This is my second review of a documentary chronicling the production of a beloved sci fi classic and this time it’s Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film(2019), directed by William Conlin. chronicles the men that were the architects of the simians that menaced Charlton Heston in the 1968's, Planet of the Apes. From the title alone one would imagine that this film would really be best for fans of the long running Apes franchise, and while those fans would get the most out of this, it’s still very enjoyable as a mini history lesson in the creation of special effects makeup, from the silent era to today.
Brought to fruition by a Indiegogo campaign in 2018, this film really likes to hammer home how this era of makeup was just as revolutionary as it is now bygone, which is emphasized by just how many of the actors and people behind the production of Planet of the Apes have sadly shuffled off this mortal coil. Making Apes assembles some of the surviving makeup artists that worked on the original films, including Dan Striepeke and Thomas Burman, who more or less serves as our hero, and actor Lou Wagner (Paul Williams is curiously absent). Directors Guillermo Del Toro, John Landis, and Joe Dante bring their own professional insight into the effects of Planet of the Apes, but we also see them share a childlike glee for a film that tapped into their imaginations at an early age. The documentary (not unlike how Memory: The Origins of Alien marketed itself as a documentary about Alien, but was more focused on Dan O’Bannon) particularly follows the life of special effects artist Thomas Burman, and how he was taken under the wing of makeup artist John Chambers, and their tumultuously bitter-sweet relationship.
Burman & Del Toro
Overall I found this to be an enjoyable documentary, but there’s definitely a lack of polish to the film. There’s an overall flatness to the lighting and composition that at times this documentary dips close to DVD special feature territory. In particular, any scene that involves recreating events that happened behind the camera feel a tad hokey. And can we please, please, please, stop doing bad Rod Serling impersonations any time his good name is brought up? The film attempts at making a narrative through-line with Burmans' fractured mentorship under John Chambers. Chambers is characterized as a brilliant artist and technician within the world of makeup, but with an explosive temper and at times manipulative towards those who looked up to him like a father. Plenty of good material for good drama, but the problem is this narrative is awkwardly placed throughout the film, rather than steadily doled out. It’s a bit like having a conversation with someone on a particular subject, but other anecdotes keep them off track. There’s also a few shots throughout the film that come across as ill fitting, such as a shot-reverse-shot sequence where Thomas is talking to his wife and professional partner, Bari Burman, about their many years working together. You can understand the cinematographer wanting to make this touching scene look more cinematic, but a simple static shot of the two old souls looking at each other would have felt more intimate.
Though in the end, what Making Apes lacks in polish it makes up for in earnestness and respect for the people who made this supremely simian work of cinema. While the documentary certainly acknowledges the explosive nihilism of the Planet of the Apes films, it's far more concerned with the craftsmanship, and tradition behind Planet that is being cast aside by modern technology. The only mention of the newer Apes films comes at the end with some expected grumbling about how CG just isn’t the same as practical effects (not unlike how Memory mentions how clumsy the chestburster scene in Alien: Covenant looks compared to the practical mastery of the ‘79 original). Overall, I’d say this film is a must see for Apes aficionados and thoroughly enjoyable for fans of genre film effects history, even if it’s a little rough around the edges at times. Making Apes is currently available for streaming and rental on Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.