Magazine article American Cinematographer

Chimpanzees as Dramatic Actors

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Chimpanzees as Dramatic Actors

Article excerpt

Watch out, Newman. Step aside, Huffman. Unless the Academy is willing to create an entirely separate category, next year's Best Actor Oscar could wind up in the hairy hands of one of the precocious primates from Project X.

The credit for what amounts to one of the finest performances ever from animals in a feature film belongs jointly to the late Ron Oxley, who died halfway through production, Hubert Wells, who picked up the project, and a talented group of trainers who worked diligently under both men trying to coax performances out of a bunch of chimpanzees that had never performed in their lives.

Tom Collard, a young trainer who first began working for Oxley in 1982, was responsible for training Oko - the chimp known as Goofy in the film. He recalls: "All of the chimps we used on Project X - with the exception of two old chimps owned by Oxley and Wells - came straight from zoos or research institutes, and they had never been handled by human beings before. Ron was probably the only guy who could have done this in such a short time: take chimps that had never worked with human beings and, through his direction, help us to train them. In three or four months, we had these chimps trained better than any other chimps in the industry! Once we got the script, we were able to decide exactly what we had to teach each one. Ron then assigned each of the trainers a chimp. I was assigned Oko, Julian Sylvester was assigned to Luke, who played Bluebeard, and Mark Harden worked with Willic, who played the lead chimp, Virgil."

Before the chimps could be trained to perform, they first had to be conditioned to work on a film set and not be terrified of the equipment and crew. "When we first got the chimps at Ron's place," Collard relates, "we got booms, lights and we even made a makeshift camera which we pushed right into their faces because otherwise they would have been frightened of this stuff. We pushed the camera really fast at them and, after a few weeks, they didn't pay any attention to any of the equipment anymore. At first, when we put the boom over their heads, they were terrified, but once they got used to it up at our ranch, it wasn't threatening to them and it was no big deal to them on the set."

Once the chimps were comfortable with the paraphernalia of filmmaking, they now had to be introduced to the tools of their trade, the flight simulators they would have to appear to be able to ride and operate. "This was one of the hardest things to train the chimps to do," Collard says, "because the flight simulators are metal, they're cold and they're like nothing the chimps have ever seen before. After all, we were taking them straight out of the zoo and sticking them in this machine. Each time they jumped out, we'd just have to put them right hack in until they felt safe in the simulator.

"After awhile, we'd get them to appear to use the button controls by grabbing their hands and making them touch the buttons while we said, 'Push.' After we did this five or six times, they began to figure out what it meant. We taught each chimp to do different things: one chimp had to learn to use the throttle, another to push buttons - whatever the script required.

"Basically," Collard continues, "we can teach a chimp to do just about anything a human can do with their hands. The difference is that they won't understand why they're doing it, just that they must do it. For this film, we had to teach all of the chimps sign language, even though Willy was the only one who used it extensively during the film. Teaching chimps to make signs is very hard because since they don't really know what they're doing, it becomes a form of mimicry. My chimp, who played Goofy in the film, had to be taught to 'flip people off,' and I had to do what amounted to physical therapy with him in order to get him to do it. A chimp's fingers can't extend like a human's, so every day I'd take his 'bird finger' and stretch it until it seemed like I might be hurting him. …

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