When the filmmakers behind the original Planet of the Apes released the science-fiction movie in the spring of 1968, few in the industry or the audience realized that the project would completely transform the milieu of make-up effects and the entire cinematic world at large. That impact is still being felt today. With its myriad believable and iconic simian characters, Planet of the Apes simultaneously raised the bar for the genre and the potential of prosthetic make-up—due in large part to the innovations of creative make-up designer John Chambers and his team of artists, many of whom were newcomers in the field.
Now, a reverential documentary, Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film, showcases the remarkable make-up artistry in Planet of the Apes, giving a new voice to these groundbreaking craftspeople for the first time on film. Directed by William Conlin and conceived by Tom Burman, Chambers’ key apprentice on Apes throughout 1967, Making Apes heralds artists who, other than Chambers and 20th Century Fox make-up department head Dan Striepeke, did not receive screen credit nor individual acclaim at the time of the film’s initial prominence.
At the University of Southern California, a recent Los Angeles-based premiere of the film brought out not only many of the crew from 1968’s Planet of the Apes, but also the top names who are currently make-up stalwarts in the industry, profoundly influenced by the original movie and its chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan characters.
“It changed the way producers look at film—directors, scriptwriters could write the impossible; Planet of the Apes was a turning point.” - Tom Burman remembered.
In a pre-screening reception at the Making Apes premiere, pointing to Chambers’ pioneering designs, Darrell McIntyre, who created gorilla and chimpanzee make-ups in 1967, discussed the revolutionary approach. “No other show had tried to accomplish what we accomplished with the prosthetic appliances,” he said. “I still think [the film] holds up great, and a lot of young people are discovering it.”
Next, longtime make-up artist and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Branch Governor Leonard Engelman, who had worked with Chambers in the Universal Pictures make-up lab, noted the revolution in prosthetics at the time. “It was a major leap forward from what was being done in the past,” he said of the ape make-ups. “You believed it. To a large degree, that’s what make-up is when it’s successful: you see the character, whether it’s an animal or a human.”
Academy Award-winning artist Kevin Haney echoed Engelman’s sentiments. “The original designs were revolutionary, and they were nothing like we’d ever seen before,” he said. “When those gorillas are in the cornfield [towards the beginning of the 1968 film], when you first see them, it’s one of the most startling moments in cinema history.”
Veteran make-up effects artist Craig Reardon, who visited Chambers’ 20th Century Fox make-up department as a teenager before Apes was released, reflected on the clarity and attractiveness of the ape make-ups. “In spite of everybody being covered up, they still come through,” he expressed. “The performers weren’t inhibited by the make-up, and at the time, they made the point that they could express things through those make-ups.”
Ed French, another make-up effects icon, underscored the importance of the actors in Apes who brought the make-ups to life. “They’re brilliantly designed, but also, the casting was spot on—particularly Roddy McDowall,” he recalled. “I think he made that movie fly.”
Throughout Making Apes, viewers are treated to commentary by the late Chambers and many on his crew, several of whom have sadly passed, including Striepeke, Edwin Butterworth and Maurice Stein, plus some of the top contemporary genre directors, including Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis and Richard Donner. Though male artists dominated the make-up team on the original film, many top women currently in the industry contributed to remarking about the relevance of Making Apes as a testament to the greatness in the 1968 film.
AMPAS First Vice President Lois Burwell pointed to her colleagues’ impact with the original make-up creations. “The timeless make-up artistry in Planet of the Apes has inspired five decades of make-up artists with the skillful design that serves the story perfectly,” she detailed. “You believe they are apes. That’s the test of a great make-up—the believability of the character.”
“They’re brilliantly designed, but also, the casting was spot on—particularly Roddy McDowall. I think he made that movie fly.” - Ed French
Two-time Oscar-winning artist Michèle Burke described Chambers and his make-up unit as unprecedented innovators. “When you think back to the technology and what they had at their fingertips at the time, what he did was revolutionary,” she said. “It was a giant leap forward in the special effects make-up world.”
One of the interviewees in Making Apes, Ve Neill, a three-time Academy Award-winning make-up artist, also spoke to the degree to which Planet of the Apes broke new ground. “It was the first picture that used widespread make-ups on so many people,” she related. “The fact that John [Chambers] had done so much with war veterans gave him the impetus to build these faces that could be believeable.”
Just before the screening began, director William Conlin explained how the future audience for Making Apes need not be exclusive to fans of the 1968 classic. “It’s about the people who created the make-ups—these artists really, truly changed film,” Conlin said of his project. “I don’t think there would be a Star Wars, Star Trek, a Lord of the Rings—all these incredible franchises that we treasure today; they wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for the work that John Chambers and Tom Burman did 51 years ago.”
Finally, Tom Burman, whose 50-year career is specified in Making Apes, professed that the make-ups to which he contributed as Chambers’ apprentice are ultimately indelible. “It changed the way producers look at film—directors, scriptwriters could write the impossible; Planet of the Apes was a turning point,” he remembered.
“You believe they are apes. That's the test of a great make-up—the believability of the character.” - Lois Burwell
Commenting on his mentor, Burman explained Chambers’ complexities which allowed him the ability to both create visionary characters and lead a largely novice team. “He came from the streets of Chicago, and he was a fighter,” Burman said. “He was a blue-collar worker, son of a plumber, who had these big meaty hands and big heavy body, yet he could do such delicate work. His work was unsurpassed.”
Director John Landis, who worked as a mail boy at 20th Century Fox in the late 1960s and knew Chambers, succinctly summarized the viewer experience at the premiere. “Making Apes is a story well-told,” he said. “It’s a must-see.”
Extra special thanks to Bari Dreiband-Burman for her tireless contributions and expert coordination.