The Evolution of the Movie Ape

Published 4 years ago by , Updated August 7th, 2012 at 9:40 pm,

evolution of the movie ape The Evolution of the Movie Ape

The English naturalist Charles Darwin shook up the science and religious worlds in 1859 by theorizing modern man had evolved from lesser lifeforms in his book On the Origin of Species. Whether he was right or not is a religious and scientific debate for another time. Instead, let’s discuss something we do have undisputable proof of – the Evolution of the Movie Ape.

For almost a eighty years Hollywood and audiences have been fascinated with the onscreen depiction of actors and actresses playing the role of an ape. As special effects technology and makeup techniques have improved over the years, audiences have been treated to better and more realistic depictions. Sometimes, (and in the case of the new release Rise of the Planet of the Apes) the makeup or SFX job is so good that the line between real ape and fake ape has been blurred – you may be astonished to find out some of the apes on this list were actors in suits.

Most people think there are only a couple of ways actors can portray apes onscreen, when in fact there are five distinct and different techniques that special effects department monkey around with for various roles. Those techniques are:

  • Makeup
  • Facial Prosthetics
  • Body Suits
  • Stop Motion
  • Motion Capture

We could go through this list as a straight timeline starting with King Kong in 1933 and ending with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 but that wouldn’t be a true representation of how the movie ape has evolved. Instead, we are going to break the apes and their films into the individual effects categories, then take a look at how each the movie ape attempt  in those categories have improved or worsened. No one category is better than the other, but each is completely different and has its own strengths and weakness.

Let’s lay down a couple of ground rules before we get started. In order to make the list, the ape must have been created by special effects – in other words no live apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, spider monkeys or other primates qualify. There are plenty of great onscreen performaces by live animals (I’m partial to Clyde from Every Which Way but Loose) but they aren’t the ones being discussed today.

Let’s get started with the lowest rung on the evolutionary movie ape ladder – makeup.



Makeup effects have vastly improved over the years, with better glues, hair pieces and application techniques being invented all the time. However, when it comes to turning actors into apes, the makeup techniques seem to have plateaued. Using just makeup to turn actors into apes only occurs in order to depict apes with human-like characteristics – ones who can talk or interact more as humans than they do apes. Bela Lugosi kicked things off in 1943 playing the first human-ape hybrid in The Ape Man but these “missing link” style characters weren’t seen again until long-time ape actor Peter Elliott portrayed Assassimon in The Island of Dr. Moreau and Jorma Taccone played Chaka from Land of the Lost. Because the makeup effects are considered to be low in quality and standard, it is probably no coincidence that each of these movies turned out to be a bust as well.

The Ape – The Ape Man (1943)

man ape the man ape The Evolution of the Movie Ape

Bela Lugosi as The Ape from The Ape Man


Assassimon - The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

assassimon the island of dr moreau The Evolution of the Movie Ape

Peter Elliott as Assassimon in The Island of Dr. Moreau


Chaka - Land of the Lost (2009)

chaka land of the lost The Evolution of the Movie Ape

Jorma Taccone as Chaka from Land of the Lost


Facial Prosthetics…

« 1 2 3 4»

Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:


Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.

If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. Nice article.

  2. Two points:

    King Kong is not “arguably” the most famous movie ape in history. He is the undisputed king of movie apes and anyone who says different is flat out wrong.

    Second: That’s not Paul Giamatti in the photo. Giamatti played the slave trader. That’s Paul Shadix, Otho from Beetlejuice.

  3. Fun article to read ha but that one ape wasn’t Paul giamatti. He was the one with the skinnier face and looked dirtier. The one in the picture is another actor

  4. What about “his best friend is an ape named Ape”-George of the Jungle

  5. Hey, there is an error for the description of the 2001 Planet of the Apes. The orangutan on the right is not Limbo and therefore not Paul Giamotti. He is a friend of Senator Nado potrayed by the actor Glenn Shadix. Sen. nado worked in the senate with Ari’s (Helena Bonham Carter) father, Senator Sandar (David Warner).

    I’m very excited for the Rise of the Apes!

  6. Some forgotten gems and stinkers in there, Paul. Surprised you didn’t mention the 1976 Kong, if only for Rick Baker and Carlo Rambaldi’s work (worth mentioning that the 1933 version used some animatronics as well). How about King Kong vs Godzilla, or King Kong Escapes? Major body suit action…

    That’s ultra-skinny mime artist Dan Richter from 2001, incidentally – in a, uh, body suit. :-P 2001 lost out to POTA at the Oscars in the makeup category although the ape masks in the former were more complex and arguably more convincing. They featured a separate hinged lower jaw, and lip movements controlled by a system of toggles moved by the actor’s own tongue behind a false tongue.

    And I still fancy Helena Bonham Carter as an ape. I really do need help.

  7. Neither actor in the 2001 Planet of the Apes picture is the one described in the caption below. =D

    • Helena’s on the left or I’m a monkey’s uncle…

  8. Surprised that 1976′s King Kong wasn’t on there considering Rick Baker wore a monkey suit the whole time. No big deal, really. The whole movie sucked.

  9. It would have been more interesting if you actually compared this to the movie it’s a remake/revision of (Conquest of Planet Of The Apes) which had some stellar performances by Ricardo Montalbaun and Roddy McDowal. Generaly good review, but it shows a slight ignorance of the source material because this isn’t a new story. It’s a reworking of a “prequel” that’s already been told.

  10. bad article… did you get anything right about this?