A Trek Through the Visual Effects History of Planet of the Apes
In 1968, Planet of the Apes rocketed audiences through space and time to a planet ruled by Apes, so uncannily like our own, and yet so unrecognizable. We saw ourselves in the society the Apes had created: in their technologies, fears of the unknown, and stark reservations about their violent history. Fifty years and eight films later, what continues to make the Ape Planet such a compelling place to visit, is the revolutionary movie technology responsible for bringing the Apes to life. Whether it was with makeup and other practical effects in the original films, or with the mind-blowing performance capture and CGI of the new trilogy, the franchise has always pioneered revolutionary techniques to give human depth to its simian stars.
For Planet of the Apes (1968), John Chambers was the visionary makeup artist whose techniques turned actors and actresses into chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. In order to give the Apes their lifelike facial movements and expressions, he utilized techniques he’d learned making prosthetics for wounded soldiers.
Of the film’s $5.8 million budget, one million was for makeup alone. Chambers, along with 78 artists, spent hours each day getting as many as 200 actors in full Ape makeup, and the process took almost three hours per performer.
In the end, all that effort and attention to detail payed off enormously. The film was a critical and commercial success, the Ape characters resonated with audiences, and Chambers received an honorary Oscar for his work on it at the 41st Academy Awards—twelve years before the Academy Award for Makeup was officially created.
In the time since the original films, the movie magic of special effects has evolved significantly, especially when it comes to digital effects and computer animation. Weta Digital, the award-winning visual effects company whose innovations have been seen in numerous blockbusters, developed the Apes for the modern trilogy of films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), using cutting-edge performance capture.
The actors portraying the Apes went through physically intensive movement workshops in order to learn how real-life apes moved, using these techniques to extrapolate how would transition into walking upright. Then, they were filmed on set interacting with one another as well as actors playing humans. The actors playing Apes wore motion capture (or ‘mocap’) suits—grey and skintight, covered in silver markers that helped translate the actions of the actors into the digital form. They also wore helmet-mounted cameras for capturing facial movement, which was then used to bring recognizably human facial expressions and speech to the simian characters.
But turning them into Apes wasn’t simply a matter of replacing them with a 3D model and calling it a day. In fact, for facial movements, the magicians at Weta Digital would go frame by frame through footage of the performers, manually adjusting the digital models of the Apes as needed. The result? Photo-realistic Apes that lived, breathed, and spoke like people, down to the finest physiological detail.
Andy Serkis in particular is celebrated for his captivating performance as Caesar, the king of the Ape society. The creation of Caesar required a lot more work than a traditional live-action role, though—not only did Serkis have to give a stellar performance on camera, but Weta Digital had to figure out how to translate the complex emotions he portrayed onto the digital model of Caesar, making those tiny alterations based on facial captures to strike just the right chord. Not even Serkis’ voice escaped Weta Digital’s careful attention to detail. By using real chimpanzee vocalizations, Weta was able to accurately portray human speech delivered by the chimp’s facial structure and vocal chords.
All that fine-tuned, detail-oriented work amounted to an incredible collaboration between the actors and the VFX artists, taking a traditional performance and fusing it with modern technology to create a version of the Apes that the franchise had never seen before.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of these special effects, both practical and digital, to the success of Planet of the Apes. These films have moved audiences through Chambers’ brilliant makeup, Weta Digital’s stunning effects, and the groundbreaking performances of the actors beneath them. The talents of these innovators made it easy for audiences to look into the eyes of the Apes, and see themselves looking back.