Planet Of The Apes Needed More Makeup Artists Than Hollywood Could Provide

Akin to "Psycho," the earth-shattering reveal in the closing moments of "Planet of the Apes" became so ingrained into the pop culture lexicon that most folks became aware of it before they even saw the film. There's a part of me that can't fully separate the actual ending from that episode of "The Simpsons" where Troy McClure (Phil Hartman) transforms the gut punch into a bombastic musical number. But I suppose that speaks to how influential this movie was, especially in the realm of science-fiction cinema.

Over five decades since its 1968 theatrical release, "Planet of the Apes," which sees American astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash land on an Earth system dominated by talking primates, has led to over four sequels, two reboots, and two television series, with a new feature film on the way. In many respects, this could have easily fallen into B-movie schlock, but the sharp script from Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, in addition to the tangible performances from Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, have immortalized it as an era-defining sci-fi drama. Although the most impressive achievement all these years later is the impressive makeup work.

The Academy Award-winning makeup effects from John Chambers gave the impression that these humanistic apes were living, breathing beings. By today's standards, it's easy to clock the prosthetics as such, but it gives way to the idea of believing in what's right in front of you. None of the actors' expressions were lost under all of those layers, which helped audiences further believe in the legitimacy of this world. The process of making them look good, however, took more hands on deck than what they initially had.

A hefty, yet necessary strain on the production

The biggest challenge on "Planet of the Apes" was making the characters feel real. According to a 2017 report from Variety, makeup tests started as early as 1965. There was just one problem though: There weren't enough trained artists to go around. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs knew the only way to get things done was to rigorously train a bunch of folks into becoming makeup artists until they had the routine down. "We had 10 trailers that were turned into classrooms for makeup ... It took three to four hours to put it on every day and about an hour and a half to get it off," says Jacobs.

By the end of the arduous shoot, "Planet of the Apes" had given way to over 25 makeup artists. But with that many folks working around the clock, it ate into a significant amount of their allotted $5.8 million budget. "The makeup was our biggest expense on the film — costing about $1.5 million, or nearly one-third of the budget — and applying and removing it used up almost 60% of our total shooting time," says Jacobs.

As difficult as it was to bring these characters to life, it was important to put the time and effort in. Decades later, characters like Cornelius, Zira, and Dr. Zaius remains a shining beacon of how practical effects can enhance a performance. On top of pulling 20th Century Fox out of the box office drink, "Planet of the Apes" essentially gave way to a whole new generation of makeup artists, whose work could be seen across the industry.

Hollywood now had an influx of makeup effects artists

In a 2019 report from The Independent, "Making Apes" director William Colin talks about how all of that fresh talent could be seen in Hollywood productions near and far afterwards. "Name a film after 1968, and chances are a "Planet of the Apes" makeup artist worked on it," says Conlin.

Not only did Chambers work on "Star Trek," but he was also responsible for "Jaws," "Halloween II," and "Blade Runner." The work of Ben Nye can be seen in "Marathon Man" and Disney's "The Black Hole," whereas Daniel C. Striepeke would go on to be a part of many Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis projects. Although everyone else sadly went uncredited in the finished film, their work is not forgotten.

On top of how prosthetics were used to transform Hollywood actors into talking apes, "Planet of the Apes" also stands as a benchmark for how the series would continue to evolve the look. As misguided as Tim Burton's 2001 reimagining was, the makeup crew on that film took what worked about the '68 film, and gave its actors even more room for expression. Although the new series of "Planet of the Apes" films embraced the art of motion capture over prosthetics, the hyper expression in Andy Serkis' face wouldn't have been possible without the hard work of Chambers and his crew.

"Planet of the Apes" is now available for rental and purchase on most VOD platforms.