Fifty years ago, Johnny Chambers so revolutionized movie makeup with his groundbreaking work on 1968’s Planet of the Apes that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Special Achievement Oscar, even though the makeup category was not yet recognized alongside its behind-the-scenes peers.
Chambers, who engineered prosthetic body parts and limbs for injured World War II veterans before transferring to Hollywood, was uniquely qualified to tackle Planet of the Apes—where he designed, sculpted, tested, and manufactured the prosthetics for more than 200 ape characters on a budget of reportedly less than a million dollars. Tom Burman, who started his own 50-year makeup career assisting on the film, has saidPlanet of the Apes “was the turning point for makeup. The studios didn’t realize you could make a movie around wonderful characters, and put makeup on big actors like this. It changed the telling of the stories.”
Five decades later, the franchise continues to break ground in the art of character transformation and storytelling, this time courtesy of the War for the Planet of the Apesvisual-effects teamJoe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, and Joel Whist, who go into next month’s Oscars with the film’s lone nomination.
“I remember being so blown away by the original movie,” said Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar in the newer Planet of the Apes trilogy. “Before I started work on Planet of the Apes, I looked at some documentary footage of the original’s actors Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall talking about what it was like to work with prosthetic makeup. I remember them specifically talking about how they had to just keep their faces moving so the amount of rubber and latex looked alive on their faces. They had to put so much energy into that. With performance capture, these head-mounted cameras can pick up very subtle and internalized thoughts and feelings and emotions without you having to do anything. You’re just being the character without having to move an artifact around your face.”
Considered to be the world’s leading motion-caption performer, Serkis has been watching the evolution of visual effects since 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, where he portrayed Gollum, courtesy of motion-capture technology. Since then, he has continued to work alongside Weta Digital and its director Letteri on the rest of the Lord of the Rings films, King Kong, The Jungle Book—all of which won visual-effects Oscars—as well as on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and the Apes films.
“Over the last three Apes movies, it has been incredible to see the development in the ability to honor the actors’ performance and make [the apes] look and feel emotionally exactly as [the actors] were shot on set,” he said. “When we started working on Rise of the Planet of the Apes it was really the first time we were able to take the technology onto a live-action film set, untethered, and give complete freedom to the actor playing these creatures—like me playing Caesar—so that I didn’t have to go back and re-shoot things on the performance-capture stage. The connectivity between the actors was complete and that was a big step forward from previous movies.
“On the first film, we took this technology onto live-action sets within the studio, then for the second film we were able to take the technology further and shoot in the rainforest, and by the third film, we were able to film in very harsh conditions,” said Serkis, revealing that Letteri and his visual-effects team engineered a way to weatherproof the incredibly sensitive motion-capture equipment. For the third film, Serkis and the rest of the ape actors were able to roll around in snow in minus-zero conditions and enact physical attack scenes, thanks to the latest developments of Letteri’s crew.
Serkis said he looks forward to the day when visual effects get to the point where real-time facial-capture is possible. Serkis adds that his Imaginarium company is brainstorming ways to expand performance capture to television, virtual reality, and live-theater venues—the dream being the ability to “put performance capture on a live theatrical stage and have actors portray characters where you can see the avatars at the same time as seeing the actors.” Said the actor, “There are so many avenues of expression with this technology for actors. It’s almost like the greatest 21st century tool for an actor because it allows you to play anything now. You can embody and give emotion and feeling and sentience to anything. Not just humanoid characters like apes, but to all sorts of creatures and abstract characters.”
But for now, he is simply relishing the fact that he was able to realize a childhood fantasy.
“The images of apes on horseback in the cornfield catching humans in nets never left me,” marveled Serkis, who in War for the Planet of the Apes, provides an update to that indelible image for a new generation.
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