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)

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Bela Lugosi as The Ape from The Ape Man

Assassimon – The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

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Peter Elliott as Assassimon in The Island of Dr. Moreau

Chaka – Land of the Lost (2009)

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Jorma Taccone as Chaka from Land of the Lost

Facial Prosthetics…

Facial Prosthetics

The use of facial prosthetics to hide an actor or actress’ face and make them appear more “ape-like” is not a new technique – in fact, the technique was first used to create the creepy looking Winged Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The technique has, for the most part, greatly improved over the decades, with each attempt turning out better than the last. This technique is a huge step up from standalone makeup in terms of realism, but it still has its flaws. While the actor’s face is almost entirely covered with prosthetic fur and rubber – often employing a puppet-like mouth for speaking roles, such as those in the Planet of the Apes series – their eyes are left in their original state, which often heightens the creepiness factor.

Winged Monkeys – The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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Buster Brodie as a Winged Monkey from The Wizard of Oz

Various – Planet of the Apes (1968)

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Various actors from Planet of the Apes

Various – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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Unknown actor from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Harry – Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

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Kevin Peter Hall as Harry from Harry and the Hendersons

Man-ape – Missing Link (1988)

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David Hughes as Man Ape from The Missing Link

Various – Planet of the Apes (2001)

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Helena Bonham Carter as Ari and Paul Giamatti as Limbo from Planet of the Apes 2001

Body Suits…

Body Suits

While the use of makeup effects or facial prosthetics are used when the human element of the actor is still required to come across onscreen, sometimes a movie calls for a live gorilla to interact with actual actors. Gorillas are very temperamental  and powerful creatures that can easily injure a human – that’s when SFX teams use actors in full-body gorilla suits.

This is how character actors and actresses like Peter Elliott, Misty Rosas and John Alexander make their living – by donning full-body gorilla suits, so that they can safely interact with the live actors on set and keep the insurance companies happy at the same time.

Peter Elliott has been doing this kind of acting work for several decades now, starting with Silverbeard from Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and most recently as Go-Go in the yet to be released Vanilla Gorilla. Some of these suits are so realistic, and the actors’ motions so ape-like, that people often can’t tell when the real ape has been swapped out for a guy in a suit. A great example of this is John Alexander and various members of his gorilla team interacting with Sigourney Weaver in the film Gorillas in the Mist. The SFX and costume design teams did such a great job creating the faux gorilla suits that when coupled with Alexander’s incredible ape-like acting ability, audiences were unable to tell the difference between costume and a live gorilla.

Silverbeard – Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984)

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Peter Elliott as Silverbeard from Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan

Joe – Mighty Joe Young (1988)

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John Alexander as Joe from Mighty Joe Young 1998

Various – Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

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John Alexander as a gorilla from Gorillas in the Mist

Amy – Congo (1995)

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Misty Rosas as Amy from Congo

Buddy – Buddy (1997)

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Peter Elliot as Buddy from Buddy

Go-Go – Vanilla Gorilla (2011)

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Peter Elliott as Go-Go from The Vanilla Gorilla

Bernie – Zookeeper (2011)

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Tom Woodruff Jr. and Garon Michael as Bernie from Zookeeper

Stop Motion and Motion Capture Animation…

Stop Motion

There is no better way to end this article than to go back and talk about very first and arguably the most famous movie ape – King Kong.  When co-directors and writers Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack decided to make the cinematic classic King Kong they had to find a way to bring this massive creature to life and give him the imposing size required for the film. They decided to go with the tried and true technique of stop motion animation – painstakingly shooting each frame one at a time then playing it back at full-speed to create the illusion of movement. Through their ingenuity they brought Kong to life and thrilled audiences everywhere. Sure, some of the facial movements are “stiff” and come off cheesy, but the stop motion technique used then still holds up even today. The technique would continue to be used for follow up films including Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young.

Kong – King Kong (1933)

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Kong from King Kong 1933

Little Kong – Son of Kong (1933)

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Little Kong from Son of Kong 1933

Joe – Mighty Joe Young (1949)

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Joe from Might Joe Young 1949

Motion Capture

Motion capture is the culmination of almost 80 years of special effects innovation and practice paying off in a big way. While promoting Avatar, James Cameron once eluded that motion capture technology was high-tech makeup offering actors the opportunity to inhabit new roles. There is no better example of this than Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong and the prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both Kong and Caeser were “played” by Andy Serkis (who also gave life to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings) and much like Peter Elliot, Serkis is quickly becoming the “go to” guy for motion capture roles that require the character to have some soul and depth. Sure, the look of the creature onscreen is created digitally by a SFX house like WETA, but without Serkis adding personality to the charactersthrough his movements and conscience choice of expression, the motion capture technology would be a hollow spectacle.

Kong – King Kong (2005)

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Andy Serkis as Kong from King Kong 2005

Caesar – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

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Andy Serkis as Caeser from Rise of the Planet of the Apes

There is no telling how much further movie ape technology can actually “evolve” after the brilliance of motion capture technology. However, just because mo-cap is good doesn’t mean the other techniques will fall by the wayside.  Men in suits will always be required as a cheaper and quicker alternative to motion capture, and of course facial prosthetics and makeup will always be used in films. However, it will be interesting to see what new and exciting innovations Hollywood comes up with next to depict apes in movies.

It is also important to note that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not James Franco’s first movie involving an ape and here is the visual proof.

the ape james franco The Evolution of the Movie Ape

Follow me on Twitter (@Walwus) and tell me which technique you prefer and who is your favorite movie ape of all time.