Even Gollum’s starting to look a little plasticky, but that ape up above still has that island-fresh sheen about him. And as the technology’s progressed further, with more Andy Serkis and more little mo-cap balls in Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the primates only get realer.

Of course, that means that more CGI primates have begun to crop up. In the past year, After Earth and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire both boast a scene where CGI baboon creatures hassle the protagonist. But a mediocre computer baboon is really just this century’s version of whatever the hell Peking Man was. This century’s Space Odyssey is about to give us chimpanzees dual-wielding assault rifles on horseback. And all without a peep from the American Humane Association.

We’ve just entered a golden age of “apes doing things apes don’t typically do.” Enjoy it for however long it lasts. Or until real apes take over.