Should Movie Monkeys Be CGI Or Practical?

Should Movie Monkeys Be CGI Or Practical?
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Last night, I caught an advanced screening of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. It’s a surprisingly solid movie that any fan of the 2011 reboot is well advised to check out. The only potential caveat is that the titular primates are comprised entirely out of CGI instead of a mix of digital and practical effects. Rather than an evolutionary leap forward, I can’t help but feel that a little bit of monkey magic has been lost along the way.

[Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.]

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes opens with a large-scale hunting scene that sees our simian protagonists orchestrate a deer stampede in the woods. We think this was a bad place to start the movie. The audience is thrown into this all-CGI spectacle with nothing to latch onto other than the visuals onscreen. While the fur might be impressively realistic, you are never entirely fooled into believing these monkeys are actually there.

This is something that the 2001 Tim Burton film and the Arthur P. Jacobs-produced originals never suffered from. Sure, you knew the apes were just blokes in costumes, but at least they were tangible entities.

By contrast, the cast of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes are constantly swinging in and out of reality; shifting from living, breathing monkeys in one scene to an obvious computer effect in the next. You can say what you like about the original’s makeup effects, but at least they offered consistency.

Don’t get me wrong; the monkey effects in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes are stunningly realised — especially when it comes to facial expressions, which is something even the most versatile makeup struggles to convey. But part of me still prefers the slightly ropy reality of old: no matter how slick they look, computer images never seem to exist on the same plain as their surroundings. (Before anyone brings up Jurassic Park, that was a combination of practical and digital effects which helped to sell the CGI.)

But the real victims here are the costume designers and show business monkeys. As the movie F.X industry moves to an all-CGI business model, these guys will surely be out of business. The groundbreaking prosthetic makeup techniques devised by John Chambers for the original Planet Of The Apes would probably be laughed out of Hollywood today. It’s a sad thought.

If we cast the net beyond monkeys to include midgets, things get even bleaker:

A few decades ago, talented dwarfs like Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage would have been a shoo-in for roles in The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. Instead, they just shrunk down regular actors using CGI. Tch.

Do you think the dominance of CGI is a good thing for cinema? Or should the art of costumes and animatronics be preserved? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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  • I love the more traditional effects. You are suspending disbelief when you watch a movie anyway. I don’t mind some CGI but I definitely agree that there should be a combination of both used to make a more believable picture. Too much CGI and it looks like a shiny Pixar film to me. And the comparison of squibs and blood packs to CGI blood is huge, the real world stuff looks so much better!

    • Agreed. I really liked the original Yoda in the first 3 Star Wars films. The next three, where he is completely CGI and jumping around like a rabbit with its arse on fire was just ridiculous and less magical for some reason. There needs to be a healthy balance and CGI should be used where it is actually beneficial and adds to a moment, rather than for saving a few bucks or trying to do more with less.

  • The difference is that in the original Planet of the Apes movies and the Tim Burton reboot, the apes were supposed to be more evolved and human-like, and so could be played by people in costumes. In the current movies, they’re super intelligent but still physically the same as regular chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans, making it much more difficult for them to be played convincingly by costumed actors.

    • Could be confusing cause and effect there, try it this way:

      In the original and Tim Burton versions, the apes had to be played by people in costumes so they made them more evolved and human like. In the current movies they could use more advanced CG so they made them physically the same as regular chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans.

      • I think that as the original and Burton versions were set far into the future it makes sense that the apes had physically evolved to be more human-like to better suit their new roles as rulers of the planet.

        Tim Burton probably could have used decent CGI apes if he wanted to.

  • Perhaps for the next film in the series they can have people in costumes for the apes, and use CGI to add a young Charlton Heston?

  • The disparity becomes more apparent as the film ages. Many films even from recent years have aged poorly due to their over-reliance on CGI, whereas much older films like Alien (and Aliens) had masterful set designers, costumers and production designers whom, although restricted by technology, created things that still look believable because they used practical effects.

    The exception to this, in my opinion, are certain distinctive styles of animation or films where a mixture of practical and CGI effects were used.

  • Please…puns aside…chimps, gorillas, orangutans (and humans) are APES; not monkeys. Monkeys have visible tails. And, while we’re at it, apes have nowhere near that much white of the eye (sclera) showing. The facial expressions and eyes are human, not chimp. And no matter how great an actor Andy S thinks he is, he’s no ape. He has human proportions, and hasn’t learned how actual apes locomote, or even hold things because he thinks he knows better. Everyone loves these CG creations, but the Emperor has no clothes. You can pick them out in a second.

    • Thank you!
      I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’, but this is a bugbear of mine.
      Just like the Curious George movie tagline…Show Me The Monkey. George is clearly a chimp.

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