Tim Burton’s PLANET OF THE APES: The Last Gasp Of Creature Makeup

Originally published in the Tim Burton special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2016.

I did the Dino De Laurentiis version of KING KONG in 1976, and was always disappointed because I wasn’t able to do it as realistically as I wanted. I thought APES would be a good way to make up for that.

Rick Baker

Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes didn’t set the world on fire. 

Though a success at the box office, it was poorly received, failing to spawn a sequel in a series known for its sequels. In hindsight, Burton seems a mismatch for this kind of action-packed blockbuster fare. He’s in his element telling smaller and (for lack of a better word) quirkier tales. Even his Batman films hug close to their characters’ idiosyncrasies, and his best work hones in on strange individuals and their difficulties with other people.

Where Burton is a perfect match for Apes, then, is his penchant for creating twisted little worlds inhabited by twisted little characters. Here, he builds an ape culture full of larger-than-life characters and weird social constructs, that clearly interests him far more than Mark Wahlberg’s protagonist. What’s more, all the apes are practical: a final, glorious outing for foam rubber in the Apes series.

None of that would have happened without Rick Baker’s astonishing makeup work. Baker took over from original artist Stan Winston due to creative differences, and he hit the ground running. No stranger to apes, remakes, or Tim Burton, Baker had previously worked on Gorillas In the Mist, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, and the remake of Mighty Joe Young; played the title character in the 1976 remake of King Kong; and won an Academy Award for his work on Ed Wood (1994). Needless to say: he was ready.

Re-imagining (incidentally, a word coined by this production) John Chambers’ iconic makeup designs from the 1968 original, Baker and his studio designed a dizzying array of prosthetics that expressed character as much as they transformed actors into apes. Not content to create “300 apes that have exactly the same face,” the makeup team filled each scene with a wide range of ape characters. The principal ape characters spent four to five hours a day having their multi-piece makeup applied, and 45 minutes having it removed (“45 minutes too long,” according to Tim Roth). Facially articulate, festooned with individually-placed yak hairs and perforated for ventilation and hearing purposes, the “hero” pieces are some of Baker’s finest work. But even the lower tier semi- and non-articulated masks were finished with the same detail – every single unit stood up to close-up photography.

But more important than the technical precision and realism is the individuality and character Baker’s makeup brings to the apes. Each makeup appliance is designed to maximise its actor’s face and performance – and it’s remarkable just how much the cast emotes from within them. When we see these apes’ eyes, they’re not animatronic; they’re not CGI renderings; they’re actors’ real eyes, and they’re not even peeking out from behind cumbersome makeup – the makeup blends smoothly with the actors’ own features to give them full facial control.

Responsive as it was, the heavy makeup inspired a larger-than-life performance style in most of the simian cast. Burton wanted the apes to be “more animal-like,” and they certainly fit that bill, leaping and snarling and generally acting more like apes than in the original film. Tim Roth compared the ape acting process to mask work, where actors project their performance using the mask as a conduit. Given his performance as General Thade, it’s easy to envision Roth practising with his prosthetics in front of a mirror, as mask performers do. Stalking around sets and leering out from underneath his heavy ape brow, he snarls his dialogue like a 1930s serial villain. He’s deliciously angry for the entire film, and absolutely captivating to watch. That kind of transformation and physicality comes directly through the makeup.

The other ape characters span a wide range of performance styles. As slave trader Limbo, Paul Giamatti mugs constantly, really giving his prosthetics a workout as he turns into an unlikely comic relief character. Acting legends like David Warner, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Charlton Heston are more recognisable, giving performances in keeping with their personal styles. The smaller roles – including one particularly randy orangutan politician – are the greatest delights, disappearing into the anonymity of the makeup to entirely embody their characters, much as professional voice actors do.

Then there’s Helena Bonham Carter, saddled with makeup that’s perhaps too human, yet playing ape like all the rest of them. Her loping, observed performance creates an discomfiting Uncanny Valley effect, especially when her relationship with Mark Wahlberg’s Captain Davidson turns into a will-they-won’t-they interspecies romance. Incredibly, it’s still the most believable relationship in the film.

Planet of the Apes was released at a turning point in the realisation of onscreen creatures. That it wasn’t even nominated for Best Makeup at that year’s Academy Awards, and that the first Lord of the Rings film took the statue, is tragic and telling. Rings, though a remarkable achievement in makeup itself, was also largely responsible for mainstreaming performance capture, a technique that revolutionised how creatures were created onscreen and sadly pushed traditional effects makeup into the background somewhat. Blockbusters have used practical makeup since, of course (with Guillermo del Toro proudly leading the charge), but many productions have switched to CGI or replaced makeup in post, as with The Wolfman’s transformations and I Am Legend‘s dark-dwelling vampires. Motion capture, not makeup, is the cutting edge of creature design nowadays.

Ironically, the rebooted Planet of the Apes films that followed some years later wound up delivering some of the finest motion capture work in the industry. Leave it to a series renowned for its advances in creature makeup to do the same with mo-cap. But though the Apes of today are all-digital, the series is rooted in the practical: latex, spirit glue, and yaks.

Tim Burton understood that. His insistence on practical ape makeup was one of the few decisions that made the remake rise above the level of its script. And though he’s said he’d rather “jump out a window” than make a sequel, and has filled his subsequent films with CGI, Burton did at least, just this once, team up with a makeup legend to give us some truly Great Apes.