In our current movie world of never-ending CGI (the Endgame suits were CGI y’all!!), it can be easy to forget how much movie makeup has evolved since before the talkies. Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film is a sweet and straightforward documentary that shines a light on a lesser-known field in the film industry and those who have helped to pioneer it.
When Planet of the Apes premiered in 1968, it was widely praised for its innovative makeup in creating the titular apes. Makeup artist John Chambers managed to convey realistic apes while still letting the actors emote in recognizable ways. The documentary goes through this history methodically through interviews with those who worked with Chambers, such as Tom Burman, who was mentored by Chambers and eventually had his own incredibly successful career in prosthetic makeup.
Stylistically, there’s nothing all that special about Making Apes. You have your standard talking-head interviews, your re-enactments, and archival footage. What grabs you is how passionate the subjects are about their profession. It’s easy to get lost in the directing, acting or producing of a film, but it’s people like the makeup artists, costumers and set designers that often go unnoticed. Insightfully, no industry can escape controversy or drama, as the film touches on (but mostly skims) the arguments and falling outs of the field’s giants, only reconciling decades later when old age has smoothed over disagreements.
The film touches on the legacy of Planet of the Apes, a film that launched a franchise across movies, television, books, and comics. It also launched the careers of several makeup artists, many whose first film was Apes, since there were so many people needed to apply the prosthetic makeup every day. The documentary follows that legacy to today and briefly asks its subjects what it thinks about the switch to CGI animation. After all, the Planet of the Apes prequel, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, opted to go full CGI for its apes over prosthetics. As expected, many of the older generations of makeup artists feel like their industry is on its way out. But it’s refreshing to hear from the younger generations, who insist the industry will continue. And it’s true, movies may be leaning on CGI more and more, but lower-budget fare like television will always need good prosthetics.
Making Apes isn’t an explosive or revelatory documentary. It’s a quiet and dignified look at an under-appreciated aspect of the film world. It honors one of cinema’s greatest sci-fi achievements but doesn’t get too bogged down in nostalgia. It’s an entertaining slice of movie history.