Documentary Review: ‘Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film’

Greetings again from the darkness. Movie make-up can be obvious and crucial to the character. Think about John Hurt in THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and Eric Stoltz in MASK (1985). It can also be subtle with quiet influence – think Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW (1954), Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN (1990), and Anne Hathaway in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006). Director William Conlin steps out of the world of Reality TV (“Animal Zone”) and into the world of make-up artists, whose job often consists of making the unreal look real. The power of movie make-up is described as magic.

As the title implies, the focus here is on director Franklin J Schaffner’s ground-breaking 1968 film PLANET OF THE APES. It is deservedly considered a turning point in movie make-up, as it proved if believable talking simians could be created, nothing was impossible. A “turning point” also means there was a ‘previous’ and a ‘since’, and Conlin’s documentary suffers from a lack of direction in those two segments. In his defense, a complete timeline of movie make-up would require much more than 90 minutes. Furthermore, additional time devoted to either the early years or the more recent years, and the importance of PLANET OF THE APES (POTA) would get lost. As you would expect, the doc is at its best when it focuses on the POTA make-up team and their process for those ‘darn’ dirty apes.

WWII Secret Agent Pierre Boulle’s 1963 science-fiction novel “La Planete des singes” (known as “Monkey Planet” in the UK) serves as the source material for the 1968 screenplay written by two legends: Rod Serling (“The Twilight Zone”) and 2 time Oscar winner Michael Wilson. Boulle also wrote the 1952 novel “The Bridge over the River Kwai”, which was renamed THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI for the Oscar-winning film from director David Lean in 1957. 20th Century Fox was having financial troubles in the 1960’s, and it was acclaimed Oscar-winning actor Charleston Heston (BEN-HUR, 1959) who pushed to get a green light from the studio.
John Chambers had made a name for himself in both TV and movie make-up when he was hired for POTA. Chambers put together quite a staff, including Thomas R Burman, who spends a great deal of time on camera here recollecting Chambers and the backroom struggles and challenges faced by the crew. For the film to work, the apes needed not just to talk, but to emote; and even today … more than 50 years later … the make-up still looks great on screen. Mr. Chambers was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his work on POTA, as make-up did not become an official category until 1981.

Director Conlin opens the film with a history lesson – a lesson that actually feels too brief and incomplete. We hear about the work Lon Chaney and Jack P Pierce (FRANKENSTEIN, 1931) in those early Universal Studios monster movies, as well as the legendary Cecil Holland, who was behind the make-up on THE LOST WORLD (1925) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). These early artists are held up as the inspirations for those who chose make-up as a career. Seven-time Oscar winner Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, 1982), four-time Oscar winner Greg Cannom (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, 2008), and four-time Oscar winner (now deceased) Stan Winston (TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, 1991) each speak highly (in recorded interviews) of their predecessors, and we also hear from directors who were inspired by their work: Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABRYNTH), Joe Dante (GREMLINS), Richard Donner (SUPERMAN), and John Landis (THE BLUES BROTHERS).

The modern day discussions address how the new generation is moving towards CGI and digital visual effects. Vincent Van Dyke speaks to today’s movie-making and how some of John Chambers’ early work is still used, and how digital effects are now commonplace not just in cinema, but also in TV work. He links the early POTA with the new generation of apes introduced in Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot, as well as the new Ape films that followed. Respect for the early masters is evident, but it’s easy to see how digital effects and traditional make-up are often at odds … leading us to believe a future documentary is likely to focus on this contrast.

PLANET OF THE APES premiered on March 28, 1968 and the backstories of those involved are quite entertaining. John Chambers is worshipped in the industry as both an artist (BLADE RUNNER, 1982) and as a crew leader with a temper. Conlin spends very little time (not enough in fact) on Chambers role with the CIA in the story told by the Oscar winning film ARGO. POTA director Franklin J Schaffner won an Oscar for directing PATTON (1970), and his resume also includes NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (1971), PAPILLON (1973) and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978). He was also the TV adviser to John Kennedy during his campaign and presidency, and was the director of “A Tour of the White House with Mrs John F Kennedy” – a 1962 TV special broadcast to 80 million users. We also have actor Lou Wagner, who played Lucius in the original. Mr. Wagner and Mr. Burman (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, 1978) are still regular speakers at the festivals and special screenings of their movie … the cult still thrives all these years later.

Despite the documentary sprinting through some important and interesting times, we walk away with a better understanding of how the artistry of make-up not only inspires actors, it can also help define the character for viewers. Make-up artists form a close-knit community, although one that may be fading due to digital effects. Standing as a legacy we have the 1968 PLANET OF THE APES, followed by its many sequels, TV series, and animated series. And you’ll just have to watch the documentary to find out how the great Edward G. Robinson played a role in the success of ‘Apes.’

Latest posts by David Ferguson (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.