Should Movie Monkeys Be CGI Or Practical?

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!

Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


11 responses to “Should Movie Monkeys Be CGI Or Practical?”