The Make-Up and Production Design of Planet of the Apes

By David Konow

Remembering the classic sci-fi film, which is now almost half a century old.

It’s not easy to make a world full of apes. In recent years, it hasn’t been cheap either. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes series reboot cost close to a hundred million, and this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cost a reported $170 million. So it’s remarkable to realize that the original Planet of the Apes, released in 1968, cost only $5.8 million, which even in those days wasn’t that expensive. With the franchise successfully reinventing itself in modern day, the original still holds up well after all this time, a genre classic that meant so much to fans growing up, and a film that helped create a generation of make-up talent. “Planet of the Apes is one of the most important make-up movies ever,” says Rick Baker, the make-up FX master of An American Werewolf in London and Men in Black fame. “It inspired a whole generation of kids to become make-up artists.”

A great movie has to have a great team behind it, especially if you want audiences to take a film with talking monkeys seriously. Richard Zanuck, who was then the head of 20th Century Fox, was captivated with the screenplay for Apes, but he knew it was crucial that audiences found it believable, or the movie would be a laughing stock, so he brought in director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon), and cinematographer Leon Shamroy (The King and I).

Charlton Heston had a good working relationship with Schaffner, and was eager to come aboard the Ape train, but before the project landed at Fox, it was turned down everywhere. Linda Harrison, who played Nova in the film, recalled, “Nobody wanted it, but Dick Zanuck really believed in it.” In the AMC documentary on the Apes series, Heston recalled the reaction was, “Spaceships? Talking monkeys? You’re out of your mind, that’s Saturday morning serials, get out of here.”

Enter make-up artist John Chambers, who was recently celebrated in Argo. As recalled in the book Planet of the Apes Revisited, Chambers built his make-up talent during his time in the Army, creating prosthetics for wounded soldiers that replaced noses, arms, legs, chins and more. He went into television in the early fifties, then branched into movies in the sixties. Whether Fox would give the green light to Apes depended on a screen test with Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Linda Harrison, and James Brolin. The make-ups Chambers created for the test were still crude, but it gave the studio a fair idea of how the movie, and the make-up, would turn out, and they finally gave it the go ahead.

Until the unprecedented success of Star Wars, the major studios didn’t take science fiction seriously, but that wasn’t the main reason the budget for Planet of the Apes was low. As Harrison recalls, “They had to go under the radar. The board of directors at Fox wouldn’t greenlight the movie if it was over six million, so they had to come in under six million so they wouldn’t have to deal with the board.” Production designer William Creber was up for the challenge. “I had done a lot of Irwin Allen’s TV shows,” he says. “It was fun, it was challenging, and we had to do it for a price.”

Creber recalled that at first Fox wanted stunt people to play the apes so that the studio could save money, with the attitude being, you couldn’t see their faces under all that make-up, what did you need actors for? “But Shaffner convinced them it absolutely had to be actors who could come through that make-up with their personalities,” Creber says. “And he didn’t feel stunt people could render those emotions.”

Make-up artist Tom Burman (Tales From the Crypt, Grey’s Anatomy), who worked with Chambers on Apes, recalls, “They were afraid that actors would not wear the make-up because of the length of time it took to apply, and they had to wear it all day long. So extras were tested, but they were flat.” Chambers sat down with a number of actors who were up for the film, letting them know the kind of make-up commitment that was involved, and many of them passed. For example, Edward G. Robinson played Doctor Zaius in the screen test, but balked at the demands of the make-up the film would require. Still, Planet of the Apes was able to assemble a good cast with Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans.

As Burman recalls, the ape make-up developed and became “more stylized. They didn’t want to go with a duplicate of a chimpanzee or an orangutan, they wanted an evolved version of that. [Producer] Arthur Jacobs said, ‘John, we’re having famous actors play these parts, we want to see them through the make-up, we don’t want to go so “ape” that the audience can’t relate to them.’”

As Harrison puts it, “the genius of Johnny Chambers made it possible for the movie to be made.” To keep costs down, it was decided that the apes would have a primitive society instead of living in the futuristic world of the novel. Creber was inspired by the work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, as well as the real life location of Gulermae Valley in Turkey, where a group of people lived in caves.

To make the ape homes all wood would be too expensive, so the structures had metal interiors, with foam sprayed through the metal, and cardboard covering them. (These structures were very light, and a group of crew people could pick them up and carry them around the set.)

As far as the rubber ape appliances, it was clearly going to be a big job, and Burman recalls, “We trained every make-up artist to do this, and most of them were new people who had never really done make-up before. We gave them a two week school, how to put on a piece of make-up in the morning, taking it off, putting another piece off in the afternoon, taking it off, how to set up all the colors so that nobody got creative beyond what John wanted.”

Planet of the Apes was of course a major step forward for make-up, and as Burman was working on it, “I just had this sense that something was happening that was really big. I knew it was big in terms of work. Nobody had done anything like this before. When I saw the actors come in and we took the impressions of them, I knew I was onto something really, really big, something that was monumental in the make-up field.” (According to the book Planet of the Apes Revisited, the make-up FX may have cost half a million out of the film’s budget.)

The immortal surprise ending with the Statue of Liberty was done with the basic FX tools of the time with a matte painting created by Emil Kosa Jr. (For certain shots, a large replica of the Statue’s crown and torch that were made of cardboard and paper mache were also used.)

With the social turmoil of the time, Planet of the Apes became a political statement, which the makers of the film apparently never intended. Richard Zanuck wanted the movie to be “pure entertainment,” and the ending wasn’t supposed to send an anti-war message for the time, but to throw in a great, Twilight Zone-style surprise for the audience.

At the same time, “We couldn’t get away from what we were experiencing at the time,” Harrison says. “Subconsciously, what was happening in the world, and what was happening in our country, it seeped into the consciousness of the script and it turned into a political film. It hit a nerve.”

Considering all the potential logistic problems, the Planet of the Apes shoot came in on schedule and on budget. When Planet of the Apes was released on February 8, 1968, it was a monster hit, making $22 million, a big take for the time, and a huge return on its investment. It also launched one of the first big studio franchises with four sequels.

In 1969, John Chambers won the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up, a category that was specifically created for Chambers and his work on Planet of the Apes. While the tools Chambers and company had to work with are very low tech by today’s standards, Burman says, “For that time, I don’t think it could have been much better.”

As Rick Baker had previously mentioned, Apes is one of the most important films in the history of make-up, and as Burman says, “Planet of the Apes was the turning point for make-up. The studios didn’t realize you could make a movie around wonderful characters, and put make-ups on big actors like this. It changed the telling of the stories.”

Burman and Chambers would open their own make-up company in 1973, and they were inundated with people who wanted to become FX artists. “When we opened our studio, there were probably nine people in the world who did this work exclusively,” Burman says. “Today there’s over 5,000 of them in Los Angeles.”

Richard Zanuck had faith that the Apes could rise again, and now they’re back in full force after a misguided attempt with Tim Burton directing in 2001. The effects have certainly come a long way, with Andy Serkis’s ground breaking motion capture work in the role of Caesar, and it looks like the Apes will be among us for a long time to come. As Harrison says, “It will probably never stop because it’s about evolution.”