The Secret Factor Behind Special FX In Movies

I’ve been thinking a lot about monkeys lately. Not your usual monkey thoughts, like what they would look like riding a little bike or telling bank, but rather what they mean to the progress of cinema. We don’t talk about it much, but monkeys (for the sake of this article, “monkey” refers to all fluffy primates) have been objects of fascination for as long as we’ve been playing make-believe on camera.

While not the first, certainly the most iconic early movie monkey has to be 1933’s King Kong — a VFX character we’ve since brought back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, 2000s, and 2010s. Each new design reflected the effects, culture, and idolized beauty of that time.

20th Century Fox
Although this version of Jeff Bridges is beautiful in any era.

And of course, the same goes for the Planet Of The Apes series, with the newest installment coming out July 14, featuring all the latest in computer animation. The same way the ’60s, ’70s, and 2001 movies showcase the costume effects of the time, these new films have shown what amazing steps we’ve taken in CGI. Once again, we’ve had decades of measuring VFX milestones with monkeys. In fact, in the same way the original Planet Of The Apes is seen as the first film to legitimize costume performers (it was the second-ever movie to win an Oscar for makeup effects), the rebooted series has helped legitimize mo-cap.

And it’s not just these two franchises. The Wizard Of Oz, Mighty Joe Young, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Congo, and Jumanji are all films which you can lay on a timeline to see exactly how we’ve evolved in our ability to portray our simian relatives (for better or for worse).

20th Century Fox
Pictured: for worse.

Everything from costumes to stop-motion animation to animatronics to digital effects have been thrown at man’s conquest to realistically portray a monkey. Which leads me (and you) to this simple question: Why? Why should we care about any of this? Why am I writing about this? Am I in the pockets of Big Gorilla? Man, how awesome would it be to be in the pocket of a big gorilla?

No, don’t get distracted, David. I’m writing about this because if you took away every film that didn’t involve a fake monkey, you’d still have a perfectly accurate record of cinematic progress. And that’s weird, right? Why is that?

Here’s a clue, funnypants: It’s not just realism that gets augmented each time a monkey is recreated on screen. It’s also the amount of empathy we put into their portrayal. The ’30s King Kong spends roughly 15 seconds on the titular ape’s death, never showing a human reaction to it. In the ’70s, they spent 30 seconds mourning the moment, with the leading lady tearing up over the demise of the costumed performer. Then, in 2005, Peter Jackson spent a full minute making us watch the sadness of Kong’s passing. And the 2017 film pretty much portrays the character as a complex anti-hero, not simply some mindless monster. As the technology got better, so did our desire to humanize the giant ape — which can be said for the Planet Of The Apes movies as well.

20th Century Fox
To be fair, we wanted to see apes do a LOT of fun things in those films.

It’s essentially the same ever-growing argument in each film: Do apes have souls? We’re obsessed with that question — not just for apes, but robots and dinosaurs and the occasional volleyball. But for monkeys specifically, this fictional quest for a soul is most perfectly paralleled by a real-world quest to create one. I’m speaking, of course, about the “uncanny valley” — which stands for a notable dip in humans’ affinity toward a creepily realistic artificial version of themselves. In other words, it’s the jeebies we get when looking at this:

We’ve come close, but never quite recreated a CGI human that didn’t trigger the red flag in our lizard brains telling us that something is wrong. Most likely it’s a survival instinct so that aliens don’t come to Earth disguised as a bunch of Peter Cushings. But whatever the explanation, scientists have discovered that this effect also exists in monkeys.

Cinema is, at it’s core, a parlor trick humans are spending an ass-ton of money to perform on ourselves. We get together with millions of dollars and fake an emotional journey for no good reason beyond entertainment. Visual effects have always been the clearest representation of that deceit. So it makes sense that the ultimate trick would be to successfully create a living, emotional human which fooled audiences into feeling empathy for it. And since we’ve yet to do that, our natural fallback is the closest possible creature: the lovable monkey.

And you know what? We’re getting pretty darn close to cracking this thing — at least, judging from one review of the last Planet Of The Apes film:

I’ll save you the time of watching the video: The chimps were delighted. At no point did they tear anyone’s face off or poop in a child. It appears that while humans are still a stretch, we have crossed the uncanny valley for our monkey brethren. So if they ever do become super-intelligent and rise up against us, at least they’ll have something awesome to watch.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine a little monkey movie theater playing all sorts of monkey adventures? There would be a monkey projectionist and monkey teenagers paying little monkey dollars with dead monkey presidents on them to see Monkey Transformers or, like, Monkey Manchester By The Sea. Oh my god can you imagine what a Monkeychester By The Sea would look like? Why haven’t we made that yet? Screw Planet Of The Apes, if we’ve indeed crossed the monkey uncanny valley, why aren’t we recreating Oscar winners with CGI monkeys? For the love of god, we have the technology.

Dave is on Twitter, if you’d like to talk monkeys.

For more monkeys and movies, check out 6 Movie Monsters That Just Wouldn’t Work and 4 Ways ‘Planet of the Apes’ Has Made Actors Obsolete.

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